WACO Review: Episode Five (“Stalling For Time”)

Nobody trusts anyone, and they're all very tired.

One of the two main sources for the Paramount Network's Limited Event Series Waco is Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Neosner (portrayed by Executive Producer Michael Shannon). In it, Noesner details the numerous peaceful attempts he made to try and get David Koresh (who’s played by fellow EP, Taylor Kitsch) and the rest of the Branch Davidian cult out of their Mount Carmel Compound in Waco, Texas. Meanwhile, Noesner is met with resistance from both his superior Tony Prince (Glenn Fleshler), and the militarized Hostage Rescue Team head Richard Rogers (Shea Whigham). Prince and Rogers want to bulldoze their way into the compound, while Noesner is hoping for a non-violent solution to the stand-off. It's this conflict of viewpoints and breakdown in overall communication that resulted in eventual disaster, claiming the lives of over eighty of the Branch’s members. 

So, it's only natural that one of Waco's episodes is titled "Stalling For Time"; picking up on Day Nine of the siege, when everyone is just tired and wants to go home. The FBI have cut the power in the Mount Carmel Center, and even tanks dot the perimeter. Koresh's right-hand man Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) is again on the phone with the negotiator in the wounded leader’s absence, pleading with Gary to turn the juice back on. After all, what good is the milk the FBI delivered for the Davidians' children if it spoils, thanks to a lack of refrigeration? Yet Prince isn't having any of it, stating that he's done waiting for a man who says he's looking for a "sign from God" regarding how to end this whole mess. As he feeds the press lines about a potential Jonestown duplicate, Noesner tries to explain the dissonance between his soothing words and the government's forceful actions, as none of it lines up and makes him (understandably) look like a liar to David and his people. 

Things aren't so great inside Mount Carmel, either. One member takes a drink, and another calls the FBI after an image of her child - separated from his brothers due to a custody conflict between their fathers - drives her near mad. In retaliation for their insubordination - both in his eyes and God's - Koresh banishes these members from the Branch. David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) tries to comfort David's youngest wife Michele (Julia Ganrer) - whom Thibodeau was married to in a mock ceremony to cover up Koresh's statutory rape offense - by throwing a private birthday party for their daughter. Yet this further threatens Koresh, who lets Thibodeau know that while he may be playing a part in this little charade, that woman and her child are still his, forever and ever amen. Everything's falling apart, and nobody trusts even their closest friends and family. 

One of the most fascinating things about Waco is the fact that we, as an audience, understand that almost everybody in this building - save for Thibodeau (whose memoir is the second source for the series’ scripts) and a few others - is going to die at the end. So, watching them scramble to find any way out of this harrowing situation when we recognize its inescapable fate adds a layer of tragedy to every conversation. No matter how hard Prince may assure Noesner that the Psych Ops tactics he enables Rogers to use (which include Guantanamo Bay levels of sensory deprivation) will end in the same calm resolution the negotiator seeks, we know for a fact that's just not fucking true. Every move the FBI veteran's superiors make now contain sinister undertones, as we're not so sure they didn't enjoy that rogue tank suddenly running wild and destroying structures on the Davidians’ property, much to Koresh's annoyance. Were they always operating in good faith? And - on the other hand - was Koresh really just a peaceful Jesus Freak, or a controlling, possibly dangerous, manipulator? 

After all the Lawnmower Man references in the first few episodes - which, according to showrunners Drew and John Erick Dowdle, were sourced via listening to hours of the actual negotiating tapes from the incident - Waco has proven it has a weird sense of humor, especially when it comes to integrating its period pop culture references into the series' text. This week may contain the weirdest example of such, as it ends with Koresh and his cover band - armed with battery operated guitars and amps - belting out their rendition of Tim Cappello's "I Still Believe" to a slew of Bureau onlookers down below. That's right, the sexy sax man song from The Lost Boys closes this hour, as the weird tune echoes into the night, doubling as a statement of Koresh's hope that they'll all make it out of this dilemma intact. However, we know that's never going to happen, and the next hour will bring violent death to almost all these souls silently nodding their heads along to their piper’s tune.