Waco: “Of Milk and Men” Episode Review

Episode 4 of Paramount’s six-part miniseries Waco has us deep into the siege. The ATF has withdrawn leadership, and the FBI has brought in a Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and negotiators. The relationships among Koresh, his right-hand man, Steve Schneider—adeptly portrayed by actor Paul Sparks (House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire)—and FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner have evolved over time as events escalate, but the main dynamic highlighted in “Of Milk and Men” is the one between Noesner and HRT command.

Before I get to the episode review, I want to return to the original source material for a bit: David Thibodeau’s memoir, Waco: A Survivor’s Story. Thibodeau sort of glosses over some of the events that take place in Episode 4—such as the milk delivery incident—but he does bring up some points about both the definition of a cult and what is legally considered a hostage barricade situation. He and his coauthor, Leon Whiteson, conducted meticulous research—all cited within the book—to support many of the claims Thibodeau makes throughout. In fact, the show seems to rely heavily on these primary sources, as well as Thibodeau and Noesner’s accounts, to piece together a balanced view of the siege at Mount Carmel.

Thibodeau quotes Assistant Attorney General Edward Dennis:

“Indeed, the ‘negotiations’ are characterized as ‘communicating’ with Koresh or ‘talking’ to Koresh because the Davidian situation lacked so many of the elements typically present in hostage barricade situations. Koresh made no threats, set no deadlines and made no demands.”

This is from a footnote in Dennis's formal evaluation of the operation. If this wasn’t a hostage situation, why did the FBI send a hostage unit? Why did they need hostage negotiators? Why were they even there at all? Thibodeau, and the show, consistently portrays the Davidians as a largely peaceful religious group, and his claim is that of religious persecution—making comparisons to other origin stories for religions that are now widely accepted.

Another anecdote from Thibodeau’s memoir that receives airtime in Episode 4 is Professor James T. Richardson’s commentary on the meaning of “cult” in the eyes of modern society and how that meaning allowed such extreme measures to be taken against Koresh and his followers. At the time of the memoir’s writing, Richardson was a professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada-Reno and an expert on new religions. Richardson, as quoted by Thibodeau:

“The dehumanization of those inside Mt. Carmel, coupled with the thoroughgoing demonization of Koresh, made it easier for those in authority to develop tactics that seemed organized for disaster.”

What Thibodeau and Noesner’s memoirs do—along with this new TV show—is bring viewers inside the compound as never before, putting faces and personalities to the victims at Mount Carmel and giving them their humanity back. Think about how most modern religions began for a minute—persecution and bloody sacrifices are present in nearly all of those origin stories. Why? Because they weren’t mainstream. This doesn’t excuse the crimes Koresh perpetrated, but it does beg the question: Why did they need this much tactical force when they had almost no physical evidence of a crime at the time of the siege?

Speaking of tactical force, Noesner’s point of view in the show pulls directly from Noesner’s memoir, Stalling for Time. Some moments are changed for dramatic effect, such as the downplay of Koresh’s decision to send almost 35 people out of the compound over several days, but the spirit of Noesner’s point of view is pretty accurately preserved.

After the siege was over, official reviews and hearings uncovered what both Noesner and Thibodeau described as serious communication problems between the hostage negotiators and the tactical commanders at the front lines. Institutionally, Noesner says that in the early life of negotiation as a strategy in hostage situations, negotiators were seen as weak and pandering to criminals. Show of force was often preferred. Treat criminals like criminals, they seemed to think.

Thibodeau and the other Davidians noticed the conflict between the negotiators who were saying one thing on the phone and the show of force by the FBI’s HRT command just outside the compound. To make matters worse, the negotiators weren’t even allowed direct access to HRT command and were too far away from the action to even coordinate their strategies properly. This failure to communicate exacerbated the trust issues that Koresh and his followers already had regarding the government and, as the show and the books posit, caused the Davidians to entrench themselves even further inside their compound.

Eventually, no more Davidians left the compound after those initial 35 gave themselves up. Parents feared for the safety of their children with tanks looming on their doorstep. Why would they trust people who shot at them and disregarded the innocent women and children? The warrant was not for all 100+ residents of the compound. It was for a select few, namely Koresh.

The latest episode of Waco covers a lot of ground. Next time, we’ll talk about Steve Schneider’s story and how that plays out onscreen, as our coverage of the show continues.

See also: Waco: “Operation Showdown” 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.


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