'Waco' (2018) Review / Ivana Brehas
Six-part television series Waco is a clear-eyed adaptation of true events with a genuine emotional investment in the people whose stories are being told.
“Standoff, tear gas, fire, death.” This is the pattern identified by radio host Ron Engelman (Eric Lange) in Waco, a new six-part miniseries by Drew and John Erick Dowdle. In this scene, Ron is talking about events that happened in the ‘90s, identifying a pattern that stretches back to 1973. It’s not a pattern we should still be familiar with today. But in 2014, police used tear gas against peaceful protesters in Ferguson. In 2016, police used tear gas against activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. This week, police used tear gas against teenagers who were trying to escape the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (not a one-time occurrence for Don Dale, with police tear-gassing six detainees in 2014, five of whom were locked in their cells at the time). Any one of these could have resulted in fire; any one of these could have resulted in death.
The events of Waco take place in 1993, the year the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed — a treaty that prohibits the use of tear gas in warfare, but allows for its use in riot control. It is paradoxically framed as a ‘humane’ means of pacifying civilians, hence the continued justification of its use against nonviolent protesters. But the reality of tear gas and its effects are far from humane, as author Anna Feigenbaum notes: “Tear gas was … originally sold as a chemical weapon that would leave people in screaming pain. It was originally sold as “better than bullets” because it would deteriorate the spirit of any kind of collective uprising.” By 1993, the destructive effects of tear gas had already been observed and recorded for decades: “The FBI knows this happens”, Ron says, but they use it anyway.
The people attacked in Waco, however, are not activists or protesters. They are cult members. Based on real events, Waco recounts the U.S. government’s 1993 siege-turned-standoff against the Branch Davidians — a religious cult in Waco, Texas — that lasted for a gruelling 51 days. The Branch Davidians live inside a compound run by cult leader David Koresh (played by Taylor Kitsch, in a stunning turn), and are suspected by the ATF of stockpiling illegal weapons. When the ATF’s attempted raid on the compound fails, erupting into a gun battle, the FBI is brought in — but the situation only continues to deteriorate. Much of the burden of mediation is placed on level-headed FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), who strives to keep the peace between the Branch Davidians and his reactive, combative fellow agents. As history shows us, his efforts are valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful. Produced by Shannon and Kitsch, Waco is based on not one, but two books — Noesner’s perspective on the tragedy, and that of survivor and former Branch Davidian David Thibodeau (played in the series by Rory Culkin). By drawing on accounts from parties on both sides of the standoff, Waco provides a balanced perspective on the 1993 tragedy.
Indeed, Waco's ability to render our sympathies murky — particularly around the cult — is one of its greatest strengths. By the very fact of being cult members, the Branch Davidians’ humanity is called into question by much of the FBI and ATF. Cult members are often portrayed as homogenous groups of ‘sheep’, contributing to deeply ingrained preconceptions. Viewers, too, may initially approach them from a place of intellectual superiority — how could they fall for that? — but Waco’s empathetic and respectful characterization of the Branch Davidians paints a more truthful portrait: cult members as complex and intelligent adults with discrete identities; vulnerable people who have been preyed upon, emotionally manipulated, and abused. Waco is critical of Koresh, explicitly noting that he is guilty of statutory rape, and using Thibodeau’s perspective to expose Koresh’s manipulation of the Branch Davidians. But, while acknowledging Koresh’s guilt, Waco also recognizes the innocence of many Branch Davidians, and lays bare their abuse at the hands of the U.S. government. As the standoff drags on, the FBI subject the Branch Davidians to increasingly inhumane tactics, including psychological torture, under the guise of hastening a resolution. Like audiences of ancient Greek tragedy, we watch helplessly — knowing how events will unfold, unable to stop them. Only Noesner recognizes the FBI’s hubris, speaking prophetically of the consequences of their increasing militarization: “I see the direction the Bureau's heading in, and I don't like it… the more firepower you get, the less chance I get to solve things peacefully.” The chronically ignored Noesner becomes a cipher for the audience — dreading, impotent, outraged.
Waco’s harrowing story highlights the need that was present in 1993 for better communication and de-escalation skills amongst law enforcement, but also hums with a sickly extra-textual recognition that these issues remain unaddressed today. The disquieting familiarity of tactics like tear gas gives the series contemporary resonance, calling our attention to the distinct lack of change in a historical pattern — standoff, tear gas, fire, death. In doing so, Waco performs the same function as Ron Engelman’s cataloguing of past atrocities: this, it reminds us, is nothing new.
Waco premieres on SBS on the 15th of November and is currently available to stream via SBS on Demand.
Image: ‘Waco TX - Day 51, April 19, 1993’ - archive.org