Anyone watching “Waco” is going to feel very sorry for David Koresh and his followers, but based on all accounts of what happened before, during, and after the 1993 siege in Waco, TX, only the latter deserve such pity. Creators Drew and John Erick Dowdle create a compelling human drama based around the ATF and FBI’s misguided raid on the Branch Davidian compound, and leads Taylor Kitsch (as Koresh) and Michael Shannon (as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner) provide expectedly compelling work, especially Kitsch.
Yet despite tipping the cap to Koresh’s troubled history, the series doesn’t effectively toe the objective line it aims for; Koresh comes off as a victim, and that only feels like half the story.
“Waco” opens during the days leading up to the nearly two-month standoff and focuses on Koresh and Noesner. Let’s start with the FBI: Michael Shannon’s Gary Noesner is a top-notch negotiator. He’s so good at his job, he teaches new FBI recruits in the proper techniques and practices. Fittingly, Noesner is also a by-the-book agent. Still bothered by how his last assignment was reported by fellow agents, Noesner grapples with turning in a conflicting report before he’s called to Waco in order to help negotiate the surrender of Koresh and his followers.
Shannon plays Noesner with the steely reserve and calm authority of an experienced authority figure. He knows how to work people, but he doesn’t make a show of it. Shannon’s part is less showy than his a few of his co-stars’ — including Kitsch’s mullet-sporting, gospel preaching Koresh — but his presence remains forceful. It’s a version of Shannon we’ve seen before, but dialed to all the right beats.
Kitsch, meanwhile, faces a tougher challenge. Not only is he wearing period- and character-appropriate glasses (honking big suckers) and a haircut that would make anyone less attractive look utterly preposterous, Kitsch also has to balance the man, the myth, and the legend. (No mullet reference intended.) He has to believe in what Koresh is doing while hinting at a darker side that wants this for himself, not for God.
Kitsch does both extremely well, embracing a slightly tweaked Texan accent to convey Koresh’s passionate sermons and dialing it back for a lot of his clergy-less scenes. The final scene in Episode 3 shows the subtle shades needed to capture each facet of Koresh: human and empathetic, but humiliated and angry. The look in Kitsch’s eyes says it all, but the series itself provides context rightly absent from the performance.
One of the most intriguing elements of “Waco” is offering access inside the compound. Anyone old enough to be alive when the siege went down remembers the haunting shots from outside white facade, so seeing what happened within the walls is reason enough to bring this to screen.
But in the days before the siege, Koresh is painted as a largely sympathetic figure. He preaches the word of God. He goes on morning runs with his kids. He makes peace between his followers and politely recruits new members. This Koresh may be manipulative, but there’s not a strong emphasis placed on the dangers of his manipulations — outside the looming tragedy.
Even less emphasized is his history with statutory rape. Koresh is the only man on the compound allowed to have sex, and he accepts this “burden” by taking on multiple wives. One (played by the continuously impressive Julia Garner) was 12 years old when he married her. Yet the closest “Waco” gets to condemning Koresh’s behavior toward Michelle (through three episodes) is a scene where she and Koresh’s first wife, Rachel (Melissa Benoist), fight over him.
By the time the bullets start flying and Koresh screams into the phone, “We’re not the bad guys!”, it’s easy to believe him. And he’s half-right. No one is totally innocent in the Waco siege, including many of his followers, but the “Waco” series seems overly eager to vindicate Koresh. And that taints an otherwise well-told story.
“Waco” premieres Wednesday, January 23 at 10 p.m. ET on Paramount Network.