In This ‘Billy the Kid,’ the Wounds Are Those You Cannot See

Billy the Kid, the 19th-century gunfighter memorialized through more than 140 years of pop culture, carries with him countless myths and renditions, a different Billy for each generation’s needs — the pariah, the victim, the Everyman.

As another portrayal arrives Sunday with the new Epix series “Billy the Kid,” it carries a tricky question as well: Which version of the myth will attract viewers in 2022?

The answer, as played in the series by the English actor Tom Blyth, has a modern hero’s emphasis on back story and identity. He is first and foremost a poor orphan named Henry McCarty, whose parents emigrated from Ireland when he was a child.

His creators hope he is closer to the truth than past renditions.

“It is absolutely amazing that a young man who reputedly died at 22 in the middle of the 19th century is still one of the most famous people in Western history,” Michael Hirst (“Vikings”), the creator and showrunner of the series, said in a recent video call. (Some historians say Billy died at 21.)

“I wanted to press down on that and investigate why that might be, and whether he was worth hero worshiping,” Hirst continued. “I decided to deconstruct the myth to see what the reality was.”

The first season focuses largely on Billy’s early life, including when Billy falls in with the outlaw Jesse Evans (Daniel Webber, right) and his gang.Credit…Chris Large/EPIX

“Billy the Kid” arrives during a fertile time for the western. On Paramount+, Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” and “1883” have been enormously popular, with their blend of soap opera theatrics and hardscrabble frontier survival. On Amazon, “Outer Range” plays like a cross between “Yellowstone” and “The X-Files.” On Netflix, the film “The Harder They Fall” signals a return to glory for the Black western; the streamer’s “The Power of the Dog” just earned Jane Campion an Oscar for best director. There have never been more directions in which to go with the genre.

In this sense, it’s logical that Billy the Kid should ride again. With the genre mutating this way and that, the most mythologized gunfighter of them all is primed for another moment in the spotlight. This time, he arrives under the cover of sensitivity.

Given the legend, that might be his most unusual guise yet.

“He wasn’t a saint,” Hirst said. “He wasn’t all good. He did some terrible things. But he was a deeply interesting and, I think, deeply sympathetic person.”

Over the years, those qualities have created a buyer’s market of Billys onscreen, to say nothing of his many representations in books and in songs — seekers of his legend can simply pick whichever one they prefer.

In “The Left-Handed Gun” (1958), Paul Newman plays Billy as a tormented young man, channeling the sensitivity of James Dean and Marlon Brando. In the NBC series “The Tall Man” (1960-62), Clu Gulager plays a handsome, guitar-strumming hero. In “Chisum” (1970), Geoffrey Deuel plays him as a quick-draw blank slate, honor-bound by vengeance, hovering in the orbit of John Wayne’s John Chisum. In “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973) he’s all swagger, played by a smirking Kris Kristofferson as a man with nary a care in the world, even as James Coburn’s Garrett tracks him down.

This latest Billy, portrayed across eight hourlong episodes, had a rough beginning. The series suggests his father (Joey Batey) committed suicide, unable to adjust to life in the United States. His mother, Kathleen McCarty (identified often as Catherine in historical sources), is mentally sturdier, and she and Billy are very close — she has the lead female role in Season 1. But Kathleen faces challenges as well.

“It’s not really the best time in history to be female or to be Irish,” said Eileen O’Higgins, who plays Billy’s mother, Kathleen, about the late 19th century.Credit…Chris Large/EPIX

“It’s not really the best time in history to be female or to be Irish,” said Eileen O’Higgins, who plays Kathleen. “This was a time when the Irish had arrived in America seeking that American dream. Irish people were arriving in droves, seeking refuge in an America that was seen as a land that was going to be compassionate, a land that was going to have opportunities and a land where people could have dreams and goals and achieve them.”

Instead, Billy’s family found nothing but hardship. Ultimately, Billy makes his way to New Mexico and falls in with the outlaw Jesse Evans (Daniel Webber) and his gang. He kills a man in self-defense. He finds himself caught up in the Lincoln County War, pitting a murderous Irish land grabber against an upstart English businessman. The series hasn’t been renewed yet. But by the end of Season 1, there’s still a lot of story to tell.

More sinned against than sinning, this Billy is largely a victim of circumstances, backed into a corner by life until his only option is to come out shooting.

“The Billy that we’ve seen so far in Season 1 is a young man who grew up with a lot of hope and had that hope dashed,” Blyth said in a video call. “He’s someone who was raised with all the right tools to be a great member of society and then society had other plans for him, through obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. He’s always trying to do the right thing, but he realizes that playing by the rules hasn’t gotten him anywhere so far.”

He’s also an underdog who sympathizes with other underdogs. He’s comfortable among Mexicans and Native Americans and finds himself protecting and defending them from racists on both sides of the law (a trait borne out by the historical record). As the first season ends, he has thrown in his lot with the outnumbered, outgunned John Tunstall (Benjamin Sutherland) against the corrupt cattle baron Lawrence G. Murphy (Vincent Walsh). He seems to have a more sensitive moral compass than anyone else, including the people he guns down.

“He was the child of immigrants, and there was a lot of discrimination,” Donald De Line, one of the show’s executive producers, said in a video call. “He saw what was happening, not only how Irish immigrants were treated in New York, where his father couldn’t get work, but also coming West and seeing Native Americans and Mexicans having their land taken from them. It was very disillusioning.

“His family had come here for a better life, and he saw quickly that wasn’t going to be true.”

“The Billy that we’ve seen so far in Season 1 is a young man who grew up with a lot of hope and had that hope dashed,” Blyth said of his character.Credit… Chris Large/EPIX

He is certainly more palatable for a time when we’re taught to embrace our personal histories and heal our traumas, a 21st-century outlaw plagued by formative wounds. Still, whatever his trauma, the historical Billy was nonetheless a horse and cattle thief — and, more important, a killer. Most historical sources say he killed anywhere from nine to 21 people, shooting at least one in the back. Not everyone whose family had a tough time in 19th-century America had a body count that high.

“He was definitely a killer,” De Line acknowledged. But that didn’t mean Billy was evil. “That was a tough world at the time,” he continued. “Coming West, the frontier was wild. Justice was usually meted out with the barrel of a gun.”

And the series’s sympathetic approach matches that of most pop culture Billy the Kid stories going back decades. De Line defended the show’s portrayal.

“I think our culture has always romanticized cowboys and the outlaws that inhabited the Old West — let’s face it, they are cool,” De Line said. “The essence, the truth of the journey of Billy’s young life,” he added about the arc of Season 1, “is very much intact.”

Less intact are the facts of Billy’s life, some of which remain elusive. “No one can say with certainty when he came into this world, for his actual birth date remains open to debate,” Michael Wallis writes in one of the better biographies, “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride” (2008). The details of his demise have been disputed, too — including, for many years, the fact that he had died at all. Several men claimed to be him well after his reported death. In more ways than one, he was a late-19th-century Elvis.

“Although most historians concur that he was shot and killed by Pat Garrett in New Mexico Territory on July 14, 1881, there have always been those who cannot agree on the facts of his demise,” as Wallis puts it.

Even when there’s some agreement on facts, some Billy stories arrange them differently from others. “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” focuses on Billy’s relationship with his onetime friend and eventual assassin. “The Left-Handed Gun” gives us a Billy bent on vengeance and driven to hunt down the men who killed Tunstall, presented as the father figure Billy never had.

In “Billy the Kid” we don’t even meet Tunstall until the end of the season. The series, afforded the TV luxury of a slow buildup, is so far more concerned with the conditions that made Billy than the actions that forged his legend. For Hirst, the creator and showrunner, whose writing credits also include the movie “Elizabeth” and the series “The Tudors,” this reality is among the many that make the story relevant today.

“There’s no point in doing something that’s like a museum piece, with characters who don’t connect to anything you worry about today,” Hirst said. “With ‘Billy,’ the more I investigated and the more I watched the news, I realized that I was writing something that felt rather contemporary.”

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