In the current pandemic crisis, tensions are running high. This is true in a general sense as people deal with cabin fever and economic hardship, but relations are especially strained between conservative groups protesting stay-at-home orders and the government forces trying to account for the loss of life. There is a rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment based around the idea that individual freedoms hold supreme authority, not government edict. Though I did not start watching the mini-series Waco thinking of parallels between past and present, the 2018 show is strikingly relevant given current events.
Growing up in the 90’s I knew of the Waco, Texas siege and could remember bits and pieces of information I probably saw in the years after it, but it wasn’t until recently that I read about the full extent of the incident and the group at the center of the conflict. In short, a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians came to the attention of the ATF (bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) because of suspected illegal activities related to weapons. Their leader, David Koresh, painted himself as a prophetic and messianic figure leading his followers in what they believed to be the end times foretold in the Book of Revelation. Another point of concern for the ATF was that Koresh had taken multiple wives, in fact mandating that only he could have sex with the wives of those who had joined the group, and some of those wives were younger than 18.
In February of 1993, heavily armed ATF agents attempted a raid on the Branch Davidian Compound. As both the show and official reports show, it is not clear who fired first, though it may in fact have been overzealous ATF agents. Regardless, the initial shootout resulted in numerous deaths and injuries on both sides and prompted a standoff that ultimately lasted 51 days. That standoff and events leading up to it are the focus of Waco the mini-series.
What strikes me is that in just six episodes the show manages to humanize both sides of the conflict. Taylor Kitsch brings Koresh to life and immerses himself in the role. He doesn’t come off as an overtly malicious villain so much as a man who is wholly deluded and wrapped up in his own fundamentalist worldview. The part stands in contrast to many others where Kitsch may have been typecast as a pretty face. Here, he is both a manipulator of his followers and a holy beacon of hope for them. Likewise, Michael Shannon serves as his counterpart via the FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. As a person, Noesner served as a level headed foil to the more trigger happy leaders in law enforcement. Law Enforcement wanted to pursue aggressive strategies as the siege dragged on for weeks. If nothing else, he demonstrates the value of seeking common ground and engaging in genuine dialogue with your opponents. Sharp eyed viewers will also recognize Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist as Koresh’s primary wife and a grown up Rory Culkin (the little boy with asthma in Signs) as a newly arrived follower.
I won’t spoil the ending for younger viewers unfamiliar with the actual events at Waco, but it should suffice to say that not everyone makes it out; real life doesn’t always have happy endings. The numerous failures in strategy and decision making of law enforcement were the topic of controversy for many years and are still worth considering in an era when any one of millions of smart phones can capture an instance of police brutality. Having worn the badge and worked as a police officer, I can tell you that certain aspects of law enforcement’s strategies make sense in both the past and present. Some criminals will have to be met with force once their actions reach a certain level. However, Waco demonstrates in poignant fashion how any chance to de-escalate and save innocent lives should be fully exhausted before pulling a trigger.
Perhaps the most pertinent way that the series mirrors current events is the overarching question of government overreach. While Koresh no doubt should have been prevented from engaging in polygamy and brainwashing others, he raises questions that are echoed by anti-quarantine protestors today. Essentially, he proclaims, “We just want to be left alone and live our lives our own way. What right do you have to come in here and change that?” There are no easy answers then or now, but it’s a question worth considering as current events unfold. To immerse yourself in this past drama, check out Waco on Netflix today.
—Antonio Rodriguez, Blogger.
Joliet native Antonio Rodriguez is a jack of all trades, having worked in several careers since obtaining his bachelor’s degree ten years ago. An obsession with Mad Men and a love of advertising has led him to focus on studying Marketing at Lewis University, which he balances with walking his two rescue dogs. If either the zombies or machines rise up, he’s the man to find.