This Waco review contains spoilers.
Waco Episode 3
Who shot first?
No, I’m not talking about Han and Greedo; I’m addressing the question of who shot first on February 28, 1993 at Mount Carmel. In court testimonies, ATF agents swore that the Branch Davidians fired first, however, one ATF agent told an investigator that the ATF may have taken the first shot when a dog was killed outside the compound at the beginning of the raid. The agent later retracted that statement, yet in the early moments of “Operation Showtime,” an ATF agent is shown doing just that, commencing a full-on assault on the Mount Carmel compound and the Branch Davidians.
Undoubtedly, the events that transpired at Mount Carmel over the course of the ATF’s 51-day raid consisted of many lapses of judgement and momentously poor decision making. It’s well known that an agent warned the ATF that the Branch Davidians were aware of a coming raid, shown here with John Leguizamo’s character, and that the ATF persisted anyway due to the time and resources that were already spent on planning the operation. The government royally messed up. Still, the depiction of the ATF and FBI top brass as power hungry, incompetent assholes versus the saintly, law-abiding David Koresh and friends is lacking shading in a way that feels disrespectful to the actual nuances of this conflict.
The only thing that feels accurate and fair to both sides is the carnage that’s depicted in both camps as the situation turns violent. The gun fight is exhilarating and disorienting, in ways intended and not. We’re meant to feel the terror of the people trapped within the compound as bullets rip through the walls, but since the layout of Mount Carmel hasn’t been made clear, it’s hard to understand where things are happening and where the characters are in relation to each other. It’s a problem that could have been fixed with more tracking shots through the halls of Mount Carmel, but the series really lacks a distinct visual style.
In the ensuing chaos, David is shot, and the minute that he’s made vulnerable is the minute that the character becomes more interesting. Taylor Kitsch is doing incredible work with what he’s been given, particularly shining in David’s desperate goodbye call to his mother. However, since the series never even hints that David may be the charlatan or con artist that the media painted him to be, he’s robbed of an extra layer.
It’s hard not to wonder what the series would look like had it decided to push characters like David to the background and use someone like Michele as a POV character. Seen here grieving over her father’s eventual demise at the hands of the ATF, the pain and confusion she’s dealing with feel more dramatic and human and the writers would be able to center her as a true innocent without having to deal with the messy sordid details that they glaringly glide over with David.
I feel the same way about switching out Gary for Robert. I’ve already grown bored of watching noble Gary get disappointed when he meets another shortsighted and meat-headed high-ranking officer and instead feel more attached to Robert, who’s thrown under the bus swiftly after providing useful information that was flat-out ignored. Robert wants desperately to go back in to Mount Carmel to help deescalate the situation, especially since he’s come to see the Branch Davidians as real people.
Rachel Koresh continues to be compelling as well, as we see her visibly struggling to submit to David’s orders while still begrudgingly following his lead, all while her father lays dying. David brokers a deal with Gary to broadcast a message on live TV and then he’ll lead the Branch Davidians out of the compound. Rachel tries to get David to think of what the next steps would be should they be arrested, but David won’t hear any of it. If the series won’t hint at David being aware that he’s full of shit, they at least get more mileage out of the character by making him difficult to deal with, like when he’s berating the surviving compound members for not mourning their fallen brothers and sisters properly.
David’s message goes out as planned, but he bristles when the media belittles his broadcast. Kitsch plays David’s hurt here perfectly, finally letting David’s hubris peek through properly. Once again, using real archival footage is a great touch, as is expertly recreating the footage of the ATF fleeing the top story of the compound. David gets back on the phone to defiantly tell Gary that the Branch Davidians will not be coming out. The phone calls between David and Gary are some of the best stuff that the series has brought us yet, so I’m excited to see more of their conversations unfold.
Waco may be able to supply compelling scenes and thought-provoking characters occasionally, but it still feels too elementary and high-level overall. But with David wounded and more paranoid, perhaps diving further into the darkness will allow the show to present a less black and white look at one of America’s most multi-faceted tragedies.