Every now and again, a series based on true events finds its way to Netflix, and it hits hard. Last year, one of the most notable biopic series was “When They See Us,” a heartbreaking miniseries on the Central Park Five, who were sent to prison as children in the 90s for a crime they did not commit. This year, we get “Waco,” a six-episode miniseries from 2018 developed by Paramont that adapted two books that tells two different sides of the 1993 FBI and ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) siege of a religious compound in Waco, Texas.
One thing that must be noted is that “Waco” is a both sides story, basing its information off material provided through news reports and the books “A Place Called Waco” by David Thibodeau & Leon Whiteson, and “Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator” by Gary Noesner. Neither side is blameless, but it is clear that there was gross negligence on the part of the FBI/ATF, and the conflict was escalated when it shouldn’t have been.
The conflict is between a religious group called the Branch Davidians — who practice a certain sect of Christianity as dictated by their leader and self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) and live in a self-sustained compound in the middle of nowhere — and the FBI/ATF, who want to storm said compound because they believe they are harboring illegal weapons and are abusing children.
Essentially, Branch Davidians are made up of a bunch of loyal cult-like followers whose male members are celibate except for David, who is the only one who is allowed to have sex with/have children with all the women — even if they are the legal partners of some of the men. He even has a “vision” to have sex with a minor, of whom he gets legally married to. David has about 13 children, justifying that they are to be legendary figures told in the Bible, and he justifies everything he does through the scripture. Everyone in the compound has a certain amount of respect for David, who memorized the entire Bible, and whose interpretations of it hold water with some professional theologians, even if his interpretations suspiciously benefit only him.
But at the same time, the miniseries portrays David as selfish and manipulative, coercing David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin), who is a young 20-something drummer he recruited for his church band, to either stay and live in the compound forever or to leave and never come back. And he constantly uses the fact that he fathered children with the wives of the husbands against the men who brought their wives into the organization, like Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks), his number two, who wants to remove his wife and her child from the conflict, but David refuses, as he argues he has no right to decide the fate of the child, seeing as it is not his.
THE FBI/ATF are portrayed far worse than the Branch Davidians, though. The miniseries doesn’t buy the FBI/ATF’s official account that the Branch Davidians started the conflict, as it gives us a scene in which David Koresh tries to immediately surrender, but is fired upon by trigger-happy HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) branch of the FBI, who were recently militarized due to an increase in funding that they wrongfully obtained (Mitch Decker [Shea Whigham], who leads the HRT guys in the show, earned the funding as a result of an incident he should have been punished for by using an excessive amount of force).
The show portrays a dysfunctional dynamic in which the FBI/ATF HRT forces at Waco have a disproportionate amount of power than the Hostage Negotiators, who are led by Agent Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), which leads the head of operations Tony Prince (Glenn Fleshler) to recklessly utilize violence, torture, and scare tactics when they were not appropriate, exacerbating the conflict and leading to a huge loss of life at the end.
“Waco” is a tale of why it is so important to have government agencies like the FBI be held accountable for their actions, for reckless behavior that is actively rewarded either through lack of discipline or an increase in funding leads to dangerous situations that could be avoided. It also makes great points about militarization, as more weapons and showings of force only provokes more violence. As police forces get more militarized across the country, viewers should take note of the dire consequences of arming local law enforcement with military-grade equipment.
As bad as the Branch Davidians got, you get a sense that, even if some of them probably deserved to get their day in court and go to jail, they did not deserve the fiery execution they got at the end of the miniseries and in real life. They did not deserve to get gunned down, and it is hard to interpret the FBI/ATF’s actions as presented in this miniseries as anything other than acts of domestic terrorism or war crimes.
This series has breakout performances by Kitsch, whose acting career took a fatal blow after starring in 2012’s “John Carter,” as well as Culkin and Sparks, who bring a level of believably to the Davidians, and you get an understanding as to why they got sucked into what essentially was a cult. Whigham and Flesher do a great job at portraying Decker and Prince as two incompetent and thoroughly unlikable villains who should be blacklisted from ever working for the FBI again. The series notes that their use of CS gas would be considered a war crime if used against terrorists, as it is highly flammable, and law enforcement knew that it was for years before Waco.
The story is told jointly through Noesner and Thibodeau’s point of views, as they are the authors of the two books the show is based on. Thibodeau is an impressionable youth who sees what David is doing as weird, but ultimately harmless, and he gets sucked into his following because he makes friends with them. Noesner is the voice of reason at the FBI that is shut out by Decker and Prince. Shannon does a great job at portraying Noesner, who is a flawed character who had the power to file a complaint against Decker’s reckless behavior before Waco, but chose to remain silent due to peer pressure. While his attempts to get through to the Branch Davidians are laudable, and had he been in charge of the siege, there probably would have been zero casualties, his not reporting of Decker leads to his HRT guys having too much power in the Waco operation, which botched the entire thing and led to a massive loss of human life. Still, we feel bad for Noesner, who is pushed aside by the FBI brass, as he tries to fight for the traditional decency he believes the agency should have.
If there’s one thing viewers can glean from “Waco,” it’s the need for government oversight and accountability.
“Waco” gets an 8/10