Taylor Kitsch (Photo: Paramount Network)

In the first of its six episodes, Waco quickly gets busy re-drawing historical lines between the good guys and the bad ones—a strange move considering how steeped in confusion and contradiction the story of the Branch Davidians is. Presumably we’ll get to some more nuance later, but at the outset we’re introduced to cult leader David Koresh as a cheery, well-liked guy who’s gathered true believers to a compound outside Waco, Texas with his charm and true belief. (Koresh is played by a skinny Taylor Kitsch, though Friday Night Lights fans will still have a hard time not seeing Tim Riggins.) The show begins with the infamous 1993 siege of Koresh’s compound, which would last 51 days and claim more than 80 lives, but quickly flashes back to another government shootout.

Michael Shannon, dialing down his usual intensity, plays FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, and he’s introduced as part of the team trying to end the 1992 standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. He’s quick to understand that the FBI fucked up badly at Ruby Ridge, and he’s portrayed as the lone cop with a conscience. (Waco, it should be noted, is based partly on Noesner’s new book, Stalling For Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator, so he’s probably not going to be made the asshole here.) Ruby Ridge is clearly drawn as an inciting incident in Waco, a fact that’s painted with very broad strokes in the miniseries: Koresh sees a TV report about it, making him paranoid about government raids. The mustache-twirling baddies at the ATF, threatened with being defunded after the disaster at Ruby Ridge, see the idea of taking down the supposed bad guys in Koresh’s camp as a chance at redemption. One of the ATF bosses, toward the end of the episode, just flat-out says, “If we come out of that compound with a bunch of innocent kids and loaded guns, it might remind Congress why they need us!” So… not terribly subtle.

In addition to Noesner’s book, Waco uses a book by David Thibodeau—one of the few Branch Davidians to survive the confrontation—as source material. Thibodeau, played by Rory Culkin, is a lost soul who ends up playing drums with Koresh’s cover band on a whim. (Koresh/Kitsch sings The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which seems like sort of a sick wink at accusations of pedophilia in the compound if it’s not based in fact.) Invited to the compound to spend the night, Thibodeau ends up staying much longer, and he’s our outsider’s window into Koresh’s darker side. It turns out, he learns, that all of the men in Koresh’s group are celibate, and that Koresh himself has “assumed the burden of sex for all of us.” This naturally creates some friction with Koresh’s best friend—played by Paul Sparks of Boardwalk Empire and House Of Cards—specifically after it’s revealed that Sparks’ wife is pregnant with Koresh’s child. For most of this episode, Koresh is a wide-eyed Polyanna, seemingly unaware of the personal conflicts that might arise from such an arrangement. It’s a weird way to present him.

It’s all tonally a little bit weird: Waco is clearly shooting for prestige TV status, with The People Vs. O.J. Simpson as a template. The material itself is fascinating—there’s clearly far more to the story than most people know, including a lengthy cover-up by the government about the fire that eventually burned the Koresh compound to the ground. Kitsch sometimes feels like he’s inhabiting Koresh’s weird intensity, but in this first episode he’s weirdly chipper—super-enthused to have found himself in the position of cult leader, badass guitarist, and gun-show enthusiast. Half the time Shannon seems a little bored, or maybe he was just so good as the evil government suit in The Shape Of Water that it feels like there’s not much for him to do here. I don’t see it attracting the same accolades as People Vs., but I’ll see it through the next five episodes, if only to learn more details about the tragic event itself.

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Stray observations

  • John Leguizamo, introduced with scary music, hiding behind a curtain. Not sure if that’s what you were going for, producers.
  • Kitsch’s hippie version of Koresh rides the line between funny and weird, and I’m not sure if that’s what you were going for, producers.
  • Shea Wigham (Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, Fargo) is always welcome, even when (especially when?) he’s playing a weasel.

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