The miniseries' opening episode explores the importance of institutional trust.
If we don't have good faith, what do we have? On a pretty fundamental level, trust guides us through the universe. Where we decide to place it and when we decide to withhold it can dictate where we meet our successes and failures — trust the wrong person in the wrong situation and see what happens. For a lot of us, trust comes on a case-by-case basis. We assess a situation and/or the individuals within it, we make an educated decision, and we move forward with confidence that our trust was given to (or withheld from) the right entity.
But not always. Sometimes trust is just supposed to be implicit; some entities are supposed to come to us with an understood trust. Ones we're told to assume are acting on good faith, and with the people's best interest at heart. The government. Our schools. The FBI. Teachers. Doctors. Librarians, and so on. We assume that these people are here to take care of us, no matter who we are. If you're a person alive in America, there are supposed to be a number of institutions designed to help you, to take care of you, to protect you. So what happens when the good faith in those institutions and their actions fundamentally erodes? What happens when that erosion comes from within?
For as long as the government has been around, there have been American citizens who simply don't trust it, and Waco's first episode concerns itself directly with these ideologies. Written by brothers John Erick & Drew Dowdle (and directed by the former), the Paramount Network's miniseries opener spends plenty of time introducing us to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, but the real tension comes from its depiction of the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in Northern Idaho.
FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) is dispatched to the scene, where he almost immediately clashes with the more aggressive methodology of Shea Whigham's Richard Rogers. When Rogers' plan culminates with a government sniper accidentally killing an innocent civilian, Noesner later bemoans to his superior the threats to the FBI's greatest asset: its earned trust of the American people. Bad faith maneuvers like Rogers' militaristic aggression — and the FBI's subsequent failure to own up to its part in the Ruby Ridge mess by censuring his behavior — trouble Noesner to a deep degree, threatening to fundamentally undermine the honest investigatory work he signed up to be a part of in the first place. After all, Noesner is the FBI guy with such a heart of gold that even radical right-wing government-haters will indulge him (he's able to convince one of them to verbally deescalate the Ruby Ridge situation). Hell, he even manages to mention that he decided he wanted to be a G-man at age 11, after seeing J. Edgar show up on the Mickey Mouse Club.
I think that if he were played by literally any other actor, Noesner would come across as a bit of a sanctimonious goody-goody, but Shannon's performance (not to mention dude's face) gives the character a very necessary depth. He's clearly a man of principle, and he's startled how the times they are a-changin' — but for the most part, both the Dowdle brothers' script and Shannon's performance keep Noesner from descending into outright cliché. We haven't spent as much time with Whigham's Richard Rogers to know more about him than the fact that he got rewarded for being an alpha male asshole, but at this point that's all we really need. His aggression (and his superiors' response to it) is enough to make Noesner not only doubt his place in the FBI, but the institutions changing value set as a whole.
While Noesner and Rogers clash over differing philosophies, the Branch Davidians are more or less going about their business over at their Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, but they're not without their fair share of alpha/beta conflicts, either. The episode more or less splits its time between Waco and Ruby Ridge, with most of the "Waco" half simply introducing you to the Branch Davidians and their way of life, Rory Culkin's David Thibodeau serving as a new recruit/audience surrogate character that everyone has a good reason to explain stuff to.
"Visions and Omens" does a fantastic job inuring the audience to the lifestyle of the Branch Davidians with a slow unspooling of leader David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) and his methods of control. At first blush, he seems like a pretty charismatic dude! He goes on a run every morning with his little son! He plays "My Sharona" with his band at local bars! He studies the scripture! He sells massive quantities of firearms at gun shows! He...fucks all the wives in his congregation because their husbands are required to make vows of celibacy, holy SHIT you guys this is insane. The depths of Koresh's delusions are laid out for us slowly but surely, as we eventually realize that Koresh and his best friend Steve (Paul Sparks) are embroiled in their own little alpha/beta drama. Turns out that theology-professor-turned-Branch Davidian Steve has been trying to have a baby with his wife for 10 years. You can probably imagine how Steve feels when Koresh effortlessly one right into his wife's tummy. You can probably also imagine how things played out when Koresh essentially saunters in the room going "AYYYYY!" to scoop up the newborn before Steve gets the chance to hold the child first.
Koresh is clearly a figure for whom alpha male dominance is woven into the very fiber of his being...and as such, he's developed a brilliant facade under which to hide it. On the surface, Koresh is a caring, genuine dude who only wants to study scripture and take care of his family. Under the surface? Well, his family is also the method by which he plans to sire a bunch of kids that will eventually become a Council of Elders that will sit in judgement of humanity when the Apocalypse finally arrives. So that's pretty cool, too.
At its onset, Waco seems to be telling a story about trust in leadership. How do we know that the people pointing the way truly have our best intentions at heart? What do we do when we don't feel right about the groups supposedly dedicated to "doing the right thing?" What do we do when these groups even go so far as to reward behavior that is patently wrong? What happens when all we have is our good faith, but with nowhere left to put it? These questions are burrowing their way into minds on either side of the governmental divide, and the episode ends with the ATF deciding to investigate to Mount Carmel solely because doing so might keep them from being defunded. Bad faith, indeed.
Oh, and also...
- This cast is absolutely stacked. I didn't even have time to dive into the presence of Melissa Benoist, Rory Culkin, or John Motherfucking Leguizamo, but I really can't wait to see how all this talent gets put to good use.
- Lovin' that CGI helicopter in the opening.
- I'm not going to lie, I kinda wish that the reveal that Koresh is banging all of his followers' wives arrived with a little more oomph. Because seriously, what a batshit bonkers revalation.