The situation gets complicated and the show gets clumsy at its halfway point.


Real life is a pretty messy thing, right? This tends to be the sticking point for most movies that attempt at representing "true stories." Life is often complicated, its sequence and structure amorphous. This doesn't really lend itself well to storytelling, which has a tendency to demand that events fit into a more rigidly-dictated form. One of the best ways to vault this hurdle is to adapt real stories into more extended, serialized formats — it's way easier to explore the complicated truths of a situation when a story is allowed to breathe and move at its own pace than it is to fit said story into the strict story beats of a screenplay.

Unsurprisingly, the miniseries (or "limited event series" as they're called these days) tends to be the preferred format for telling true stories in the current era of prestige television. Ryan Murphy has applied the "anthology season" format he perfected with American Horror Story to this idea, and American Crime Story dedicates each new iteration to a different true crime event. Trust is the upcoming Danny Boyle-directed miniseries exploring the John Paul Getty III kidnapping. The last year saw National Geographic run Manhunt: Unabomber, a star-powered miniseries about exactly what it sounds like it's about, while NBC ran a new, anthologized version of one of its most popular properties called Law & Order True Crime, covering the Menendez Murders. It's the best way to really get to the bottom of every complicated detail contained within cases that captured the nation's imagination when they went down, which is why Waco's clumsy handling of its source material gets so frustrating.

The end of "Operation Showtime" marks the mid-point of the miniseries' six-episode run, and it's getting increasingly difficult not to feel like the show is intentionally portraying the Branch Davidians as the "good guys." The previous episode ended with the raid beginning despite Jacob's warnings that everyone in the compound knew the ATF was coming, and this third episode takes us through the operation that gives it its title, before exploring its immediate fallout. Barking dogs set off an ATF agent's itchy trigger finger, and the resulting gunfight is an extended and harrowing setpiece that basically sees the ATF lighting Branch Davidians up real good, killing women and children indiscriminately as they persecuted flock simply tries to hold its ground.

The real life Waco Siege was definitely a complicated affair, and conflicting accounts exist as to who actually fired those first shots. Waco alleges without hesitation that the ATF was responsible for starting the firefight, and unmistakably portrays the Branch Davidians as acting in self-defense (albeit doing so with a cache of highly illegal weapons, kept in the compound alongside many other weapons that were legally owned and came with proper permits, to be sold at gun shows). The two-hour shootout that begins the multi-week Waco siege is appropriately harrowing, bullets ripping through windows and walls as a militarized police force just opens fire indiscriminately on the Mount Caramel Compound.

Early negotiations are rocky, and the powers that be are immediately in disagreement as to how things should be handled. Noesner and Rogers show up to the scene and are immediately told that the local FBI boss doesn't give a shit about their opinions. It's telling that the hyper-masculine Rogers responds to this bit of professional emasculation by simply finding the nearest person below him on the totem pole (in this case it's ATF commander Edward Wiggins) and telling him to fuck off, the FBI is taking over. Problematic is the way the ATF is being portrayed as nakedly evil, though their actions during much of the Waco siege were questionable at best. In a post-standoff press conference, Wiggins — speaking on behalf of the ATF and FBI — describe Jacob as having not only given his superiors bad information, but as having been compromised by the Davidians to boot. He's understandably furious at being burned by the organization to which he gave more than a decade of his life, and literally nobody in the room gives a shit.

Now, let's be clear — the FBI and the ATF were all kinds of wrong during large parts of the Waco siege. The truth is murky, but it's relatively clear that the siege began on what can be considered trump-up charges that did, in fact, turn out to be retroactively true (the ATF wasn't concretely sure that the Davidians were stockpiling illegal automatic weapons until the standoff started and said weapons were actually put to use).

What isn't fully explored (at least not yet; there are still three episodes left) is the number of allegations that minors were being sexually exploited and abused within the compound and as part of Koresh's ministry. Waco has definitely shown us that Koresh is an egomaniac who claims sexual ownership of every woman in the compound, but hasn't gone into the fact that he was routinely marrying (and impregnating) children as young as 12 and 14 years old. There's no question that Koresh and his followers were operating under their own set of rules, and that serious transgressions were taking place (if the gun laws don't bother you, then the sexual abuse of minors maybe will), so the real question left is whether or not the ATF and FBI were justified in their insistence of using exceedingly aggressive and militaristic tactics against a group of people who, for all intents and purposes, were acting of their own free will. (These will undoubtedly be portrayed in weeks to come.)

The moral compass required to navigate the sticky situations involved in the Waco siege is a tough one to get to stay still; for every fucked-up thing one side did, the other did something equally, if not more fucked-up in response. At this point, I'm wondering why Waco's approach the material is so troublingly lopsided. It's my genuine hope that the remaining three episodes will delve more deeply into Koresh's moral failings and hypocrisy (even the most cursory glance at his history both within and without the religious group reveals a truly dangerous individual), because so far the show's painting a villain as a victim.

 

Oh, and also...

  • I do like that this episode sets David up as being hopeful that the world will be receptive to his message, and his decision to wait instead of surrendering as being motivated by the fact that his hour-long audiotape was largely mocked.
  • That's some next-level shade Mrs. Tibbs tossed to Koresh's mother at the press conference.
  • Apparently the videotape of the standoff's start wasn't the only thing to "go missing" as part of the siege: one of the building's front doors — which would have proven that bullets were fired into the compound instead of out of it — was apparently also never able to be found.

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