'Waco: The Aftermath' Review: Showtime's Series Uneven, Unethical

‘Waco: The Aftermath’ Review: Showtime’s Series Uneven, Unethical

Thirty years after the deadly standoff between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, even the most fundamental facts of the tragedy remain contested. Both sides insist the other initiated the initial volley of gunfire that killed four agents and six sectarians. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms insists David Koresh and his followers later set fire to their compound, killing another 48 adults and 28 children in an act of mass suicide. The surviving Branch Davidians maintain that the FBI was the aggressor, and the deadly fire resulted from the ATF’s decision to deploy stun grenades and tear gas.

The decades since have created only tighter knots of recrimination. But you might not get that impression from watching “Waco,” the 2018 Paramount Network miniseries about the nearly eight-week standoff and that fatal inferno. In the hands of brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, who wrote and directed much of the series, the Branch Davidians are a misunderstood and largely peaceful sect led by Koresh (Taylor Kitsch), a complicated man, but one genuinely driven by conviction rather than megalomania. With Kitsch at the outer reaches of his charisma and the Dowdles’ flirting with hagiography, “Waco” is held back from greatness by its obsession with humanizing a narcissistic cult leader.

The Dowdles’ choice to make an advocacy piece isn’t wrong in itself, especially given that the ATF never missed an opportunity to exacerbate the situation, with its gross negligence and dysfunctional leadership. And to be fair, the show is primarily about the tick-tock of the ATF’s response, using as its source material a book by Gary Noesner, the FBI hostage negotiator who was gradually sidelined the more he opposed military force. The apparent goal of the series was to avoid further demonizing the Branch Davidians, which the news media did plenty of at the time. But in doing so, 2018’s “Waco” elided and minimized the worst of what was happening inside the compound, rendering a complex story unsettlingly tidy.

Five years (and some Paramount corporate synergizing) later, the Dowdles’ return with “Waco: The Aftermath,” Showtime’s  five-episode companion series, which follows the disparate paths of those either dealing with their role in the siege or taking malicious inspiration from it. Michael Shannon reprises his role as Gary Noesner, who’s haunted by his failure to talk Koresh out of the compound before his superiors could escalate force. But he can’t stop to ruminate, because he’s heard chatter about a retaliatory attack from white nationalists angry about the Waco siege and the Ruby Ridge shootout before it. He teams with his colleague Angie (Sasheer Zamata, comfortably against type) and Carol (Abbey Lee), a neo-Nazi hanger-on turned informant, to investigate a militia potentially connected to the domestic terrorism plot.

Unlike the earlier series, “Aftermath” is equally interested in law and order, with a large chunk of the series dedicated to one of multiple criminal trials to stem from the Waco incident. A forceful Giovanni Ribisi plays Dan Cogdell, the lawyer charged with defending three surviving Branch Davidians (Michael Luwoye, Kali Rocha and Nicholas Kolev) on weapon charges related to the opening fusillade they blame on the ATF. “Aftermath” finds its surest footing when it foregrounds the trial, and explores the psychology of the Koresh followers that remained convinced of his divinity long after his death.

The strongest episode centers Livingstone Fagan (Luwoye), a British theology student who is seduced and recruited upon meeting a young Koresh, who was then named Vernon Howell (and is played here by Keean Johnson). Fagan’s migration across the pond to join the Branch Davidians may be the most fascinating of the sectarians’ conversion stories, and Luwoye’s performance anchors the show as much as its more famous cast members. The trial also covers the most revelatory information and the wildest twists, which include vanished evidence that curiously reappears, and accusations that one legal team spied on the other to learn its strategy.

There’s probably no use in playing coy about which legal team was accused of playing dirty, since “Aftermath” is no less biased toward the Branch Davidians than its predecessor. The show does flash back to Vernon’s earliest prophecies and his path to becoming David Koresh, which at least betrays more of Koresh’s darkness and manipulation. He uses his charm and Biblical knowledge to infiltrate the Branch Davidians, then uses sex to usurp leadership from Lois Roden (J. Smith-Cameron). As Koresh marries the first of his multiple high-school-aged wives and builds a congregation of gun-toting saints, he somehow feels more desperate and menacing here than when the Dowdles depicted him gutshot and delirious in his final days.

Yet there’s still something untoward in the show’s execution, the same scent of overzealous advocacy that wafted off of “Waco.” “Aftermath” also follows Timothy McVeigh (Alex Breaux) as he carries out the Oklahoma City bombing, while Noesner and Angie try to cajole higher-ups who see investigating domestic terrorism as more trouble than it’s worth. As the show braids Koresh’s past with McVeigh’s machinations and the peculiar outcome of the trial, it can’t figure out how to frame the Waco incident as a catalyst for lone wolves like McVeigh without tacitly affirming the outrage that creates people like McVeigh. That makes “Aftermath” just as difficult to recommend despite its excellent cast and unfortunate relevance. Beyond being slightly uneven, it’s slightly immoral.

The premiere of “Waco: The Aftermath” streams on Showtime on April 14, and airs on Showtime’s linear channel on Sunday, April 16 at 10 p.m ET.