3 out of 5
Developed by: John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle
Some really amazing performances and a mostly well-balanced presentation get stuck behind a usual struggle for docudramas – juggling required factual touchpoints with the need to adhere to some structural beginning-middle-end tenets – and also a growing tonal question mark of what we’re meant to do with this info.
‘Waco’ is the Dowdle brothers’ representation of the events in Waco, Texas, and the David Koresh-led compound of Branch Davidian followers during a 50+ day standoff with ATF and FBI agents over a cache of illegal firearms. We get some preceding events in an opening episode – Ruby Ridge, a black mark for the ATF, encouraging what’s depicted as an over-zealous assault on Koresh’s Mount Carmel homestead – and then otherwise track the buildup of events over the next five episodes, laying out all the tactics used to smoke the Branch Davidians out of the compound, leading up to a final disbursement of tear gas and a simultaneous / resultant fire which would take the lives of many (directly or indirectly) of the followers, including most of the children.
We’ll note that the Dowdles attribute their story to two books: one by Waco survivor and Branch Davidian David Thibodeau, and one by FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, both who figure prominently in the story – Thibodeau played by Rory Culkin, Nosener by Michael Shannon – and both who are credited as consultants. While I’m in no doubt of their individual recollections, and that the Dowdles were careful in choosing what made it to screen, yes: both of these real-life figures come out very favorably. This is the nature of these kinds of true-life tales, especially when the participants are directly involved, and also part of the “required” homogenizing of these things: we want heroes and villains, and so these two get good arcs, and some other FBI and ATF types are cast nearly as mustache twirling villains, Shea Wigham – setting aside that he’s really good at that – getting the most direct “bad guy” treatment, as a kill-happy FBI agent. This is part of what makes Waco a bit tough to parse at points: it begins with what feels like a fairly balanced assessment of the state of things, and of Koresh and the Branch Davidians, but once we get into the meat of the assault, it has to tread water a bit, and more clearly draw lines for us to cheer and root around.
At the same time, the Dowdles try to remain somewhat reserved, falling back on facts, and only pointing out what we “know” occurred, leaving the series on a somewhat flat note – critical of those knowns (that we can be sure that how things went down is not exactly as reported, and that it did not need to go down as violently as it did), but also stepping away from analyzing them too much. This ends up leaving a lot on the table: late-in-the-game explorations of Koresh’s and Thibodeau’s backgrounds suggest another angle the show could have taken, though it’s understandable that 6 episodes would’ve been tough for balancing that. And then there’s the questionable portrayal of Koresh: Taylor Kitsch is amazing in this role, wholly embodying the part of a very enigmatic leader, and convincing us how someone who might only casually be a believer (e.g. Thibodeau) would fall in line; and I think the script is actually very smart in how it cagily dances around Koresh’s child brides and polygamy, laying it out there for us to hear about it, but not sensationalizing it. But, again, when we turn the corner and this becomes more of a play-by-play versus a psychological deep dive, it feels like that careful hand is more so we don’t have to take the time to delve into it too much. Melissa Benoist, Julia Garner, John Leguizamo, and Paul Sparks are all added to the list of actors who do phenomenal jobs with relatively bit parts, when more focus on those bits could’ve opened up the series a whole lot more…
Still, it’s an undeniably fascinating (and terrifying, and terrible) story, perhaps especially if you recall only what you saw on the news at the time – that’s me – and can now consider the real humans caught up in the mess, who are really engrossingly depicted on screen, if the needs of fictionalizing facts into bite-sized episodes ultimately undermines the story’s impact.