Originally airing on Paramount Network in 2018 and now streaming on Netflix, WACO is a six-episode miniseries about the standoff between the FBI and ATF and the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh in Waco, Texas. It’s an astounding docudrama that captures with great respect the stupidity, humanity, and tragedy of the 51-day siege that resulted in mass death.
Born Vernon Howell, David Koresh was the leader of a sect called the Branch Davidians, the control of which he wrested in a seedy story of sex and murder that is interesting in its own right but is not explored in the series. The group lived as a commune at the Mount Carmel Center, where they awaited the Second Coming and the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom of Israel. As leader, Koresh practiced polygamy, including marriage and having a child with a minor. In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raided the compound to execute a search warrant related to charges of sexual abuse and illegal weapons. Shots were fired, and the resulting gun battle left four ATF agents dead and another 16 wounded and five Davidians dead. After a 51-day siege, the FBI, now in charge of the operation, penetrated the building with tear gas. A fire ensued, killing 95 people. The event became mythologized by the far Right as an example of government tyranny, going so far as to inspire Timothy McVeigh’s bombing at Oklahoma City.
With a significant degree of artistic license, the miniseries dramatizes these events, presenting both sides based on multiple documents but primarily two accounts, one a book by the primary FBI negotiator (played with great humanity by Michael Shannon) and another a book by a Davidian survivor (Rory Culkin). Right or wrong, these are the sources. The result is dramatically uneven in favor of the Davidians’ side of the story, with the FBI and ATF often portrayed as institutionally malicious, but mostly the series simply tells both sides and allows viewers to judge right and wrong for themselves, my favorite kind of storytelling. While political pressure generates some institutional malice and overreach, and WACO has a strong and important message about the militarization of policing in America, individually there really aren’t any true villains in this story. All the characters are flawed, have a goal and thought-out point of view, and their conflict is genuine. The performances by the terrific cast, great story development, and horrific gun battle and fire result in riveting storytelling on par with HBO’s CHERNOBYL.
Particularly excellent was Taylor Kitsch as Koresh, giving real menace and humanity to the role. Koresh is a fascinating figure in the series, charismatic and able to instantly connect with people, find their weakness, and relate it to a solution based on his religious interpretations. While the Davidians seem to be largely satisfied with their communal living and religious beliefs, with Koresh usually acting as a leader, in times of want or stress, he is tyrannical, manipulative, and abusive, and everything he sees as God’s will is really about him and what he wants. Despite a strong portrayal of his humanity that makes him sympathetic, he is not a nice guy. By typical standards, the Branch Davidians are aptly judged as a cult, though it’s important to note they didn’t see themselves that way. People watching WACO should not come away with a clear moral but hopefully will engage in debate about what happened.
Overall, WACO is a great story about cults, militarization of police, and a tragic event that occurred in history, the real truth of which remains open to interpretation and may very well not be as portrayed in the show. Who shot first? Who started the fire? Again, it should be noted the series has a point of view, which is the government’s official history is not accurate and that it acted maliciously. For another point of view, here’s a take by a reporter who covered the siege from the start: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-waco-raid-at-25-enough-with-the-fabulist-lies.