Red Stewart reviews the first episode of Waco…
I remember first learning about the Waco Siege during the Bundy Standoff in 2014. Many news outlets at the time were making comparisons between the two, leading me to look it up on Wikipedia. I don’t remember much about it, and I’ve refrained from revisiting that article to keep some surprises in store. But the general gist is there was an armed battle between federal and state law enforcement and a religious group led by a man named David Koresh that lasted close to two months.
Too often the media over-focuses on the action and rumors of an event: after all, controversy is what sells papers. Sure you may be given some brief description about the people involved based on eyewitness accounts, but you never get to know who they were as humans before, during, and after the incident.
Debuting as one of the first new shows on the “Spike TV” rebranded “Paramount Network,” the eight-part miniseries Waco serves to fill in that gap, giving us detailed reasons as to what exactly caused a group of men, women, and children to stand up to the U.S. Government violently. Koresh is portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, an actor whose not had the best of luck in the film industry: almost every movie of his between 2012-2017 flopped. But in Waco he shows he’s a strong talent to behold as he’s given the tough task of making this zealot likable and his dogma believable. It’s very easy to demonize cults, it’s another to put us in their mindset, and Kitsch does a great job at doing this despite some inherent writing problems that I will talk about later.
Given this tough task of getting into the heads of cult members, it was smart of Waco creators John and Drew Dowdle to focus most of the pilot on the daily life of Koresh’s sect. Called the Branch Davidians, we are told that it is not just some fringe group living on the edge, and the amount of diversity in it proves that. There are Caucasians, people of color, women, children, young people, the elderly, rich folks, impoverished folks, college professors, college drop-outs, and so forth. Perhaps for the sake of time management it’s never specified where Koresh found them all, but his insistence on presenting a universal message derived from Scripture suggests one avenue.
We see this tactic at play when Koresh meets prospective recruit David Thibodeau, a drifting musician who finds solace in the preacher. Thibodeau is an interesting character in his own right as he presents an important facet to the Branch Davidians, and that is the innocent pupil. From his agnosticism to his libido, it is clear that Thibodeau is at odds with some of Koresh’s beliefs. But it’s countered by an underlying attraction to this man’s animal magneticism and inherent wisdom, and something I hope to see explored more in the remaining episodes.
On the other side of the equation is, of course, the law enforcement officials that will become involved in the future siege of Koresh’s compound. While featuring various agents from the FBI and ATF, Waco’s primary focus is on FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, played by Michael Shannon with a kind of world-weariness. Noesner is someone used to following routines, and is now coming to realize that the old way of doing things just isn’t working anymore. We see this at play during a recreation of the Ruby Ridge battle in Idaho where a crazed man’s wife, son, and dog are killed as collateral damage: how it started, no one is quite sure.
Still, there is an evident attempt at portraying Noesner as a complete good guy towards the end, which I found a little at odds with some statements he gives in the beginning hinting at a darker side: “Figure out what someone’s scared of, you can get them to do anything” he tells a fellow agent at Ruby Ridge. Whether or not he will go through with these strategies remains to be seen, but this is not the first time the writing faltered. As I mentioned earlier, Kitsch does his best to make Koresh a genuine guy that you would want to drink a beer with, but there were times where the script veered a little too much towards making him look like a loon. One of my hopes for the future entries in Waco is a constant attempt at objectivity from the writers.
Regardless of those minor gripes, ‘Visions and Omens’ turned out to be a powerhouse debut for this new show. In a time where streaming services are providing original content left and right, it is nice to see an attempt being made by a cable network to match the quality of those outlets. I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the series to see if it fits your tastes.