Released almost exactly 25 years after the start of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound, Waco tries to illuminate the worst law-enforcement-driven massacre in American history from the perspectives of U.S. law enforcement and the Davidians simultaneously. I can’t speak to the totality this six-part series, since the Paramount Network only released the first three episodes for review, but on the basis of the first half, I tentatively recommend Waco to those who only know the outline of the event. It helps to do a bit of reading for a fuller picture, though, as the storytelling elides some of the more troubling facts about David Koresh (namely allegations of statutory rape and child neglect and abuse) in order to amplify the already justifiable outrage against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which stormed the compound twice and are primarily responsible for the deaths of 76 Davidians and four ATF agents.
My point here is not to suggest that the series needed to paint Koresh and the Davidians more unflatteringly in the name of phony “balance,” but that a more straightforward and unflinching portrait of that aspect of the story — as well as the Davidians’ homegrown sexual and theological beliefs, which were well outside the American mainstream — might’ve better served the notion that nobody deserves to die like that, no matter who they are, how they worship, or how strange their culture might appear to outsiders. One of the most pernicious ideas in American popular culture is that it’s only a tragedy when innocent or nice people, or people who are somehow “just like us,” die at the hands of law enforcement. Waco was uniquely positioned to refute that idea, given that it’s populated almost entirely by the sorts of people who appear in sentimental New YorkTimes articles about Trump loyalists. But it doesn’t go nearly as far as it could’ve, given what a quietly charismatic star it has in Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh, and how immediately human all of his followers seem.
All that being said, this is still a necessary and sometimes powerful series, particularly in the third hour, which depicts the initial assault on the compound that led to the two-month siege. At a time when police misconduct and the militarization of law enforcement is a constant subject in the news, Waco shows the pre-9/11 version of that mentality, as well as some early attempts within law enforcement to warn where it might lead. Created by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, makers of the horror films No Escape, Quarantine, and Devil, the series draws on two primary sources, one from the Davidian side, the other from the FBI. These turn out to be more complementary than you might think. One is A Place Called Waco, by David Thibodeau (played here by Rory Culkin), one of the few survivors of the April 19 massacre. The other is Stalling for Time: My Life As an FBI Hostage Negotiator, by Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), who forcefully advocated for deescalation and other nonviolent means of resolution at a time when the attitude at the FBI, the ATF, and pretty much every state or local police organization was, “Scream and curse at people continuously to disarm and surrender immediately, and if they don’t, shoot them or burn them.” That’s still the mentality in the U.S., by and large, though at least more people are questioning it, including the people who made Waco.