Wednesday, January 24, 2018

REVIEW: 'Waco' - David Koresh Welcomes Someone New to Mount Carmel in 'Visions and Omens'

Paramount's Waco - Episode 1.01 "Visions and Omens"

The ATF receives a tip of suspicious activity involving weapons taking place among a small religious community led by David Koresh at the Mount Carmel Center, located just outside of Waco, Texas.

It's been almost 25 years since the infamous siege at the Mount Carmel compound outside of Waco, Texas. That makes the launch of the miniseries adaptation of those events extremely timely. It also comes as Paramount Network is literally forging a new identity for itself. Spike is gone. Paramount aims to be taken more seriously in an industry with so many channels and streaming options competing for greatness and talent. Waco marks their first serious scripted series. It's their first attempt at a new identity. It was actually greenlighted awhile ago under the previous leadership structure. It came as part of the same identity as The Mist and The Shannara Chronicles - two shows that aired on Spike last year and were quickly cancelled due to such low buzz. Paramount hopes not to repeat those same mistakes. The new identity has already gotten off to a strong ratings start with new seasons of Lip Sync Battle and Ink Master. Now, it's time to prove that Paramount can be a strong destination for scripted content as well. In that regard, Waco is a bold first move. It has some really strong creative auspices and stars Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon and John Leguizamo. With the right execution, it could become an award-winning series to bring legitimacy to the outlet. In this premiere though, there are some questionable decisions being made in the execution. They don't completely ruin the show but they do cast just enough doubt about the show getting every detail right in the appropriate way.

"Visions and Omens" doesn't open with the start of the 51-day siege. Sure, it has a pretty intense opening sequence where the Branch Davidians and the ATF stand off against each other. It's an epic sequence shot as the full power of the United States government crashing down on this compound. Hundreds of trained officers are going up against one man - David Koresh. But it's ultimately just an in media res opening to get the excitement going while offering the indication that all of this is about to become very tragic and dangerous very quickly. Of course, the audience already knows that because of our own perception of the real-life case. 25 years is a long time. Details can be forgotten. But the big stuff still lingers fresh in the minds of the people alive at the time. This premiere mostly just showcases the world leading up to this standoff. It paints a picture of what life was like inside the compound. How it was just a religious movement of like-minded people believing that Koresh had all of the answers. It paints a picture of what the perception of federal agencies like the ATF and FBI were like at the time. It wasn't as cynical as it is today. But there are still timely themes of the everyday man wanting to stand up against a big, controlling government. It's just laid out in a very expositional way that asks the audience to try to empathize with every side of this conflict.

And so, the FBI and ATF aren't even in Texas. They are instead up in Idaho dealing with a white supremacist who has broken the law and wants to just live peacefully with his family in a cabin in the woods. It's a community known for being welcoming to these types of beliefs. It's a world of personal responsibility and the ideas that government shouldn't have the right to control any individual citizen. Those are the beliefs on display in this conflict. It's up to FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner to keep the situation from escalating any further. Of course, it's also abundantly clear that this hostage situation is just going to last for an episode of story. The actual case was much more complicated and nuanced than it is depicted here. Yes, the show gets the big details right about how the FBI killed this man's wife and son in an attempt to get to him. But it doesn't really have the time to actually linger here. This is mostly just an excuse to see Gary in action. It's one thing to see him teaching hostage negotiation in the classroom where his superiors praise his natural instincts. It's another thing entirely to see those skills in action. At first, he's ineffective in the role because he doesn't have the correct information. He's not completely up-to-date on what has happened before his arrival. As such, he needs to reach out to a sympathetic voice to reach a peaceful resolution. It works. But in the end, this case only brings scandal to the departments. And yes, most of that blame goes to the ATF while Richard Rogers gets significantly more money for his department at the FBI. And that's enough to leave Gary torn about what this job is becoming in a new political climate.

Meanwhile down in Texas, David Koresh is mostly just enjoying a calm and peaceful life. He wakes up to one of his children wanting to go out running with him. He speaks casually but powerfully to his group of followers. Everyone seems to love him. He understands the world around him while knowing just how intense it can become. He has found his place in the world. The show just doesn't do enough to depict just how abusive his control of this situation actually is. Yes, it's abundantly clear that he conducts himself as the leader of a cult. It's fascinating to see just how easily he can bring people back to this compound with his beliefs. He goes out for a night of performing with his band. He returns with a new lost soul in Thibodeau who was conveniently just in the right place at the right time when Koresh needed a drummer. Thibodeau presents himself as the point-of-entry character into this world. He is the character the audience can relate to in that he is a newcomer to the lifestyle that Koresh is preaching. But it's mostly just a lot of talking without seeing a whole lot. Taylor Kitsch is pretty magnetic in the role. But the show doesn't do quite enough to showcase how Koresh's perspective on scripture can unite all of these people behind him at this compound. He gets them to do some pretty destructive things. The rationalization of all of that isn't really explored. Thibodeau is brought into this world to explain it. And then, the narrative jumps ahead six months to feature Thibodeau as a natural part of this world questioning if he can truly make the full commitment to Koresh.

That commitment includes taking a vow of celibacy. It's mostly just stated as a common fact. It's something that Koresh throws out there so casually. And yet, it's inherently creepy to hear him talk about sex getting in the way of these original thoughts while he carries the burden of such intimacy for the entire group. That's demonstrated quite strongly in the subplot with Steve and Judy. They are a married couple who are close friends and strong supporters of this group. But Steve is furious that Judy is pregnant with Koresh's baby. He truly does wonder if this is still the place for him. After the time jump though, he is still there. The baby has been born. This family can celebrate that miracle. And then, Koresh casually walks in and needs to dominate the conversation. To him, this baby is special. It's a human formed in his image. He's inserting himself into every single aspect of this community. Steve and Judy want to enjoy their happiness as a family now. But Koresh isn't allowing anyone to forget about the specific details that led to the creation of new life. That's his own philosophy. He's the only one who can engage in sex because he's already enlightened to the point of understanding what scripture actually says. Everyone else is still working on improving themselves in that way. But it mostly just feels like the show sanding down the edges of just how abusive Koresh was towards women. He has multiple wives and numerous children. He has found peace with this lifestyle. And yet, the show also wants the audience to empathize with him in that final moment of becoming aware he's being spied on and in the opening moment where the government plans on storming the compound. It's just an odd decision that doesn't completely work.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Visions and Omens" was written by John Erick Dowdle & Dew Dowdle and directed by John Erick Dowdle.
  • This cast is absolutely stacked with notable actors of remarkable talent - including Supergirl's Melissa Benoist, Ozark's Julia Garner, Bloodline's Andrea Riseborough, House of Cards' Paul Sparks and Desperate Housewives' Steven Culp. Then, John Leguizamo shows up as the agent spying on Mount Carmel. Plus, there's the Boardwalk Empire reunion between Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham and Sparks.
  • The direction is pretty strong as well. This story highlights how people want to be left alone in their isolated lifestyles in big, expansive landscapes. There's the compound in the Texas desert as well as the cabin in the Idaho woods. Both are important images that really do put in the work to make this atmosphere feel off while still being an intimate story.
  • The show dances around the paternity of Judy's baby for a long time. It seems abundantly clear that the people aren't having the normal reactions to such happy news. Steve is actually quite upset by all of it. It's enough for him to want to walk away from Koresh. It's obvious what is actually going on. It just takes too long for the show to actually come out and say that Koresh is the only man having sex with the women.
  • Gary confesses to his wife that his job at the FBI isn't like how he imagined it when he decided on this career at 12 years old. It's the kind of expositional speech that doesn't feel like something that would come up in natural conversation. It's him explaining something to her for the audience's sake even though she would already know these details. It's odd. And yet, it doesn't seem like the show is presenting her as an important character in this story. She just wants Gary to speak louder with his concerns.
  • The FBI decides to start paying attention to the Branch Davidians because they get the tip of how many firearms they are buying as well as all of the child services cases that have gone no where. The man in charge is mostly concerned with the guns and not the children. But neither are abundant focuses when the show actually spends time in the Mount Carmel building. That's strange. They are important in the context of the story but not in the show.