...and here we go.
Given that the Waco miniseries is only six episodes long and that the real-life siege lasted for nearly two entire months, it's not much of a surprise that things are about to kick off by the third episode's opening. What is surprising, though, is the path that leads to the iconic standoff, and the choices made therein. The time we spend with the Davidians is understandable; it's important we understand them and their point of view throughout the course of events. Time spent with Rogers and Noesner also makes sense, as their differing personal philosophies regarding law enforcement in general and hostage negotiation in specific make up the show's political and thematic interrogations. The problem lies in the machinations that surround them, and by the end of the second episode, it starts to seem like all that time spent with Noesner and Rogers at Ruby Ridge might have been better-served if we had spent it with those same characters, but in a situation that gave a bit more depth and context into the ATF's motivations, as opposed to something that largely functions as an action sequence.
Ruby Ridge certainly sets the stage for the ATF's hungry jump at the Davidians and their Mount Carmel compound, but it's justified with literally one scene wherein some ATF brass figures they can "remind congress" how much they're needed if they pull off some kind of big win. It just so happens that there have been some gun-related whisperings surrounding Koresh and his followers, so there it is. It's clear that the show wants its audience to understand that the ATF is insisting to itself that the guns are definitely there, and is ramping up the siege without any concrete evidence that would actually make it justified. The raid preparation even involves a woman who dresses like a realtor and is in charge of making sure cameras are in position to photograph ATF agents rescuing children who are supposedly in peril and bringing out guns that are supposedly illegal.
Beyond "hurting after Ruby Ridge and thirsty for a win," though, the ATF agents in charge of kicking down Koresh's doors don't have a whole lot of developed motivation, and the result renders the government as mustache-twirlingly evil. I don't think this is the actual intent, because I don't think Waco is asking us to side with a dude who has sex with minors and bangs all his best friends' wives.
Koresh is very clearly a manipulator, and a lot of the best writing to be found in Waco comes from spending time with the Branch Davidians. ATF agent Jacob Vasquez (John Leguizamo) is tasked with infiltrating the compound and getting eyes on all those illegal guns, and Koresh's attempts to "turn him" are nakedly presented as such. He's unmistakably manipulating Jacob, and it's clear that his relationship with his congregation is founded his need for sexual and social power. Melissa Benoist's Rachel is a manipulative true believe right there along with her husband, but literal sister wife Michelle (The Americans' Julia Garner) is clearly not stoked about living a life sans agency. The dynamics within the Davidian compound are well-developed, and the characters are thoughtfully portrayed, despite being fundamentally and unmistakably wrong in the morality of their actions.
So it's a real fucking problem when the show manages to make the government into gun-licking militaristic crazies, with Michael Shannon's Gary Noesner throwing up his hands in constant frustration at being the literal last good person left in the entire organization. It was probably going to go in this review, but the script for "The Strangers Across the Street" actually has Rogers call Noesner a "Boy Scout," and roll out the old "you're no better than me" cherry. Developing the complicated nature of a law enforcement agency and the various forces at play within it is crucial to making the Waco narrative something more than the good vs. bad narrative, and it's clear that this objective was important to the writing staff...and this is exactly why it's such a problem when all the writing that surrounds the ATF and FBI completely whiff this approach.
The story of the Waco Siege is a complicated one, and Waco is leaving too many questions on the table. Who's the ATF's source? (Is there even one? They were sure that the illegal guns would be stored in that upstairs bedroom, but they were nowhere near that location.) How did that "Sinful Messiah" article get written? It seems to have simply appeared out of thin air. Why do the Branch Davidians have those guns? (It's so they can sell them at gun shows — not illegally — but this is only given a line or two of dialogue in the premiere.) Waco seems to have noble intentions in the way it wants to explore its complicated subject matter, but to truly do so is going to require a bit more precision.
Oh, and also...
- Kitsch really steps into the role in this episode. Bravo, man.
- Kinda bummed that Michael Shannon didn't get more to do this episode, and even more bummed that some of what he did get to do involved him telling a sad exposition-dump story to his wife at the end of the day. Weak.
- Speaking of which, Shea Whigham had better do something real awesome real quick here, because this use of The Whig is absolutely not cutting it.