Billy the Kid has its moments, but they’re too few and far between in what is otherwise an all-too-standard romp through the Old West.
This review of Billy the Kid Season 1 is spoiler-free and based on the first three episodes. Weekly coverage will continue henceforth. Billy the Kid episodes 1, 2, and 3, “The Immigrants”, “The Rattler”, and “Antrim”, all debuted on May 24, 2022.
Billy the Kid is one of the Old West’s most enduring figures, despite him having been killed rather unceremoniously at the age of just 21. Since then, his legend has proliferated in media, from the dime novels that first romanticized him all the way to the Epix’s new eight-part origin story, the first three episodes of which debuted on May 24, 2022. It’s burdened by one of the most ill-advised premieres in recent memory, but it grows up along with Billy into a decent if overly familiar foray into the West.
That premiere, though. It’s bookended by its only interesting scene, in which a more grown-up Billy confronts a bounty hunter who is trying to cash in on the price on his head, but the rest of “The Immigrants” is like watching a lesser version of 1883 on fast-forward. Billy (played by Jonah Collier as a kid) moves from the slums of New York with his Irish mother, Kathleen (Eileen O’Higgins), his father, and his brother, Joe (Leif Nystrom), finding passage West on the rickety wagons of a one-eyed horseman. Swollen rivers collapse their convoy and send all their worldly possessions bobbing away, errant shots from horse thieves pick off their companions, and McCarty Senior develops a deep depression. Before long, young Billy has lost everything – and almost everyone – he loves.
It’s midway through the second episode when Billy telescopes up into Tom Blyth, a much more compelling figure molded by his experiences, which include every man they meet in the intervening five years trying to rape his mother. The promised utopia of the unsettled West turns out to have been a con, and while Kathleen works herself to death while Joe hacks his lungs up with tuberculosis, Billy begins to get involved with gambling dens, cattle rustling, and a conspiracy explained to him by a journalist named Ash Upson (Ryan Kennedy) about several secret cabals known as “rings” puppeteering the development of the frontier.
A lot of this version of Billy the Kid plucks from real history, albeit with some necessary tweaks. The Santa Fe Ring was a real group of attorneys and land speculators who accrued great influence and fortune through political corruption and fraudulent land deals, and a lot of Billy’s story has been filtered through this lens, with many incidents that Billy is known for – such as the attempted burglary of a Chinese laundry and a prison escape – being framed as punishment for his relationship with Upson. The point is obviously to paint Billy as a sympathetic figure, driven to wrongdoing by his circumstances, and while one could quibble with the historical accuracy of that approach, it makes for a more interesting, sympathetic protagonist. Quite how the show’s exploration of secret societies will dovetail with its story of Billy’s growth into an outlaw remains to be seen, but it isn’t a bad idea, really.
But Billy the Kid doesn’t exactly have an abundance of good ideas, either. Most of them are old ones it has borrowed from elsewhere, and even after the five-year time skip it feels as if it’s cantering across very well-worn ground. Blyth is good as the stoic youngster hardened by great loss and hardship, but he’s growing into the classic cowboy mold, with little to really set him apart. Subsequent episodes will really need to delve into his reluctance as an outlaw, and how that contrasts with his skills as a gunman, in order to craft a figure who is compelling and idiosyncratic enough to live up to his lofty legend.