Books & Culture

A review of “Waco” (Paramount Network/Netflix, 292 minutes, TV-14)

An Un-American Tragedy

At a time when distrust in the government and suppression of civil liberties is at an all-time high, the lessons of Waco are more relevant today than they were almost three decades ago.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep businesses shuttered and our normal lives have ground to a halt, many are turning to Netflix and other streaming services for escape. But with the plethora of binge-worthy shows available at our fingertips, it’s possible you haven’t yet seen the one that ought to be the quarantine theme show. (Spoiler alert: It’s not “Tiger King”).

“Waco,” a six-part miniseries originally developed by Paramount first premiered in 2018, but was released on Netflix earlier this month. Ever since, it has been trending among the top ten most popular programs on the global streaming platform. Like the much-hyped and heavily memed “Tiger King,” “Waco” is a true story that you have to see to believe; if the former’s catchphrase is “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” then the latter’s should be “Terror, Tyranny, and Truth.”

An Old Tale for a New Generation

Despite having first premiered two years ago, “Waco’s” distribution on Netflix has seen it garner a whole new level of popularity and rekindled a widespread discussion on the disastrous siege at the heart of the story. While some have, rightfully, questioned why so many are treating this phenomenon as if it is the first time people have heard about the infamous Waco siege, it actually proves just how many in the rising generations truly were unaware of what happened during those fateful 51 days in 1993.

Although the release of the series on Netflix was most likely planned to line up with the 27th anniversary of the end of the siege on April 19, the timing ended up being even more relevant with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown. At a time when distrust in the government and suppression of civil liberties is at an all-time high, the lessons of Waco are even more relevant today than they were then.

Many in the Millennial generation, myself included, were born after the Waco siege took place. All of Generation Z, or the “Zoomers,” were born long after the incident. For most of us, 9/11 was the defining historical event of our lifetimes, and for good reason. But it is far easier to hate a foreign terrorist organization than it is to have contempt for aspects of one’s own government. “Waco,” however, shows why, in some cases, that contempt is deserved, especially when the end result of that government’s activity is the same as that of terrorism: A mass murder of Americans on American soil.

Complicated and Condensed

How else do you tell such a story to the younger generations that, in many cases, have never even heard of Waco, David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, or Mount Carmel? You convey just how confusing, complicated, and contrived the entire ordeal was, with plenty of blame and moral ambiguity to go around on both sides.

At the core of the government’s motivation is greed. Following the failure of the Ruby Ridge siege, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is facing a public relations crisis that threatens to see the bureau defunded and even disbanded. In desperation, the ATF hopes to perform a “legitimate” bust in order to regain credibility and stave off their own elimination.

This is born out of a clash between the FBI and the ATF at Ruby Ridge, where the FBI took over and horrendously botched the operation when one of their snipers killed Vicki Weaver; yet due to the FBI’s political machinations, the ATF still ended up with the blame. The same dynamic is painfully repeated at Waco, with the FBI once again determined to finish what the ATF started, even if it means ending in disaster.

On the other side, religious fanaticism drives the Branch Davidians’ leader stubbornly to defy the government even when it becomes clear that surrender is everyone’s preferred option. David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch), with his pseudo-religious delusions of grandeur, believes that the siege is a divine test of his faith, and manages to convince his followers the same. He pleads with them to put their faith ahead of their materialistic desires, even the desire to live, rather than be tempted by the “Babylonian” forces that have surrounded them.

It is a perfect storm of ego, obstinance, desperation, and hatred on both sides, which ends about as well as any scenario in which an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The standoff’s fiery conclusion, just like its beginning, is frustratingly unclear.

No Heroes, All Villains

The series is overshadowed by a profound sense of hopelessness, where the cooler heads do not prevail, but are instead crucified for trying to prevent death and destruction.

ATF Agent Jacob Vazquez (John Leguizamo), who initially was sent into the compound to infiltrate the group and find any evidence of illegal weapons, eventually warns his superiors when the Branch Davidians uncover his identity and become aware of the coming raid. But because he previously advocated leaving the group alone, he is thrown under the bus publicly, falsely accused of failing to warn his superiors of the Davidians’ knowledge of the coming raid, and is even accused of being corrupted by Koresh and the others in a manner that tainted his judgment.

FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), fresh off of successfully negotiating a relatively peaceful end to the Ruby Ridge siege one year earlier, comes to understand the Branch Davidians’ way of thinking and tries to appeal to Koresh’s beliefs in order to convince him to surrender. But he and fellow hostage negotiator Walter Graves (Michael Hyland) are accused by their superiors Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham) and Tony Prince (Glenn Fleshler) of indulging a madman in his own delusions. For his trouble, Noesner is transferred off the case right before the fatal final assault.

On the Branch Davidians’ side, Koresh’s right-hand man Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) expresses reservations early on about Koresh’s leadership, and particularly his supposedly divine duty to take multiple wives, including Schneider’s own wife, Judy, for the purpose of having multiple children with them. But any tensions between the two evaporate when they are united against the government in the siege, and especially when the FBI openly tries to manipulate Schneider and turn him against Koresh. At that point, even knowing that what they are saying is true about Koresh, Schneider chooses to remain at his side purely in defiance of a now hateful government.

As such, it can be argued that there are truly no heroes in this story: Heroes usually emerge victorious, and that is not the case in Waco.

In the end, ego is to blame: It is because of ego that the more sensible actors are overruled and forced out, and it is this same ego that leads to everyone’s downfall.

Koresh becomes determined to spread the message of his interpretation of the Bible on a mass scale, and spends days dictating his memoirs to one of his wives for transcription, in a move that the agents in charge come to see as a stalling tactic. A similar ego drives the two agents in charge, who can best be described as arrogant, trigger-happy meatheads, as they appear almost possessed by an unholy bloodlust, with no reservations (until it is too late) about killing as many Branch Davidians as possible in order to bring the standoff to an end.

Of Guilt and Innocence

But while the series does go out of its way to portray both sides as flawed, it ultimately makes clear that despite neither side being completely innocent, one side is indeed far more guilty than the other. The blame is ultimately placed at the feet of the government for an obscenely excessive use of force against American civilians, and subsequently spreading deliberate lies in an attempt to control the narrative as the situation spirals out of control.

The government is seen firing the first shots in the initial raid on February 28, when ATF agents shoot and kill the Branch Davidians’ dogs. They lie in the subsequent press briefing and declare that the Branch Davidians fired the first shots.

Agent Vazquez repeatedly warned his superiors that not only were the Branch Davidians prepared for the raid but also that they were most likely innocent and did not deserve to be raided. His superiors in turn lie about Agent Vazquez and accuse him of being brainwashed by the group. And they even lie about coming under fire from the Branch Davidians as the compound is burning to the ground.

Even if these instances are simply dramatizations, the seeds of doubt are planted in viewers’ minds both with regard to the government’s conduct during the raid, as well as the subsequent investigations that exonerated the FBI and ATF of wrongdoing during the final assault. That doubt can be summarized by a single line spoken by Koresh during his first exchange with Noesner, after Noesner says that the FBI has taken over from the ATF:

Isn’t that like getting in a fight with a neighbor boy, and he whoops ya, and his big brother comes over to investigate?

Koresh has a point. Can a government really be trusted when it investigates itself and finds no wrongdoing, especially when the vast majority of the other side of the conflict is not alive to give their side of the story?

The Unanswered Question

Even beyond exact questions about who shot first, it is certainly difficult to take the government’s side when the viewer is presented with a full display of the government’s overuse of force, which might as well have turned the outskirts of Waco into the heart of Baghdad. With that in mind, one question follows not only from characters within the show, but from the viewers as well.

Why?

In perhaps the most significant exchange in the series, Schneider and another Branch Davidian briefly exit the compound to retrieve a case of milk from Noesner and the local sheriff as a sign of good will. Noesner has a brief conversation with Schneider. When his efforts to turn Schneider against Koresh fail, Schneider turns the tables right back on Noesner and simply says:

You know what? Despite everything you’re saying, no one’s explained to me what we did to deserve all of this.

Noesner is left speechless and—in a moment of the series when an invisible hand might as well have pressed the pause button—the audience is also left in silence lingering over this very simple statement, and the question it raises: Why?

Yes, Koresh had his own problems. He was not a good guy. His issues even caused rifts with his followers. He credibly could be called a false prophet, a pervert, a polygamist, and even possibly a pedophile. And yes, the Branch Davidians did have a sizable stockpile of weapons, albeit with absolutely no evidence—either in the series or in real life—that they would ever be used in any capacity other than self-defense.

So, the series posits, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: Do the questionable sexual actions of one man, and perhaps a few obscure weapons violations, justify the government declaring war on a compound filled with over 100 American citizens, on American soil?

Did Koresh’s polygamy justify the government sending tanks rolling onto the property?

Did the possession of such firearms justify having the power cut off, and floodlights and loudspeakers blaring loud noises into their home all night long, for days on end?

Did having bizarre, though peaceful, religious beliefs justify a deliberate effort to gas women and children out of their home?

These tactics may, on occasion, make sense against enemies in a faraway land, like Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; but to see these them used on American citizens, including women and little children, in the heart of Texas, is an entirely different story.

Like many “shocking” true stories, however, once the initial question of “did this really happen?” is answered, the next question inevitably becomes “how could this happen?” This is even asked aloud by a recurring character in the series, local radio host Ron Engelman (Eric Lange), during a somber monologue in the series’ final episode:

We are, all of us, Americans. When did we start seeing each other as the enemy?

In 1993, Englemen was clearly concerned with the divide between the federal government and the common citizen. But today his question is even more relevant. Not only can this question be reasonably asked of the government currently arrests women for playing with their children at playgrounds, or fathers playing tee-ball with their daughters in an empty field, but also it could be applied to the ongoing divisions between Americans, as the very fabric of our society is being ripped apart by an ongoing “cold civil war.”

Many Meanings

Just as the events of the series are plagued with ambiguity and equally flawed participants, the overall message of the series is unclear. There is an overarching tone of hopeless nihilism, from the grim realities of the brutal 51-day siege to the inevitable outcome that we all already know. There is a clear distrust of the government, both from the victims and even from several agents.

But the exact message is, ultimately, up to the viewers’ interpretation. Is it a generic “don’t trust the government” message? Is it a desperate plea for unity and civility?

As this Chinese virus tears across our world, I couldn’t help but take away this message: Life is precious, and can change for the worse in an instant.

The Mount Carmel Center goes from a happy and peaceful commune to a besieged fortress in seemingly no time at all. The images of men, women, and children laughing and dancing at a wedding are soon forced out by images of those same people crying, bleeding, and ultimately dying at the hands of their own government.

The progression is so fast that an equally relevant question, besides “why,” is “how did we get here?” How did this quiet community suddenly end up being gassed and burned alive by the authorities who ostensibly were supposed to protect both them and us?

With that in mind, you may very well walk away from “Waco” with a greater distrust of government. You may leave it with a renewed determination to be kinder to your fellow Americans, for the sake of restoring a civility that now seems long gone. But it nonetheless will leave a heavy feeling in your heart, like many a cautionary tale.

“Waco” is far from the kind of feel-good entertainment most may be seeking right now. It certainly does not sugarcoat its subject matter, but perhaps that is exactly why it is one of the most important shows you can possibly watch during these troubled times.