Six was not the lucky number for the creators of “Waco”.
“Waco” is a depiction of the events that took place in Texas in the 1993. The compound of a religious cult called the Branch Davidian, led by David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch), has been surrounded by ATF and FBI. The series presents the events unfolding from both sides – Koresh’s and the FBI’s negotiator, Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon).
“Waco” established a certain viewpoint from the first episode. Koresh’s Branch Davidian are portrayed as peacefully living congregation, settled far away from civilization. Their idyllic compound is almost ridiculous, but the over-exaggerated picture plays an important, contrasting role. It’s clear that the main star here is supposed to be Taylor Kitsch – skinny, long-haired, wearing funnily big glasses and weaving every word with an almost unbearable mannerism.
On the other side of the barricade is Michael Shannon, an FBI interrogation specialist. He’s a family man, with a solid moral backbone. He is a mastermind of tension-filled negotiation. Shannon’s stoic approach to acting deserves every praise, but he’s far from his best in the first episodes of “Waco”.
Then, there are others, hiding in the shadows of the two main forces colliding. Paul Sparks (known from being a scene stealer in “Boardwalk Empire”) plays David Koresh’s silent right hand, a confused, lost man, whose entanglement in the cult’s dealing offers the only interesting insight in “Waco”. Joining the representation of the Atlanta-born gangster Nucky Thompson (meaning cast of “Boardwalk Empire”) are Shea Whigham as a typical stubborn smartass FBI enforcer and Glenn Fleshler as Shannon’s boss. Finally, the talent show list ends with Rory Culkin, who portrays David Thibodeau, a juvenile recruited by Koresh and John Leguizamo, who joins the FBI forces.
It’s no coincidence that I begin with enumerating the actors appearing in “Waco”, because the cast is what constitutes the biggest hurdle of the series. The weight of the story lies on the frail shoulders of Taylor Kitsch. I’m not sure if I will ever believe in Taylor Kitsch, but I’ll give it to him – he made a huge progress since I last saw his pathetic efforts in “True detective”. I like the way Kitsch chooses his roles, because there is great ambition in the guy. However, his acting skills are still (or maybe just are) quite limited. Kitsch has blended into the role, implementing the method acting tools by the book. The design of his character is flawless, but unfortunately – Koresh in his portrayal is a boring leader, babbling about his faith like a possessed. He lacks a scent of the frightening self-righteousness and recklessness, which should have been there.
This leads to the situation in which truly shining actors are put to rest. Paul Sparks and Rory Culkin created extremely rich portrayals in particular. Sparks has captured the duality of Steve Schneider, the way he was torn apart between doing the right thing and remaining loyal to Koresh’s insanity. Culkin, on the other hand, has evolved over the six episodes, as his character gained importance by the end of the series. He flourished from a shy geek to a manipulated victim that the viewers feel sorry for.
What’s more, much of the problem with “Waco” stems from the fact that 6 episodes is a truly fatal number. Paradoxically, the story could have been either cut to a shorter running time or extended to become a much longer, more profound piece of television. Within 6 episodes, “Waco” never fully grasps the idea of character development, neither does it engage emotionally. The result is a story too loose at times and rushed in the end – just when the real deal starts.
The pacing is partially flawed because of the one-sided look at the Waco case. The FBI and ATF are depicted as ruthless, deprived of mercy soldiers, who only seek to end the siege as fast as possible. There is a hint of Koresh’s insanity somewhere along the way, but there isn’t enough balance implied in the story. Even Michael Shannon’s towering performance in the second half of the season (once he’s given something to work with) can’t change the tides – the audience is supposed to be on the Branch Davidian’s side.
I’m not saying hat it’s wrong. I personally believe that the fault was on both sides. Still, the responsibility of the show is to allow its viewers to think independently, especially in cases so genuinely socially flammable like this one.
There are fantastic moments in the series too. The two last episodes are a fine piece of television. There was a fantastic scene, in which the Branch Davidians are dispersed in the house as if they all went mad because of the eerie, mind-drilling sounds flowing from gigantic speakers. In this chaos, covered in darkness walks Koresh. The scene is extremely powerful, showing how desperate he was to win at all costs.
“We project the strength, and they need to believe in it” – these are the words spoken in the final episode of the series by the head of the paramilitary operation at Waco. The blood-curdling tragedy that took place there – depicted in the series – needed a portrayal, which would pay tribute to the victims. Although there was too much bumps on the road to give it a five-star review, the series managed to transmit the reality of the events. It portrayed the drama of people, who died like martyrs, but also the recklessness of the higher orders.
I just wish that this tribute was more complex, because every story depends on the point of view. Here, this point was given little space for discussion.