This recounting of the Branch Davidians’ stories also makes for sandy-tinted flashbacks to the 1980s. We are shown the rise of Vernon Wells in the Branch Davidian community and how the man later became known as the Bible-quoting, mullet-topped titan known as David Koresh (played here by Keean Johnson). Part of that included gaining influence over the group, including former leader Lois Roden (J. Smith-Cameron in a promising role but limited role). These scenes bring out some of the series’ worst characteristics: clunky dialogue and forced emotional beats, with hammy performances having to overcompensate. For all of the time it invests in showing how David created—and stole—his flock, it doesn’t create the desired poignancy. (At one point, the young Koresh says to his followers, “This won’t be the last time we have to defend ourselves!”) Instead, we get half-baked conversion narratives, as people like Livingstone Fagan (Michael Luwoye) and Ruth Riddle (Kali Rocha) drawn to the self-proclaimed messiah. It all pales compared to seeing Koresh during the 1993 siege, conjured with more force by Taylor Kitsch in the role, and in albeit more intense circumstances.
Meanwhile, a hostage negotiator who watched Waco implode, Gary Noeser (Michael Shannon), lives with great anger and shame about what happened. He answers to that quieting misery by getting back to work, by learning what monster has been created. He finds a disturbing network of white supremacists and the like who were outraged by the siege of Waco and saw it as an attack on their freedoms. This stress from past and present fills Noeser’s life but is given such a bored expression from Shannon, who is usually more assured or intriguing when wrestling with such seismic feelings. With the help of an agent played by a compelling but underused Sasheer Zamata, Gary recruits Carol (Abbey Lee), a woman who was romantically connected with one of its violent leaders, to go undercover. Some of the series’ plainer thrills in its dramatization involve Carol, wearing a wire and a newfound sense of trying to help, returning to the community and infiltrating its fortress in the woods, known as Elohim City.
The series is rarely subtle, especially with a mini subplot about Timothy McVeigh planning what became the Oklahoma City Bombing of April 19, 1995. It’s fitting for the show, but this glorified B-roll is handled awkwardly and blandly from start to finish. It’s hard not to feel like ominous shots of McVeigh (played by Alex Breaux) and accomplishce Terry Nichols (Kieran Mulcare) gathering materials and talking about their work (“People like us were in that building,” McVeigh says, referring to burned own Mt .carmel) is just giving viewers what they’ve proven to want. We love famous killers, even when the events are only tense if you don’t know what will happen next. (Are people born after 1995 even going to tune into “Waco: The Aftermath”?)