By: Ashley de Sampaio Ferraz, Columnist
It’s no secret that many of us are finally getting our money’s worth from all of the subscriptions to streaming services we always paid for but were too busy to really use. When I saw the miniseries “Waco” had been added to Netflix, I had to check it out. A reference to the event in another show had recently sent me down a spiraling rabbit hole of research, and I was hungry to know more about the Branch Davidians, the religious group that “Waco” is based off of.
The limited series is a dramatic retelling of the horrific events that happened at Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas in 1993. It focuses on both the Branch Davidians and their preparations for their expected mission, and the FBI and ATF agents responsible for making sure that David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, could be safely taken into custody. We now know this mission was a failure, with the ATF’s simple execution of a search and arrest warrant erupting into a deadly shootout that was followed by a 51 day standoff between the government and the religious group.
The first episode of “Waco” begins at the end, with ATF agents arriving at the compound in massive cattle trailers, fully armed. But then, the show cuts back to six months earlier. It is clear to the viewer that this episode is meant to set up the major historical events that will play out over the next five episodes. I believe the show does a good job of this, as it is shown how David Koresh recruited David Thibodeau, a drummer, into the group. Koresh’s approach to discipleship displays to the audience how he wasn’t any stuffy old prophet. He, instead, is simple yet charismatic, and shared his message without being too pushy. Koresh and his followers may have thought he was the Messiah but, to most, he seemed just like anyone else.
This episode also has a second storyline, and it focuses on ATF and FBI agents handling the situation at Ruby Ridge. Ruby Ridge was the location of a 1992 siege in Idaho, when Randy Weaver and his family were involved in a shootout with government agents and then spent eleven days locked inside their house in a standoff. Both Weaver’s son and wife were killed during the shootout and subsequent standoff. This event was an eerie foreshadowing of the unnecessary tragedy and Koresh’s mission that would happen in Waco just six months later. The show uses this event to introduce us to the head of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, Gary Noesner, who would later play a big part in the siege in Waco.
I enjoyed this double storyline method, although at first I was a little confused, after a while I began to understand the connections between the two events. I think including the Ruby Ridge story helped bring some perspective to what happened in Waco because it helped the audience understand the mindset of the federal agents when they first heard about David Koresh stockpiling weapons. They were ready to make up for past mistakes and jumped on the case, perhaps a little too aggressively. Including a second storyline also helped me not lose interest in the Branch Davidians, as it provided action to an episode that would’ve been only exposition otherwise.
The portrayal of these Branch Davidians was something that I did wonder about. After first airing on Paramount Network in 2018, some criticized “Waco” for its sympathetic approach to the Branch Davidians and David Koresh himself. Although I’ve only seen the first episode, this was already evident in the way the beginning of the siege is portrayed, with Koresh helpless as ATF agents swarmed the property.
The issue with criticizing this approach, however, is that a lot of the facts and details surrounding Waco are disputed. No one, except those who were directly involved, knows the full truth on how much is to blame on the government and how much is to blame on the Branch Davidians. The episode also has a whole scene dedicated to Koresh explaining his unusual and, to some, immoral sexual practices, which may cause him to lose some of the audience’s favor.
The choices made on who could play the Davidians was interesting to me as well. The actors chosen to play Koresh and his followers were mostly young and often attractive, while the federal agents were all stern older men. Although this is a decently accurate representation of who was involved, this in itself invoked some sympathy because most audiences are going to sympathize with the pretty and young.
Overall, “Waco” captured my interest while also showing me new depictions and stories from an event I already knew a lot about. I am excited to continue watching and see what happens next.
At first, I was a little hesitant to watch the show, as I have been very interested in docuseries lately and was worried a fictionalized version of the event wouldn’t do as good as a job of telling the whole truth and would focus too much on keeping it entertaining.
Now that I have watched an episode, I am glad that the show’s creators seemed to have kept it close to the truth. I believe the story of what happened in Waco is crazy enough to make for good TV, even without embellishments.