On paper, Waco is the perfect choice of project to launch a prestige television network. Created by brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle, Waco is a six-episode limited series, the premium category’s favorite subgenre. The template allows shows to market themselves as event viewing and attract top-tier talent who might be wary of a half-decade commitment. Waco’s cast is consequently a who’s who of middle-aged character actors and underutilized actresses, bringing Michael Shannon, Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Sparks, and Melissa Benoist together under the banner of an emaciated Taylor Kitsch, who plays David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidian religious sect.
The story of the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians’ Texas compound also fits into another dominant trend in attention-grabbing television. Beginning with 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the broader cultural fascination with true crime has manifested in series that reexamine media frenzies of the ’90s. The second season of American Crime Story focuses on the 1997 shooting death of fashion designer Gianni Versace, which was covered heavily by the tabloids, and the four murders that preceded it, which were not. Law & Order, our nation’s most venerable procedural franchise, has tried to co-opt the phenomenon with its latest spinoff, True Crime, whose first season took on the 1994 trial of brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez. Next week, USA will dive into the fray by premiering Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.
To the executives at the Paramount Network, the flashy new evolution of Spike TV, Waco is a boon that has largely borne out its financial promise. Including a week’s worth of reruns and DVR views, more than 2 million people watched its January premiere. That figure has held steady in the ensuing weeks, suggesting that Waco is successfully laying the groundwork for the litany of high-profile projects Paramount still has in the pipeline: a Heathers reboot, premiering next month; Yellowstone, a Western from Hell or High Water’s Taylor Sheridan; and First Wives Club, reimagined for TV by the cowriter of Girls Trip.
Creatively, however, Waco has fallen well short of its potential. The Waco siege, which lasted 51 days and concluded in the deaths of Koresh and 75 of his followers, remains a fraught and unresolved tragedy. Even now, two and a half decades later, no consensus apportioning blame to either or both sides of the standoff has cemented into place. This makes the event simultaneously ripe for dramatization and extraordinarily difficult to capture. The unstoppable collision course of trigger-happy law enforcement closing in on a self-righteous zealot sets the audience up for a nuanced tragedy with neither heroes nor villains. The scenario also risks flattening human beings into two-dimensional props. Unfortunately, Waco has done far more ironing out than enriching in the episodes leading up to next week’s grand finale. The Dowdles have hamstrung their own ambitions, reducing Waco from a reckoning with the muddled past to an oversimplification of it. Waco takes a fascinatingly complex situation and turns it into a much less credible fable.
One of the eternal questions plaguing the Branch Davidian siege — often known simply as “Waco,” even though Koresh’s compound was technically outside the city limits — is the matter of who shot first. Was it the Branch Davidians, under the influence of a dangerous, paranoid egomaniac? Or was it the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, already spoiling for a fight no matter what they encountered on their routine raid?
Long before Waco offers its own answer, it’s clear where the Dowdles’ sympathies lie. The show spends only two episodes on Koresh, the everyday life in the compound, the divisions between and within the ATF and FBI, and the political context that put pressure on both agencies to deliver a decisive victory. The upside of this condensing is a crystal-clear set of takeaways: that despite their leader’s failings, the Davidians were fundamentally, as Koresh puts it, “a bunch of nice people reading the Bible”; and that the federal government’s mishandling of the situation was a direct result of its strategic shift away from nonviolent negotiation and toward arming themselves for violent confrontation.
And then there are the downsides, which surfaced early and continued to accumulate as the weeks went on. The Dowdles have put a great deal of effort into airbrushing Koresh and caricaturing his persecutors, so much so that Waco ends up sabotaging its own project. Rather than present the siege participants as deeply flawed people for the audience to understand without necessarily rooting for, Waco strains credulity to the breaking point and drowns out his own themes.
In an interview with my colleague Michael Baumann, the Dowdles expressed that it was a priority “to show David Koresh as [the Branch Davidians] saw him, versus what was the experience of the people who were investigating him.” Conveying the charisma that convinced more than a hundred people to put themselves in the line of fire for over a month is an important goal, but it’s also a fine line to walk. Aided by a performance from Kitsch that puts every ounce of his Tim Riggins charm to much more sinister use, the Dowdles depict Koresh as an attentive father, goofball guitar player, and extraordinarily compelling preacher. They also completely excise any mention of the bitter succession battle between Koresh and fellow Branch Davidian George Roden, implying Koresh built the compound himself. The decision, almost certainly made in the interest of time, omits important background information about Koresh’s messiah complex and history of protracted conflict.
Koresh’s portrayal includes sins of commission as well as omission. The leader’s sexual practices, including polygamy, impregnating teenage girls, and enforcing celibacy for all male sect members except himself, get a treatment that’s either perfunctory or shockingly earnest. Part of this shortcoming is an inevitable consequence of showing Koresh in his element, where crimes like statutory rape were accepted without question. But the Dowdles also insert unnecessary scenes like an interlude in which Koresh stops himself from having intercourse with his wife Rachel (Benoist) because he’s “enjoying it too much,” suggesting that Koresh assumed the so-called “burden of sex” for the group out of honest belief more than naked opportunism. No one else is in the room to witness or document this exchange, which is entirely a product of Waco’s creative license — and an unfortunate use of it to stack the deck in the favor of a highly compromised protagonist.
Waco presents an equally stilted view of its law enforcement faction, albeit in the opposite direction. The good-cop/bad-cop divide within the FBI is made painstakingly literal in the clash between Richard Rogers (Whigham), head of the heavily armed Hostage Rescue Team, and Gary Noesner (Shannon), lead negotiator. Noesner wants to peacefully coax the Davidians out of the building, no matter how much time it takes; Rogers wants to make his fancy toys go boom. Neither man is afforded any depth beyond their role as walking bullet points for their respective points of view, making Noesner a pious messenger for the Moral of the Story and Rogers a cartoonish brute. “What’s it gonna take for you to see them as people?” Noesner pleads in the most recent episode. Rogers responds by calling a group that includes scores of women and children “stubborn sons-a-bitches.”
The theme of unprovoked, state-backed aggression against a relatively powerless minority is reiterated over and over in Waco, a relentless drumbeat that forms the backdrop to the fatal climax. Character after character is tasked with delivering a slightly restated version of the show’s thesis statement. Koresh’s deputy Steve Schneider (Sparks), on the phone with Noesner: “For a minor weapons violation, all this? … I still don’t know what we did to deserve all this. You have the power to end all this, too. You could just leave. We weren’t bothering anybody.” Koresh himself: “Why you bringing these tanks in here? You know what that tells me? That this is war!” Right-wing radio host Ron Engelman (Eric Lange), who’s taken a vested interest in the standoff: “Law enforcement and military force are two very different functions. Law enforcement is about de-escalating conflict.”
As a contemporary viewer, it’s impossible for me to hear such statements without thinking of the horrifying images of heavily armored police pointing automatic weapons at protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, or the ensuing explainers about the wider problem of police militarization. To put it mildly, a Christian fringe sect, a conservative talk radio host, and antigovernment white supremacists make for an unlikely coalition with which to make such an urgent point about giving government employees weapons they’ll almost certainly use. (Try to imagine Engelman’s modern-day analogs making a similarly impassioned speech about state actors’ excessive use of force.) Waco opens with Ruby Ridge, another ATF-FBI fiasco, in which a woman is shown telling a newscaster, “They consider it a threat when anyone lives outside the norm.” In this case, living “outside the norm” means associating with far right terrorist groups.
In the right hands, the staggering disparity between the 1990s’ most prominent targets of state violence and today’s could almost be a point in Waco’s favor. After all, the best recent-history true crime focuses on some aspect of the subject lost in the heat of the moment and filters it through the hindsight of the present day. An audience doesn’t have to agree with or even like someone, nor they us, for that person to be the victim of injustice. In fact, the imperfect victim makes for a more effective portrait of abused authority, not less. By pushing the Waco audience to come to terms with state violence as a systemic problem that transcends bad apples and innocent bystanders, the Dowdles could have underlined how anyone could perpetrate or be affected by the forces that made Waco possible. The issue lies with skewed incentives, not the individuals swept up in them.
The problem is that Waco itself doesn’t seem to recognize that nuance — or worse yet, believe in viewers’ ability to recognize that nuance. And in underestimating its audience, Waco leaves so little room for dissent that a browbeaten viewer can’t help but push back and make some for themselves.
In the Dowdles’ telling, it isn’t an order from on high that provokes the final assault on the compound, nor a deliberate shift in strategy. The move is a juvenile retaliation for a show of defiance: Koresh using the last of his electricity to mount an honest-to-goodness rock concert, singing “I still believe!” while Noesner and his allies beam with pride. Full of scripted bravura that feels wildly out of sync with the hours that came before it, the scene is an absurdly reductive display that pits brave upstarts (who happen to condone child abuse) against insecure bullies. What makes Waco work in isolation as a straightforward parable also guarantees it has little to say about what really happened at Waco, or how we can learn from it.