Twenty-five years on, and the small Texas town of Waco is still best known for the 51-day stand-off between Branch Davidian cultists and agents from the FBI and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. While self-styled prophet David Koresh and his followers were holed up in their rural compound, the government forces surrounded them, played loud music at them constantly, threatened them, and eventually attacked the farmhouse holding the remaining members.
A fire soon broke out, killing every person inside. It’s still uncertain whether the government agents started it, or whether it was lit by those inside.
WATCH: Waco debuts on SBS on 15 November, with the entire series streaming now at SBS On Demand.
Waco begins with the ATF’s first bungled raid on the Davidians (which started the siege), then flashes back to detail the string of bad decisions and mistakes that would lead to the deaths of 76 people, including Koresh himself. Right from the start, there are two big questions hanging over the series: how did the government get it all so wrong, and why would anyone follow Koresh - a somewhat nerdy, part-time cover-band singer. This is the man seen in the series telling new recruit David Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin) that “I have taken on the burden of sex for everyone”; meaning that while the Branch Davidian men have to remain celibate, Koresh is the only one allowed to have sex with the women – even, the government claimed, the underage ones.
But Koresh is played here by the extremely handsome Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Light's Tim Riggins), who does a note perfect job of selling Koresh as the kind of likable, affable man who could easily seduce people into following him. He’s a charming preacher with a down-to-earth manner - loyal to his friends and a strong upholder of family values. He’s also a gun collector with delusions of grandeur and more than a touch of the sexual predator about him. It’s a riveting performance; without Kitsch, this series simply wouldn’t work.
As for how the FBI and ATF let things get out of hand, Waco makes it clear that, in a very real way, letting things get out of plan really was their plan. A year earlier at Ruby Ridge, an eleven-day siege had resulted in the deaths of three people and the FBI desperately wanted a “win” to restore their image. They were also increasingly shifting towards a more militarised approach to getting things done; many there thought that the problem wasn’t that things had gone out of control, it was that they didn’t use getting out of control as an excuse to come down hard.
Standing in the way of this approach was FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, and as soon as you see he’s played by Michael Shannon, you know which side of the argument Waco is on. Shannon has increasingly become Hollywood’s go-to guy for old-fashioned moral authority (which makes him extra creepy when he plays a bad guy), and he’s excellent here as the lone voice of reason in an agency moving firmly towards shooting first and asking questions when and if they get around to it.
Noesner isn’t alone in constantly pushing for a more reasoned approach; John Leguizamo plays an undercover agent who moves in next door to the Davidian compound to keep an eye on them, only to find himself falling for their generally decent and friendly natures. And on the Davidan side Thibodeau (whose real life memoir is one of the books this series is based on; Noesner’s book is the other) symbolises the numerous members of the cult who didn’t share Koresh’s increasingly extreme views. Even Koresh’s partner Rachel (Melissa Beniost) has her doubts, even as she’s working as his chief cheerleader.
Waco isn't so much the story behind the story as it is expanding on what many viewers already know; the government overplayed their hand, and while Koresh was a bad guy, he wasn’t so bad that he deserved to be burnt to death during what was basically a military raid. Waco takes the time to flesh its characters out, focusing on the moral questions and human drama of what took place. These are characters under extreme pressure, and every cast member steps up to make their drama real.
Looming over it all are the performances of Kitsch and Shannon, playing two very different men who aren’t as far apart as they might seem. Koresh is barely in control of things to start with and it only gets worse; Kitsch makes the cult leader’s fragile grip both unsettling and sad. Noesner too finds things spiraling out of control, and Shannon – who’s a master at speaking volumes while saying little – becomes increasingly haunted as events take their course. They’re both characters in situations they can’t control; both actors give performances that don’t slip for a second.
Waco debuts on SBS on 15 November, with the entire series streaming now at SBS On Demand: