With the recent spate of nationally known events becoming dramatic TV retellings, there is an increased scrutiny on directors’ skew of said events. Shows like “The People v. O.J. Simpson” do an exceptionally great job of maintaining a balance between glorifying their subjects and crucifying them. Unfortunately, “Waco” achieves no such feat.
The Paramount Network’s show brings the 1993 Waco siege squarely back into the public eye — rehashing a public understanding of events which saw Branch Davidians cult leader David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) as a child abusing, deeply disturbed man who contorted the true tenets of Christianity. In the show’s first episode — “Visions and Omens” — he is primarily depicted as a normal, God-fearing preacher aiming to protect his Constitutional liberties.
“Visions and Omens” starts with one of the first early standoffs between the Branch Davidians and the government agencies. The viewer is immediately presented with the visual of a massive, armed team of agents opposite the singular presence of an unarmed David Koresh. A gunshot rings out, and the scene suddenly flashes back to nine months earlier — the backstory of the events in Waco.
By depicting Koresh within several humanizing situations, the show paints him in an extremely sympathetic manner. Within the miniseries’ first 48 minutes, Koresh repeatedly goes on endearing runs with his son Cyrus (Duncan Joiner), makes a powerful, emotional speech to his followers and even performs a concert where he converts a new follower through intense empathy.
Once Koresh becomes firmly entrenched in “good guy” territory, his truly odd elements are finally brought into focus, such as his “revelation” that he is the only man in the cult allowed to have sex with the women or the subtle intimations of statutory rape against the children. But by this point, the viewer is already sympathetic to the psyche of Koresh — a man with a brilliant comprehension of scripture, a deep affinity for his family and a willingness to be a “normal” guy at times.
Although the main focus is on the Branch Davidians and the interactions within the cult, there is a prominent secondary storyline within the episode — the federal government and its targeting of the Branch Davidians. The flashback to pre-standoff times coincides with the Ruby Ridge incident, a similar standoff between the government and a family in Idaho that ended with two deaths.
“Waco” illustrates how badly the ATF and FBI botched the Ruby Ridge situation, and why the government needed to rehabilitate its reputation. By painting the agencies’ mindset as one of desperation, it establishes the idea that they were eagerly looking for a case to improve their collective image.
The episode ends with the agencies receiving a tip that Koresh was abusing children and stockpiling weaponry at his compound. As Koresh goes on yet another run with Cyrus, he notices an unfamiliar man surveilling him from the edge of the property. This dark scene sets the table for what ends up being a 51-day standoff, which will become the subject of the rest of the miniseries.
Despite the wonderful performances by Kitsch and Michael Shannon as Federal Agent Gary Noesner, it’s tough to overcome the overbearing pro-Koresh skew from Director John Erick Dowdle. From the outset, a potentially dangerous cult leader is drawn as a reasonable, religious, caring family man who just wants to be left alone on his property. The problem is when an event is so well-covered by the media and garners attention from the general public, it becomes risky to ground the show in an easily rebuttable viewpoint. While hopefully more balance arises in the coming episodes of the show, the premiere of “Waco” doesn’t even attempt to walk a line of objectivity.