Can anything new be said about the 1993 Branch Davidian raid, 51-day siege and lethal fire that hasn’t been said, reported or blogged about in 25 years?
More specifically, does the six-part miniseries “Waco,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on the Paramount Network (formerly Spike TV), add anything?
Well, yes, a little, judging from the first three episodes available for critics’ screening. Co-writers, co-producers and brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle borrow heavily from two books — Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau’s “A Place Called Waco” and FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner’s “Stalling For Time” — but it’s the series’ visual and interpersonal recreations that provide some new details, or at least viewpoints, to a sprawling, complicated and malleable story.
It’s clear the interaction between Noesner (Michael Shannon) and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) forms the dramatic crux of “Waco” from the opening scenes, which weaves scenes from the beginning of ATF’s raid of the Branch Davidian building complex, or compound, with an account of the federal standoff at Randy Weaver’s home near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that killed three a year earlier.
Koresh is the central character in the months leading up to the Feb. 28 raid while the Ruby Ridge storyline foreshadows Noesner’s difficulties within the FBI in handling potentially violent confrontations through negotiation and not force. (Spoiler alert: Force beats talk and time, as the April 19 fire showed.)
The Koresh-FBI confrontation and its corresponding government vs. guns theme, as spun by many in the aftermath of the siege and fire, hangs over “Waco” as it proceeds, but glimpses of life at the Branch Davidian compound, told largely through Thibodeau’s point of view (played by Rory Culkin), hint at a darker side.
There’s Koresh’s regular teaching sessions with his assembled followers, some of which feature public shaming and discipline, some physical, for members or children breaking Koresh’s rules. There’s the tension between loyal Davidians Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) and his wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough), when she becomes pregnant with Koresh’s child after his teaching that he was entitled to the Davidians’ wives.
Thibodeau, a local musician who becomes a follower after meeting Koresh after a gig, finds himself wed to Koresh’s young wife Michelle Jones (Julia Garner) — Rachel’s sister — to provide the leader cover if state child welfare officials should ask any questions. Thibodeau and his bride never have a wedding night as Koresh intervenes, reminding them that he’s the only male allowed in the women’s rooms on the second floor.
There’s also friction between Koresh’s first and lead wife Rachel (Melissa Benoist) and other wives whom she considers subordinate and Branch Davidian Wayne Martin (Demore Barnes), a practicing McLennan County attorney, also is featured.
By including such stories of individual Branch Davidians, “Waco” provides a needed dimension for those who have seen them as little more than faceless followers.
There’s less suggestion on the ATF side of things, with the raid painted as an intentional public relations effort to foil possible congressional budget cuts after Ruby Ridge. Undercover agent Jacob Vasquez (John Leguizamo) shows the federals’ bumbling when he moves into a nearby house for surveillance purposes, but with a lame cover story that he was a rancher. Davidian suspicions grow greater when Vasquez packs a gun when attending the Davidian wedding.
It’s interesting that while Koresh, Noesner and the Davidians go by their real names, many of the ATF and FBI agents involved are given fictitious names in the series. The show’s agent Vasquez, for instance, is modeled on real-life agent Robert Rodriguez.
The series’ third episode features the climatic raid, and “Waco” offers a heightened sense of the scale and duration of that battle, with interior views of Davidians firing from windows, women and children seeking shelter and the scores of men involved on both sides.
The final three episodes will cover the 51-day siege and fire — the Dowdles wrote episodes 1, 2 and the finale — and other characters expected to play larger parts in upcoming episodes include Camryn Manheim as Thibodeau’s mother Balenda and Eric Lange as radio talk host Ron Engelman.
As the drama’s central character, Kitsch is a plausible Koresh, friendly and persuasive at times, mercurial and angry at others. Shannon, whose on-screen time will increase as the siege progresses, adds a steady gravity as the FBI official counseling common sense and patience.
“Waco” largely succeeds at what it aims to dramatize, but those picky about the details will have their share. Mount Carmel is planted in a bare high plains — the miniseries was filmed in New Mexico — rather than terrain that looks more like Central Texas. The actual raid took place on a wet, overcast morning, not a bright, clear day. There’s little mention of the struggle for power within the Branch Davidians years earlier that saw Koresh, then known by his given name Vernon Howell, take charge and direct his followers on a new path.
Local law enforcement and Waco Tribune-Herald reporters are largely invisible, though both had interactions with Branch Davidians past and present in the months preceding the raid. Then McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell (Ralph Alderman) does appears at the time of the raid, however, sporting a Wilford Brimley-esque moustache.
Many in the city of Waco have long complained of the injustice of having the city’s name indelibly attached to a tragedy that took place outside the city and “Waco” ironically gives them that wish: Waco the city has a scant presence (in the first three episodes, at least) even though many Branch Davidians worked at jobs and had friends there.
There’s a curious absence of actual Scripture quoted by Koresh in his teaching sessions, replaced by a more general religiosity — a small thing, but it was Koresh’s command of the Bible that persuaded many Davidians of his religious authority. Softened, too, is the verbal abuse that some survivors and then-children recall, the number of children at Mount Carmel (more than two dozen) and the youth of Koresh’s youngest brides, some no more than teenagers.
Small points, to be sure, but in a world where what is seen is interpreted as reality, it’s worth pointing out that “Waco” is a dramatization, not a documentary.