"Billy the Kid" Is the Wrong Story for Our Moment
Producers wanted a "cool" rogue who "felt contemporary." They ended up giving incels and mass shooters a lovable hero of their very own.
Since I've been stuck home quarantining after testing positive for coronavirus last week, I’ve been catching up on shows I’ve missed. The days get pretty long when you can’t leave the house. I’m currently watching the Epic channel’s Billy the Kid—described in promotional materials as a “romantic adventure”—and, wow, do I not love its revisionist take on the infamous nineteenth-century gunfighter. It’s a well-made show, but one that rewrites history to turn a murderous outlaw into a noble hero—and unintentionally valorizes the kind of adolescent male violence fantasies that gave us mass shootings.
Let’s stipulate at the outset that fiction doesn’t automatically have to follow facts, particularly when aiming for a core emotional truth. The Billy the Kid series is, at the level of drama, very good. Its hero is warm, lovable, stalwart, brave, just, sexy, and just a tad roguish. He also has virtually nothing in common with the historical figure of Henry McCarty, alias Billy the Kid. Indeed, whether intentionally or not, the producers of Billy the Kid have modeled their protagonist on the collection of young male archetypes pioneered by James Dean, whose photo shoots posing in cowboy clothes during the filming of Giant are at times quite closely plagiarized in Billy the Kid. (Billy the Kid was Dean’s childhood hero, in a sort of hall-of-mirrors irony.) But those changes to McCarty’s character reframe his story in a dangerous way.
The differences between the real McCarty (as I will call the real-life figure, who went by many names in his short life) and the show’s “Billy” are stark. McCarty was 21 when he died. He stood five-foot-seven. The full-grown man playing him, Tom Blyth, is 27 and towers over his fellow actors, standing more than six feet tall. He is far too large and mature to be playing what, in early episodes, is supposed to be a 15-year-old Billy. The effect of substituting a man close to 30 for the boy makes “Billy” seem wiser, more confident, and more mature than the real teen was. Try imagining a 15-year-old boy in a high-stakes poker showdown with middle-aged men, and some of the show’s scenes would become ridiculous. The show’s writers have also changed the order of events in Billy's life to elide his young teenage petty crimes in order to preserve the image of him as the suffering noble hero, one who hated crime and turned to it only as a last resort. In the show, he is an adult of 18 when orphaned and falling into crime, but in reality, he was a boy of 15 and already violent, and within a year he was a regular thief.
The show also makes Billy scruffier and more stereotypically “cowboy” than McCarty was. The real McCarty was neat, dressed in a frock coat, and wore a large Mexican sombrero. TV’s Billy wears dirty clothes, has a five o’clock shadow the real McCarty could barely muster, and his sombrero (really, more of a poblano) hardly registers as more than a fedora. Those who knew McCarty as a teenager said that he was feminine in appearance, “slender” and “girlish looking.” Blyth as Billy is, let’s say, not. Similarly, McCarty read voraciously and was likely driven by fantasies he picked up from the Police Gazette and dime novels. TV’s Billy has no time for boyish things, and we see a grimly determined hero on screen rather than a boy who had typical adolescent interests perverted into violence.
As most know, Billy the Kid became a heroic figure of sorts in months after his 1881 death in spite of the trail of dead bodies he left in his wake. His tender age made him a sympathetic figure, and Sheriff Pat Garrett helped to cement the impression in his Authentic Life of Billy the Kid by positioning him as the virtual embodiment of American individualism and freedom. “The Kid’s career of crime was not the outgrowth of an evil disposition, nor was it caused by unchecked youthful indiscretions; it was the result of untoward, unfortunate circumstances acting upon a bold, reckless, ungoverned and ungovernable spirit, which no physical restraint could check, no danger appal, and no power less potent than death could conquer.” It was easy enough for Garrett to be generous; he killed McCarty, his onetime friend, collected more than $7,000 in reward money for his trouble, and then sold the story to publishers for more cash. Weirdly enough, though his book became the foundation for all future McCarty biographies, it sold poorly. Of course, when the newspapers, magazines, and dime novels had sensational versions of their own, who needed to pay full price for the boring version?
(One small side-note: It’s impossible not to get some seriously strange vibes from Garrett’s book, which was secretly coauthored by journalist Ash Upson. Either Garrett or the Upton seems to have had a huge crush on McCarty, commenting repeatedly on his good looks, his supple features, his “small, shapely” feet (!), his rippling muscles, and how dreamy it felt to stare into his piercing eyes. Even by Victorian standards, it’s weird.)
Interesting, though, that Billy the Kid excises from Garrett’s account of Billy’s life those elements which make him seem anything less than a suffering victim of an unjust society. In Garrett’s telling, the young Billy began getting into bloody street fights as a boy and was hot-headed, impulsive, and quick to boil over into a simmering rage. The TV version is thoughtful, patient, possessed of righteous fury, but deeply afraid of violence. McCarty was apparently a smiling, laughing fellow. “Those who knew him best will tell you that in his most savage and dangerous moods his face always wore a smile. He [ate] and laughed, drank and laughed, rode and laughed, talked and laughed, fought and laughed, and killed and laughed,” Garrett wrote. TV’s Billy is always mournful, pensive, and tortured—a James Dean knockoff, not a bon vivant.
McCarty had perhaps a bit of a soft spot for Mexicans but was (or at least was said to be) otherwise a true-born nineteenth-century racist who spoke of “bloodthirsty savages” and insisted on the superior rights of “free-born, white American citizens.” His contemporaries claimed, whether true or not, that he made “good Injuns” without remorse (i.e. “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”), commenting on the softness of their bones. (Garrett, as racist as McCarty, blithely notes that no one cared about the dead Natives and McCarty wasn’t prosecuted because “no money could be made” from doing so.) On TV, Billy is woke, anti-racist, defends victims of racism (though, weirdly, only if they are young boys), and passively accepts a lecture from an Apache about white privilege. In the show's universe, everyone except for Billy, his mother, and his brother are corrupt and evil. It is certainly true that he considered his stepfather to be a very bad man, but in the show, no one other than Billy has truly good intentions. Billy is thus justified in his crimes because he is a rebel fighting against an unfair society unjustly disadvantaging him. The writers even borrow from a 1991 biography of Billy the Kid the existence of the corrupt “Santa Fe Ring” of businessmen and self-dealing politicians. But while in 1991 it was mere background information to fluff up a thin biography, the show promotes it to a major conspiracy impacting Billy’s life.
I won’t even get into the bizarre depiction of women in the show, as few as they are. In this nearly all-male world, the only women are either suffering saints or sluts. The Madonna/whore complex is on full display as Billy, apparently a proto-incel channeling sexual rage into violence, comes to see women having sex as a terrible evil, whether it be his saintly mother dropping dead after selling her virtue to a bad man, the whore his stepfather fucks, or the polyamorous woman whose attentions Billy rejects, refusing to cede sexual control of a relationship to a woman, or another man.
I'm not really comfortable with turning Billy the Kid into a warm and cuddly hero who only kills for justice. The show's Billy is a full-grown, mature, heroic he-man. The real Henry McCarty, mind filled with dime novel and tabloid fantasies, quick to anger, with poor impulse control, was more like the young white men shooting up supermarkets and churches than an anti-corruption freedom fighter. The producers of Billy the Kid hoped to make a new kind of hero out of Billy. The showrunner wondered why he remains so famous today despite (or rather because of) dying young. “I wanted to press down on that and investigate why that might be, and whether he was worth hero worshiping,” showrunner Michael Hirst told the New York Times last month. “He’s always trying to do the right thing, but he realizes that playing by the rules hasn’t gotten him anywhere so far,” Blyth added. “I think our culture has always romanticized cowboys and the outlaws that inhabited the Old West — let’s face it, they are cool,” executive producer Donald De Line told the Times. To that end, they decided that Billy would be a sympathetic hero, despite his body count of anywhere from 8 to 21 men. “That was a tough world at the time,” De Line said, as though all the Victorians went on killing sprees. Mass murder is fun as long as it’s old-timey!
Since the closing of the American frontier, scholars have argued that the brutal fantasies of the Wild West have fed America’s criminal violence due to the lack of socially acceptable outlet. You can’t go out and kill Indians or conquer a territory today. Robert Lindner used it to explain juvenile delinquency in his book Rebel without a Cause, the partial inspiration for the James Dean movie. “With ‘Billy,’ the more I investigated and the more I watched the news, I realized that I was writing something that felt rather contemporary,” Hirst said. The trouble is that without meaning to, and despite an ahistorical antiracism message, he’s writing an apologia for incels and school shooters, for supermarket vigilantes and Capitol insurrectionists—all of whom claim playing by the rules hasn’t gotten them far, that the world is stacked against them, that they are victims justified in rebelling violently against a corrupt society. By making Billy the Kid into a murderous James Dean, Hirst is glamorizing the same attitudes and behaviors that, in a world where the frontier no longer exists, yield only nihilistic violence. At least when Badlands (1973) successfully handled similar material with its lyrical meditation on James Dean wannabe Charles Starkweather, Terrence Malick didn’t intend for you to fall in love with the killer but to mourn the unmooring of meaning from American life.
Billy the Kid is an entertaining show. “Billy” is a lovable character. Billy the Kid is an irresponsible story.