WACO Review: Episode One (“Visions & Omens”)

The first episode of Paramount Network's David Koresh mini-series is human, paranoid and pretty great.

David Koresh was born August 17th, 1959, in Houston, Texas. He never really knew his father, and his mother was fourteen when she gave birth, quickly handing David over to his grandmother when he was just a tot. Four years later – at the age of eight; a year after his mom returned and married a new man – Koresh claims he was gang-raped by a gaggle of older boys. He was a student in a special needs elementary school class, where bullying escalated to the point of sexual violence. David dropped out of Garland High School, worked menial jobs, and at twenty-two years old, had an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl who became pregnant. Due to this self-perceived shame, Koresh declared himself Born Again, joining his mother's church: The Seventh-Day Adventists.

At the Church of the Seventh-Day, Koresh fell in love with a preacher's daughter and – while praying for guidance as to how he'd handle these sins – opened his Bible to Isaiah 34:16. "None should want for her mate..." it said, and David became convinced that this was a sign from God, before informing the girl's father that the Lord wanted him to take his daughter for a wife. The pastor did not agree with this take on the event and tossed David from his congregation and community. In exile, Koresh traveled to Waco, Texas, and joined the Branch Davidian cult - an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists - in 1983. Almost immediately, he keyed in to taking control of the group, and struggled for power with senior leader George Roden, until Roden was jailed for killing another rival. 

We don't see any of this in Waco - the Paramount Network’s six-part Limited Event series. No, when we pick up with Koresh (played by Friday Night Lights and True Detective's Taylor Kitsch) in 1993, he's already a messianic head of the Branch. He's got that giant mullet we know from the mug shots, the wire rim glasses that seem fit for a hitchhiking serial murderer. Yet Waco's Koresh is far from a violent man. In fact, he's downright gentle and joyful - speaking with a soft voice, until he takes the stage a local dive bar in order to belt out "My Sharona" by The Knack, fronting his own cover band (which is comprised of two fellow Branch members - Steve Schneider [Paul Sparks] and Wayne Martin [Demore Barnes]). At that same watering hole, he's able to inspire awe with his easy-going, good natured interpretation of scripture, inviting impromptu drummer David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) into the flock. 

Nevertheless, despite all the smiles and "aw shucks, we're just one and the same in God's eyes" candor, something's not entirely right about Koresh, as anyone who claims to be the “Lamb” who opens and explains the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelations has got to be at least a little bit crazy, right? That's the main question bubbling beneath the surface of this epically intimate dramatic recreation of the eventual FBI stand-off that claimed the lives of eighty cult members, including Koresh. Twenty-two of those victims were under the age of seventeen, and at least two claimed to be married to the polygamist leader. What would cause these individuals to believe in a man so fiercely that they'd follow him into a showdown with the United States government, believing that their way of life was worth preserving against this aggressive, outside authoritative force?

To answer that query, we mainly need to look to Kitsch's performance, along with writers John Erick and Drew Dowdle's screenplay - based on a pair of memoirs by a Branch Davidian survivor and the central hostage negotiator - which paint him as a quaint enigma - commanding, but never quite intimidating (or is he?). Kitsch has transformed himself into a gaunt, gangly fellow, his shaggy hair and gold rims somewhat disarming, and he looks (to be frank) sort of goofy. Nevertheless, these strange waters run deep, as the intensity in his eyes and stiffness to his swagger signal a man who’s always on alert. It’s as if every other human - be them friend, foe or stranger - are a challenging puzzle to unlock, all while making them fully aware that you're fiddling with their spirit. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, and Kitsch is certainly approaching the part with showy self-modification. But your eyes never leave him the whole time he's on screen (which is practically every scene), as the young actor leaves Tim Riggins behind, flexing and jawing his way into this nefarious American history figure’s heart and soul. 

It's fitting – seeing how Koresh is presented as the Messiah Next Door – that Waco would possess a somewhat distrustful viewpoint of the United States government, and their motivations toward invading the Mount Carmel Center in Elk, Texas on that sad Spring day. Ruby Ridge is the reason, and FBI crisis negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) is our guide to that catastrophe, which left the wife and child of fundamentalist Randy Weaver dead after an eleven-day standoff (an event which feels rather compressed here). For Gary, the result of every negotiation should end in a peaceful surrender, with all injuries and fatalities avoided. This wasn't the case in Naples, Idaho, as an order from Agent Richard Rogers (Shea Whigham) may have resulted in these deaths, shaking Gary up and making him question if the correct decisions were made. 

Those tuning in due to Shannon's casting should know that Noesner is very much a supporting player, whose eventual fate we already know - to come face-to-face with Kitsch's Koresh - but whose soul we need to see early on. He's an expert in his field not only due to knowledge, but because he truly believes in what he's doing, and tries to teach his ability to empathize with those experiencing "the worst day of their lives." Shannon is never less than a remarkable performer, all hard stares with an almost elastically expressive mug. But we get a sense that Noesner's objections will only grow as Waco continues, his seeds of discontent planted, while the ATF - who were the entity held responsible for the deadly shooting at Ruby Ridge - is manned by ranking agents like Chuck Sarabyn (Christopher Stanley) who scramble to try and save their jobs. What better way than to take down a cult who’s been seemingly stockpiling an arsenal in the middle of Texas? 

The most convincing moment during Waco’s first hour – the "revelation", as Koresh would put it – comes when Steve Schneider finds out that his former wife, Judy (Andrea Riseborough), who convinced him to join the Branch in the first place, is pregnant with David's baby. Together, they couldn't conceive, no matter how hard they tried. But after becoming one of Koresh's harem, she's almost instantly with child. It angers Schneider, but he accepts the baby as one of those unexplainable phenomena he's been witnessing ever since arriving at Mount Carmel. "You'll see a lot of those," he tells Thibodeau, as the drummer makes his bed on the bunk below him. Suddenly, we realize that – much how Kitsch is trying to get us to accept the mystery with his unspoken history – Waco is asking us to believe in his miracles without ever witnessing one performed.

Because that's the very nature of faith: the acceptance of things for which we have no explanation. We just believe them to be true, and Waco does a solid job making us faithful followers of both Koresh and the people who already look to him as a guide. Once David is suspiciously eyeing the new neighbors – ATF agents, including Robert Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) – we're fearful for his safety, knowing that he's just out for a jog that morning with one of his sons when the lawmen are snapping photos of him from that abandoned house. This is where one assumes the true American tragedy will reside in the Dowdles’ historical drama: the fact that peace was abandoned for war, waged upon those who thought they'd built a holy oasis in the middle of the country they called home. 

Waco premieres tonight at 10 PM EST on the Paramount Network.