April 19, 1993, is a date that Americans can’t afford to forget, as the new TV series, Waco, from Paramount Network so eloquently shows. The show is hard to watch, honestly, but we can’t look away. Michael Shannon as Gary Noesner and Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh have done an amazing job at really digging into their characters, portraying the humanity that often gets lost in the reporting of tragic events involving cults and controversial actions taken by police.
The show has definitely taken a stance on the side of the victims here, as the ending shows a heavy hand on statistics about deaths involving tear gas and fires. But I’m definitely getting ahead of myself here. Break out the tissues, folks. We know how this siege ended 25 years ago, but the absolute tragedy of it all is in no way diminished by time.
Seventy-four Brand Davidians died that day. Twenty-one of them were children. Waco makes the case that this tragedy could have been avoided, and it’s the critical errors in judgment and a breakdown in communication among law enforcement personnel that ultimately resulted in the extreme and unnecessary loss of life that day. All we are left with is why?
The show assumes that police bravado and an effort to try to make up for past mistakes—especially at Ruby Ridge, which cast them in a bad light—caused the lead agents on the scene at Mount Carmel to use more force than was strictly necessary. And Koresh is portrayed as a religious zealot incapable of seeing reason and placing too much responsibility on God and not on himself. The real tragedy lies in between these two immovable forces. Both Koresh and the FBI had the lives of innocent people on their hands, and both failed them spectacularly.
The final episode takes us through the last 11 days of the siege. Koresh and his right-hand man, Steve Schneider, are clashing right up until the end, and we’re left wondering why Steve stayed in the face of certain death. Why did he follow David so closely? We can only speculate now. Thibadeau, despite being a close friend of Koresh’s, was never as sold on the idea of dying for Koresh’s cause. It’s made clear in earlier episodes that he sticks it out to take care of his wife, Michelle, and her daughter, Serenity. When all hope is lost, he’s got nothing left to do but save himself.
Noesner is perhaps the agent closest to Koresh, and his dismissal from the case causes the Davidians to lose their only advocate on the opposing team. Watching Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Noesner’s devastation at the loss is heartbreaking, though, perhaps not nearly as heartbreaking as watching Mitch Decker (portrayed by the brilliant Shea Wiggins) scramble and fail to save the lives of Davidians suffocating within the compound.
One of the moments that really stuck with me was how fiercely and compassionately conservative radio personality Ron Engelman (Eric Lange) advocated for Koresh and his followers—something Koresh took as a sign from God that it was time to leave the compound. Noesner, by this account, was on track to get everyone out of the compound safely as a result of this outside force, but the pressure from his more militant-minded superiors got the better of him. One is left wondering: if he’d been allowed to play out his role, would things have turned out differently?
We’ve had 25 years to speculate about David Koresh and his followers. We could very likely spend another 25 years trying to figure it out without getting anywhere. But that’s not really the point of Waco. The point is the need to see the human aspect of the story. We need to remember the innocent people caught in between religion and law. And we need to think about the lasting effects this tragedy has had on our culture from Heavens Gate to the Oklahoma City bombing to how law enforcement officers withstand the intense scrutiny for each decision they make—for good or for ill.
We are all human, after all. And perhaps taking a closer look at the forces at play in these tragic events can make us a little better at handling the next ones—and make us a little better at considering empathy in face of beliefs we don’t understand.
See also: Waco: “Stalling for Time” Episode Review
Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.