REVIEW: Waco (S1 E1/6)

As we all know, true crime – and dramatic adaptations thereof – are all the rage at the moment.

We’ve already had two noteworthy TV versions of true crimes this year here in the UK – ITV’s Manhunt and Netflix’s stunning When They See Us. The question is, how far back do you go when you select a story to cover? When it comes to modern true crimes, the trick seems to be choosing something that’s relatively modern enough to feel familiar but long enough ago for the story to have been forgotten it slightly.

The siege at Waco, Texas is one such incident.

This six-part series – shown in the UK on the Alibi channel – has a good-looking cast: Taylor Kitsch (who starred in series two of True Detective), the brilliant Michael Shannon and John Leguizamo all take starring roles. Andrea Riseborough, one of my favourite actresses, also takes a strong supporting role.

Based in the wide-open, wind-swept wastelands of rural Texas, we’re introduced to David Koresh, a cult leader who controls his followers with such an easy charm that you’re left wondering what on earth people see in him that’s so fantastical and messianic. He’s got a mullet, 1980s glasses and is a wannabe rock star who plays in a band in the local dives.

There’s nothing extraordinary about him.

I often found myself often asking how and why he attracted so many people. And wives. He’s like a pound-shop Charles Manson.

You know that you’re dealing with a cult leader when sex enters the equation. We’re told, as the episode unfolds, that he has ‘taken on the burden of sexuality’ so that the other men in the commune don’t have to. How sweet of him. This causes problems. When one of his wives becomes pregnant, her partner is not best pleased (even though Judy, the pregnant woman, is convinced that having a baby after trying for so long is some kind of miracle); when Koresh radicalises a young, lost musician called David Thibodeau, he forbids him to have sex with any other the women in the commune.

Thibodeau, in fact, acts as our eyes and ears – the newcomer learning the ways of the camp, and the ways of the scriptures, the things that Koresh bases his beliefs on.


Counterpointing with Koresh and his merry band of men and women is the story of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Shannon). We see him called to a stand-off featuring a white supremacist, off-grid loon who has barricaded himself in the woods and is threatening to kill everything and everyone in sight. Noesner is fully invested in the power of negotiation and indeed succeeds in breaking the stand-off. But his counterpart had already steamed in and killed the nutjob’s wife and child.

Noesner surmises from the incident – where the gung-ho colleague went initially in all guns blazing – that the FBI was changing and not for the better.

And this was something I wasn’t expecting from Waco – there were, however crazy it sounds, comparisons to be drawn between the good guys and the bad guys, a political element that suggested that both sides were becoming weaponised and when you do that, bad things happen.

I enjoy true crime adaptations to an extent – we all know that for dramas to work, some characters have to be changed, some timelines have to be altered and embellishment is sometimes necessary. Which means you have to call into question the ultimate authenticity of a project and ask the question why something like this really needs to be made.

When it comes to Waco, it feels like a fairly unflashy, by-the-book retelling (no pun intended). Dramatic tension is created because you know something bad is going to happen but can’t quite remember how it all transpired back in 1993. And David Koresh – he seems like a friendly port in a storm who might just go nuts at any moment.

Add in some good performances and a pleasingly lo-fi colour palette and windswept feel and Waco isn’t half bad. It just left me with that familiar feeling: why are we so hooked on true crime adaptations?

Paul Hirons


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