Waco: The Aftermath

Directed by: Drew and John Erick Dowdle
Distributed by: Showtime

Written by Jeff Sparks


When you have a masterpiece should you even try following it up? Or should you just let it be? Sometimes continuing on is beneficial, but often times it’s best to leave it alone. “Waco” from 2018 was a masterful and eye-opening portrayal of a tragedy where 86 people lost their lives. Originally meant to be a limited series, five years later “Waco” has received a sequel series titled “Waco: The Aftermath.” Consisting of one less episode, this limited series takes place one year after the siege at Waco. Unlike the singular approach of the 2018 series, “The Aftermath” has three different storylines. The main one follows Michael Shannon who returns as FBI agent Gary Noesner, who was the lead negotiator at the siege. After failing to prevent the massacre at Waco, his newest objective is to stop anti-government groups from organizing attacks in the US. Abbey Lee plays a member of a white supremacist militia who helps Gary by informing on the group. The second storyline follows Giovanni Ribisi as the defense lawyer for a group of surviving Branch Davidians who are on trial for their participation in the siege. The Davidians are played by John Hoogenakker, Kali Rocha, Michael Luwoye, Nicholas Kolev, and Annika Marks. The final storyline follows those Davidians in the early days of David Koresh’s rise to power in the group.

Once again the great Michael Shannon shines as usual. Like how he was mirrored by a great performance by Taylor Kitsch in 2018, the same is true now with Abbey Lee who he shares a good amount of screen time with. Donning a Southern accent, fake tattoos, militia gear, and a messy haircut she disappears into the role of real-life white supremacist turncoat Carol Howe. Not long after tipping off the feds on the plans of her dangerous boyfriend, Gary enlists her help in gathering information on domestic terrorism. As she infiltrates her former allies we know she can be discovered and killed at any moment. Lee’s Carol is cool and confident. At this point in her life, all she has is her ability to potentially put a stop to these monsters. Lee’s scenes are the most tense in the series and her character is one of the most interesting ones but unfortunately, her storyline is given the least amount of attention in most episodes which leaves it being the least memorable. Two out of three storylines in this show focus directly on the survivors of Waco and this one focuses on the aftermath of Waco. This is supposed to be the main storyline as the title suggests but somehow it’s the most undeveloped. Gary and Carol’s fears of homegrown terrorism culminate in the Oklahoma City bombing which happens at the end of the last episode, just as they suspected. But what happens after that? What happened with all the groups that Carol discovered? In what other ways did the massacre at Waco affect our country? These questions aren’t really answered by the end of this short series. Perhaps the creators want you to research those questions for yourself. 

The storyline with the most screen time here is the one that serves as a true direct sequel, the trial of five surviving Branch Davidians. Giovanni Ribisi is terrific as their scrappy lawyer who plays every angle he can find to help them. Gary Cole plays a conspiracy theorist who assists him in the trial. His character brings a wildcard aspect to the show that keeps things interesting when he’s on screen. You never know what he’s going to say next or what revelation about the massacre he will reveal. The five Davidians are also played well, but now we’re going to get into a major problem with the series. Four out of these five are brand-new characters. Only one, Kathy Schroeder played by Annika Marks, was in the 2018 series. This might be more of a problem with the previous series, but you still can’t help but wonder “Who are these people? Why didn’t we see them before?” The only one that we are familiar with isn’t focused on at all. The main reason that “Waco” was so great is that it focused on its characters and who they were. Kathy is the only one that we are familiar with and we know virtually nothing new about her in “The Aftermath.” What have her experiences been like since the siege? What has gone through her mind? Beats me. She only speaks a handful of lines through the mere two episodes that she’s in. 

The four new characters are the focus instead. Their personalities are revealed through flashbacks that show the rise of David Koresh within the group. This leads me to my next problem: the casting. Taylor Kitsch delivered the best performance of his career as David Koresh. It seems like a no-brainer that he would reprise his role, especially considering he’s an executive producer on the series. But instead, Keean Johnson plays Koresh here. This choice was possibly done because the flashbacks take place a decade before the siege. It may have made sense to the showrunners to have a younger actor play this younger version of the character but as a viewer, it just comes off as immersion-breaking. Kitsch is still a young enough-looking guy that some makeup would have been enough to make him look like the younger Koresh. Johnson does a decent job in the role, but it still feels weird to see an unfamiliar face play such an important character. Besides the fact that in real life there were actually twelve people on trial, not five, the flashbacks do a solid job of showing us who these people are at the time of the events we see taking place. This dive into the characters is something that the original series did so well. The four focused on are Clive Doyle, Livingstone Faygen, Ruth Riddle, and Paul Fatta. John Hoogenakker’s Clive is given the most screen time. During the trial, he’s a man who still clings to his faith as he considers the gravity of the tragic events that have occurred. In the flashbacks, he’s someone searching for something to believe in. This part of his psyche is demonstrated in a scene in episode two where he sits on a rooftop discussing with David how he got to Mount Carmel. This scene mirrors a similar moment from the previous series where Koresh is teaching Rory Culkin’s Thibedoeu about dedication as they sit atop the roof of the home that they would later construct. 

All in all besides its excellent writing, solid direction, and reliable acting, “Waco: The Aftermath” is a worthy add-on to the 2018 series mainly due to doing what that show did best: paying respect to the real people that are depicted. In 2018 the majority of the characters were people who had lost their lives for what they believed in. The news and pop culture often depicted the Branch Davidians as crazies or monsters. While the showrunners didn’t ignore the crimes of Koresh they still managed to depict the people of Mount Carmel as human beings who deserved to have their side of the story heard. With the information they had to work with, the Dowdle brothers did just that with their creation of the show. “The Aftermath” now serves as an opportunity for the survivors to get their stories heard as well. Because of this, the show had a shot at greatness like its predecessor but its limited runtime undercut that possibility. “Waco” was six episodes with a singular storyline. “The Aftermath” is five episodes with three storylines. It’s just not enough time to pack enough of a punch, especially compared to the masterpiece that they are trying to follow up. If this would have been ten episodes it could have been close, but five just isn’t enough. One reason the Dowdle brothers decided to incorporate extremism and the Oklahoma City bombing in this story is their relevance to the turmoil in modern-day America. Extremist groups have unfortunately only grown since 1994 and anti-government sentiments have even more so. The fears of Shannon’s Gary Noesner and Lee’s Carol Howe were that extremist groups would turn the country into a warzone. After seeing things like the January 6th riots occur recently, one can’t help but wonder if those fears are still relevant to the undercurrent of rage that we see today.

“Waco: The Aftermath” Trailer

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