WACO Review: Episode Three (“Operation Showtime”)

In which the Paramount Network explores state sanctioned violence against its own, and THE LAWNMOWER MAN.

You'd probably never peg David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) as being a gigantic fan of The Lawnmower Man - Brett Leonard's '92 virtual reality freak out that shares a name (plus some plot points / in-jokes) with the Stephen King short story of the same name - but somehow an early reference to the B-Movie goof in Waco gives way to a full-blown monologue about the film a few hours later. Roughly a day after Mount Carmel has been hit by "Operation Showtime" - an invasive maneuver masterminded by the ATF – David’s on the phone with FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) spouting off about how the movie's really about a "a simple man who changed the world." The central figure from that story (named Jobe) transcended outsiders’ perception of him as a mentally handicapped gardener and altered the entire universe in the process. It's a totally bizarre, period specific reference that doesn't entirely work in the moment, but is admirable as a broad, hyper-nerdy, central metaphor for the entire series’ intent. 

Because what Waco - and many of its American Crime Story-style ilk - seem to want to deliver to audiences is a peek behind the curtain regarding tragedies that near ubiquitously penetrated the popular consciousness - The OJ Simpson Trial, Gianni Versace's murder, Tonya Harding’s conspiracy against Nancy Kerrigan - and use them as a springboard to dissect the sociopolitical elements involved with each event. The People v. OJ Simpson is as much about race and fame in America as it is the too soon deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The Assassination Of Gianni Versace deals with the politics of being gay in the United States along with the killing of a fashion icon during a disturbed and panicked man's spree shooting. I, Tonya - which often feels like a big screen iteration of ACS - tackles the abuse of women by both men and society at large. To wit, it isn't about the facts we already know, but questioning the truths behind them. 

Waco now joins those ranks, transforming the tale of Branch Davidian cult leader Koresh's 51-day stand-off with the ATF and FBI into an exploration of the militarization of the United States' investigative forces. As the third hour - titled for the ATF operation we witness - unfolds, the Paramount Network (along with creators Drew and John Erick Dowdle) is asking us to distrust the narrative we've already been sold by newspapers and broadcasts. Because it's not Koresh waging war against America, but the ATF who fired first - scared by one of the property's dogs, their bullets go into the beast and then signal their flak jacketed comrades to fire upon the compound. Bullets smash through glass and tear into the plaster siding of the cult members' home. David is one of the first shot, alongside confidant Perry Jones (Andy Umberger), who's also father to Koresh's youngest wife, Michelle (Julia Garner). Several others are killed and wounded on both sides of man's law, leading to a stalemate and an overwhelming sense of fear and tension. 

It's everything that Noesner wanted to avoid, and exactly what ATF Agent Robert Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) was trying to warn his superiors about, moments before the bloody gun blaze began. The Branch knew the ATF were coming - having suspected Robert and the rest of his crew were set up in the house across the road from Mount Carmel - but they weren't arming up, as "Operation Showtime" commander Chuck Sarabyn (Christopher Stanley) tries to claim they were after the fact. In reality, David was attempting to win Robert over by inviting him into his family, and offering to show him the light of the Lord. There was no hostility, even when they discovered that Agent Rodriguez had brought a gun into their home. They simply disarmed him, and warned him to never bring the firearm on the grounds again. The next day, he was allowed right back with open arms. All was forgiven by those who trusted in God’s mercy, as that was the way David wanted the Branch to exist.

That's because Waco isn't necessarily interested in representing David Koresh, the Branch Davidian cult, or any of those looking to end the stand-off peacefully as anything but acutely human, right down to the hubris that led Koresh to believe that the government would eventually accept his "message". However, those who organized the siege in Waco are put under the microscope, having staged it from the get go as a means to counteract the bad publicity they'd received from the fatal shootings the government perpetrated when negotiations at Ruby Ridge went south. Robert is thrown to the wolves in the first public relaying of "facts" to the news media, as the ATF and FBI state they had no idea upon approaching the Mount Carmel compound that the Davidians knew they were coming.

In the end, David truly isn’t too different from Jobe in The Lawnmower Man - an individual who’d achieved an elevated sense of purpose, but was then taken down by others fearful of the power he seemed to be amassing. A silly comparison, but certainly not an untruthful one.