‘Waco’ Effectively Tells a Tragic True Story

Photo Courtesy of Paramount

Five years after it first aired on Paramount Network—and 30 years after the events it depicts—the miniseries Waco is unfortunately as timely as ever. It’s appropriate, then, that it will be getting a belated second season, titled Waco: The Aftermath, premiering April 16 on Showtime.

That new season is set to explore the implications and legacy of the 51-day standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian religious sect outside of Waco, Texas. But it’s not hard to extrapolate those consequences from what’s already depicted in the initial season, which is available to stream on Showtime and Paramount+.

One of the strengths of the series created by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle is that it succinctly conveys how things went so horribly wrong in Waco, beginning with another confrontation entirely, the Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho the year before. That’s where the ideological conflict between FBI agents Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) and Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham) comes into focus.

Noesner, a hostage negotiator, favors talking to suspects, taking as long as necessary to guide them toward peaceful surrender. Decker prefers a tactical approach that can provide a quick resolution but often results in violence and death.

Noesner’s memoir Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator is one of two sources for Waco, so it’s not surprising that the show favors his perspective. Still, the Dowdles make a convincing case against the rampant, dangerous militarization of federal law enforcement.

The show’s other source is A Place Called Waco, co-written by David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors of the deadly fire that ended the siege of the Branch Davidian compound. Rory Culkin plays Thibodeau as a sensitive, soft-spoken musician who falls under the spell of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch).

Kitsch captures Koresh’s charisma as well as his paranoia and domineering personality, as he rules over a group of people who believe he has a direct connection with God. If Waco is more sympathetic to the Branch Davidians than some other coverage of the standoff, that sympathy is reserved for people like Thibodeau, the honest and faithful followers who were led astray by a petty, narcissistic self-styled prophet.

The show downplays the Branch Davidians’ potential for violence, despite their stockpiles of weapons that first drew attention from the ATF. It’s clear that Koresh is volatile, but the danger is mainly in his response to being provoked.

Noesner’s goal is to mitigate that risk, and Shannon makes Noesner the most sympathetic figure on the show, a smart and compassionate man who values the rule of law but also understands that there are real people on the other side of every conflict.

The Dowdles put together an impressive ensemble cast, including future stars Julia Garner and Andrea Riseborough, to play Koresh’s followers, who may be misguided but genuinely believe they are carrying out God’s will.

Over the course of six episodes, the series builds to the tragedy that almost every viewer knows is coming, making it all the more heartbreaking to anticipate the inevitable tragic fate of the trusting, naive characters. The drama only stumbles when the Dowdles engage in direct social commentary, especially via a local radio talk-show host whose broadcasts punctuate the later episodes.

The growth of religious extremism, the oppressiveness of federal law enforcement, and the distrust of the government are all clearly evident without the need for characters to explain them. That’s true in the show, and it’s true in the world around us now as Waco gets set to return.

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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.