I love the romantic anti-hero, the hottie who starts out bad but is redeemed, or chastened, or blindsided or bludgeoned by love and winds up a hero almost in spite of himself. Villains don’t get redeemed, but the anti-hero makes you love him, or at least lust for him. Then you have to root for his redemption, because if he doesn’t turn to the Light Side, it means you’ve fallen for a villain, doesn’t it?
(Warning: this post contains spoilers for BBC’s Robin Hood as well as Lonesome Dove: The Series.)
I’ve been rewatching the BBC series Robin Hood which, as author Courtney Milan has noted, really should have been called Guy of Gisbourne. After all, that’s why most women watched it—to see the nuclearly hot Richard Armitage play the conflicted henchman of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I haven’t done a formal poll but I’m pretty sure Team Guy was bigger than Team Robin; it was certainly more vocal. There were a lot of Marian/Guy ’shippers on the chat boards and in the YouTube community.
Like many writers, I’ve gotten character inspiration from TV and movies. Carrie Lofty said she started thinking about a romance starring Will Scarlett after watching Christian Slater’s portrayal in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (“F*** me, he cleared it!” is one of my all-time favorite movie lines, BTW.) Watching The Guy of Gisbourne Show got me to thinking: Guy almost made a great anti-hero.
He had the necessary tragic history and emotional scar tissue. He spent the first two seasons alternately threatening, begging and rescuing Marian. He cast countless soulful gazes, made reluctant but heartfelt expressions of deep tenderness, said things like “Stay, and make this place bearable” or “It means everything to me. You mean everything to me” or “If I could show you the side of me that wants to build a home, not destroy it…” (Yeah, he burned her house down. But hey, he regretted it.)
And then he killed her.
In the last episode of the second season, Marian told Guy she’d rather die than be with him, so he obliged her by running her through with his sword. It’s one thing to burn the heroine’s house down. It’s quite another to kill her, even if you feel awful about it afterwards, which he did.
That’s not anti-heroic. That’s villainous.
It’s not like Guy wasn’t an asshole for the first two seasons. He may have been chivalrous toward Marian five percent of the time, but during the other ninety-five percent, he abandoned his infant son in the forest so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge a bastard; terrorized and killed too many peasants to count; tried to kill King Richard more than once; and generally aided and abetted the slimy Sheriff’s myriad evil schemes. Guy said it himself: “I’ve committed crimes. Heinous crimes.” (If you’ve not heard Richard Armitage speak, you should. You really should.)
Still, we wanted to think he was an anti-hero capable of redemption, not a villain capable of killing the only person he’d ever loved. After he shish-kabobbed Marian, that was a lot harder to do.
But still we hoped, and maybe we were supposed to.
If the producers didn’t want Guy to be a morally ambiguous figure, a potentially redeemable anti-hero, why on earth did they cast Armitage? He’s taller and studlier and much more beautiful than the actor cast as Robin. I mean, Jonas Armstrong’s a doll, but he looks like a mischievous teenager next to Armitage. They weren’t equally matched at all.
Furthermore, Robin Hood wore realistic (for television) twelfth century garb, while Guy was attired head to toe in leather. Twelfth century architecture was Gothic, but twelfth century noblemen did not dress like Goths. No, the only reason to dress Guy like a resident of Caldwell, New York was to make female viewers go “Oh my God, he is SO HOT.”
And we did. And even after he killed Marian, we kept hoping he’d turn good.
Because, after all, he was so hot.
And hot means anti-hero, not villain, right?
G of G is not the first villain I preferred to think of as an anti-hero. Back in the ’90s, there was a series on Canadian television, a very loose spinoff of the film Lonesome Dove. Set in 1880s Montana territory, it was titled Lonesome Dove: The Series in its first season, and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years in its second. It starred Eric McCormack as Col. Clay Mosby, a Southern veteran of the Civil War. If you’ve only seen McCormack in Will and Grace, you wouldn’t recognize him.
Mosby had lost everything—wife, home, country—in the war. He was handsome, witty, charming and sophisticated, and he had a tragic past. That’s great anti-hero material. He was also greedy, power hungry, manipulative and ruled entirely by self-interest. He lied, cheated, bullied, and blackmailed in pursuit of power and riches, and if he couldn’t execute his nefarious schemes by himself, he had thugs to do it for him.
When a storekeeper refused to pay protection money, Mosby had the man beaten in front of his little boy. He opened a silver mine and pushed its workers, who included women and children, to work round the clock until the mine blew up. When a circuit preacher came to town railing against drinking, gambling, and whoring, Mosby—who owned a saloon, a casino and a whorehouse—hired one of his girls to maneuver the old man into a compromising position. He robbed a bank. He took financial advantage of the weak and vulnerable.
In other words, he was a villain.
But mah Gawd (as Mosby would’ve said), the man was hot. Smooth as hundred-year-old bourbon, suave and witty and smart-assed like only anti-heroes are allowed to be. Again, you had to think the producers wanted Mosby to be a sympathetic monster. They dressed McCormack in stacked cowboy boots and tight jeans, his hair was long and curly and he had a beard and mustache (the man has a great mouth). McCormack spoke in a slow, drawling tenor and while his Southern accent was kinda cheesy, it wasn’t Sook-eh bad.
And just like Armitage did in Robin Hood, McCormack dominated every scene he shared with Scott Bairstow, who played Newt Call, the series’ erstwhile hero. Call had none of Mosby’s wit, sophistication or grooming. He spent most of the time dirty and pissed off. Even in the first season, before he became a bitter, violent gunslinger, he was just goofy. Of course, the heroine fell for goofy, earnest Call and not suave, complicated Mosby. When Mosby learned that Hannah was going to marry Call, he bust into her room as she was being fitted for the dress and protested that she shouldn’t throw herself away on a callow, inexperienced youth.
He was right, you know. If this TV show had been scripted by romance writers, you can be damned sure Hannah would’ve ended up with Mosby. (She died at the end of Season One, but Mosby didn’t kill her).
When I started writing the character of Cade MacDougall, I kept picturing McCormack-as-Mosby in my head. (I swear it took me a while to realize they had the same initials.) I soon realized, though, that while I liked Mosby’s suave swagger and sly wit, he was way too much anti and not nearly enough hero. Like Guy of Gisbourne, he was a villain masquerading as an anti-hero.
In the second season finale, Mosby did something completely (and completely uncharacteristically) altruistic. Another character said, “You’re a good man, Clay.” And I thought – “No he’s not! Where the hell did that come from?” Apparently, it came from “viewers-think-the-villain-is-sexier-than-the-hero-so-we’re-going-to-start-transforming-him” land.
Unlike Lonesome Dove, Robin Hood got to spend a third season turning Bad Guy into Good Guy. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you—yes, Guy wound up on the Light Side. After the first episode, that is.
See, in the first episode he ran away from Robin Hood, who was bent on revenge for Marian’s murder. Along the way Guy stopped to take a human shield—a little girl. He dangled her over a cliff, threatening to drop her if Robin didn’t put down the sword and back away.
Let’s repeat that. He hid behind a little girl. And dangled her over a cliff.
You know what I thought the first time I watched that scene? I thought, “He won’t do it. At the last moment he’ll think of Marian, and he won’t go through with it.” Of course, if the only thing that keeps a guy from murdering a child is the memory of the woman he loved, and killed, then, you know, he might be a villain.
In my defense, other fangurls were just as deeply in DeGuyal. One poor YouTube commenter said that Marian committed suicide by Guy.
Right. He didn’t murder her; he just helped her die.
Behold the hotness of The Armitage, so strong it melts women’s moral circuits!
Did the writers plan to redeem Guy all along, or did they point him towards the Good Side when they realized how vast and swoony was Team Guy? But then, like I said—they must have been hoping for a vast and swoony Team Guy when they cast a 6’2" hunk of sex and dressed him up like one of Wrath’s boys. (We could call him Skewerh.)
So. Let’s ask ourselves.
If Clay Mosby looked like this:
Instead of this:
…would female viewers have loved him in spite of his villainy?
And If Guy of Gisbourne had looked like this:
Instead of this:
…would we have looked for excuses to mitigate Marian’s murder?
And if Marian had said “Take me, Guy! Take me now, right here on the battlements!” would Gisbourne have turned to the Light Side sooner?
Yes, if I wrote it. And I just might.