This Waco review contains spoilers.
Waco Episode 2
Early in episode two of Waco, “The Strangers Across the Street,” Michael Shannon’s virtuous negotiator Gary Noesner explains the paradox of power to a colleague in an effort to make a point about the HRT’s ballooned budget. Noesner explains that more force will only encourage more resistance, but his protestations fall on deaf ears. The government, as represented by Mad Men’s Christopher Stanley, is brash, boneheaded, and clearly uninterested in talking anymore.
Every aspect of the siege of Mount Carmel as shown to us by Waco is misguided. The ATF is more worried about scouting out the best angles for the news cameras with their public relations advisor than they are about solid intel coming from their man in the field. The organization, from the top down, is portrayed as trigger happy nitwits, with exception of Noesner and John Leguizamo’s undercover agent Robert Rodriguez. It’s not as if this level of incompetence didn’t occur, it’s just played broadly and unsympathetically compared to the show’s portrayal of David and the Branch Davidians.
90 minutes into the miniseries, Waco is still mostly presenting David like he’s your cuddly, cool youth pastor. The show’s effort to humanize David strays too far to the point of siding with him. It’s uncomfortable and weighs heavily on my enjoyment of the series. Never is this more distracting than in the scene when David and his inner circle discuss the laws that are being broken inside the compound. David’s marriage to a fourteen-year-old girl, and implied actions within that marriage, are seen as a slight hiccup in the Branch Davidians appearing on the up and up and not the disgusting child abuse that it is. Likewise, Thibodeau’s slight crush on Michelle (Julia Garner) is supposed to be seen as wholesome, and David is like a bad boyfriend that’s standing in the way of their relationship. It all feels so tonally off for material that should be handled more delicately.
Thankfully, a scene between Michelle and her sister Rachel (Melissa Benoist) at least tries to deal with the cruel realities of this kind of arrangement. Garner does a great job at depicting the anguish behind Michelle’s quiet and meek nature. Opposite her, Benoist instantly makes Rachel the most layered character. On the outside, Rachel is the strong second-in-command on David’s arm that truly believes in his divinity, even if she internally struggles with his methods. She stands out by not being drawn as black-and-white as the government characters.
Noesner’s storyline at least uses the overall shoddiness of the FBI to an advantage. By even inquiring about hypothetically filing an internal complaint about what went down at Ruby Ridge, Noesner gets an up close and personal look at the institutional flaws that allow incompetence to grow. It’s a real indictment on the boys club that protects one another rather than disciplines, with plenty of relevance now that the microscope has been put on excessive force trails.
Elsewhere, David’s stubborn belief that he can turn Rodriguez allows for the undercover agent to see what fine and dandy people the Branch Davidians all are. Yet again, David is portrayed as sweet and sensitive while delivering end time sermons, but his hubris is at least shown as a character flaw. It also hilariously manifests itself in the form of David playing guitar at Thibodeau and Michelle’s sham wedding. Regardless, it’s implied that Rodriguez isn’t convinced of the Branch Davidian’s evil in the way that his colleagues seem to be. It makes his attempts to stop the coming raid, tipped off to the Branch Davidians by a news crew, seem more desperate and charged with tension, a credit to Leguizamo.
Though the tone has been erratic and often inappropriate, it’s possible that the chaos of war will bring some clarity and maybe new dimensions to David and those pesky, no-good ATF agents. Waco won’t be able to coast by on just the talent of its cast alone for too much longer.