Friday, April 14, 2023

Waco: The Aftermath, on Showtime

This new limited series is sort of like The Path to 9/11, but for the Oklahoma City Bombing. Like the controversial mini-series that only aired once and was then buried in the vault, this fact-based drama blames many of the same powerful people for stoking social division and then ignoring the warning signs of a violent reaction. Fortunately, viewers should have more then one chance to see co-creators-co-writers Drew and John Erick Dowdle’s five-part Waco: The Aftermath, which premieres today on the Showtime app (and starts airing Sunday).

Technically, this is a sequel, with Michael Shannon reprising his original role in the Dowdles’ 2018
Waco, as FBI negotiator Special Agent Gary Noesner, who secured the evacuation of 35 followers of David Koresh at Mount Carmel, before the FBI and Janet Reno lost patience and sent in the tanks. The Aftermath picks up in 1995, but Noesner has not moved on from the tragedy. He remains haunted by the deaths of 76 people and his internal criticism of the FBI’s “official story” has hurt his career. Yet, he is one of the only agents starting to link the suspicion and resentment generated by the incendiary raid to increasingly coordinated militia activity.

Meanwhile, Dan Cogdell is preparing to defend a former follower, facing multiple charges. His client is one of four co-defendants, each with their own counsel, but Cogdell is by far the most formidable (at least according to the Dowdles). For full context (presumably, so viewers do not feel too sympathetic towards the former “Branch Davidians,” a term they reject),
Aftermath also constantly rewinds to formative events in the history of Mount Carmel, invariably showing Koresh growing steadily creepier and more extreme.

Of the three intertwined narrative strains, the Waco trial and Noesner’s militia investigation are by far the most compelling. In contrast, the Mount Carmel flashbacks are underwhelming, largely because Keean Johnson (succeeding Taylor Kitsch in the first mini-series) simply is not sufficiently scary or unhinged. He is even a little boring.

In contrast, Michael Shannon perfectly personifies
Aftermath’s internal contradiction as Noesnar, viscerally expressing angst and guilt over the FBI’s tactical overkill, while fretting Cassandra-like over the agency’s refusal to face the growing militia danger. One look at his worried face will make you need to pop an aspirin. Shannon is one of the best brooders in the business—and this is one of his most brooding performances yet.

Somehow, Giovanni Ribisi almost overshadows him as the folksy but razor-sharp Cogdell, who is definitely shaped in the mold of Jimmy Stewart’s Paul Biegler in
Anatomy of a Murder, a sly small-town lawyer, defending a railroaded client he thoroughly dislikes. Frankly, the best scenes of Aftermath focus on Cogdell raising disconcerting questions that remain unanswered to this day. As a cool bonus, Gary Cole chews the scenery with relish in his memorable appearances as Gordon Novel, Cogdell’s shady conspiracy theorist informer, who turns out to be right disturbingly often. (In contrast, John Leguizamo adds practically nothing in his brief reprise cameo as Agent Jacob Vasquez.)

Occasionally, the Dowdles make a manipulative misstep, like showing a significant minor character at the Murrah Building daycare center, who will not end up there at the fatal hour. Nonetheless, in general, it has an important message regarding de-radicalization—one that is urgently needed for both the far right and far left. If you want to have a scary thought, imagine if Twitter had been around during Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City Bombing, or either World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Showtime ought to distribute Shannon’s fifth episode speech for awards consideration, both for his powerful delivery and the message itself. Throughout it all,
Aftermath never makes saints out of the Branch Davidians, showing all their fanatical faults, while indicting Federal over-zealousness and incompetence. Very highly recommended, Waco: The Aftermath premieres today (4/14) on the Showtime app, so watch it while you can.