"This is not an assault!" shouts an assistant FBI Hostage Negotiator into a gigantic stack of speakers, his voice projected out over the Mount Carmel compound, where tanks begin to jam their turrets through the walls, spraying tear gas into the faces of the Branch Davidians inside. As an audience watching Waco - aware of the grim moment in American history the Paramount Network has transmuted into melodramatic pulp - we know this is how it all ended. Only series creators Drew and John Erick Dowdle have been building toward a melancholy finale for David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) and his followers, who didn't start the fire in a desperate act of mass suicide (as the FBI would later testify). Instead, it was the battle-ready government police force that sparked the flames, using tear gas (which they denied on record) they knew full well was flammable; an act of aggression that violated Geneva Conventions and the basic human rights of those they claimed they tried to extract alive and intact.
For lead FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), the fight to try and remove these people in a peaceful fashion is one that ends in vain, even after he gets David to agree to come out, and the messiah claims to have finally received his "sign from God" (via a series of probable coincidences, including a local talk show broadcast that inadvertently communicates with the cut off sect). All he asks is a week to write down his gospels and instructions for opening the Seven Seals of Armageddon, which Noesner gets his superiors to agree to. Yet the higher ups in the FBI go behind the negotiator’s back and present a more forceful plan to Attorney General Janet Reno (Connie Ventress), who agrees to have President Bill Clinton (not pictured) review and sign off on it. Up to this point, Waco has been somewhat coy in its insinuations regarding the American government's complicity in the possible federally sanctioned murder of seventy-six of its citizens (twenty-five of which were children). Here it's flat out painting the highest levels of power as being co-conspirators in the Branch Davidians' deaths.
Noesner is removed from his post and "reassigned", as Hostage Rescue Team leader Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham) is granted control of the operation, ordering the tanks to proceed after having already cut the power to the Mount Carmel Center and subjected its inhabitants to over a month's worth of Psy-Ops sensory deprivation. The result is a harrowing twenty-minute sequence, where we watch as the Davidians are burned alive inside the compound; the women and children herded into an underground "safety vault" (which is little more than a buried school bus), as the men try to remain upstairs and talk their way out. Once the fumes of the tear gas are ignited, the place becomes a bona fide death trap, as David asks his right-hand man Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) to a put a merciful bullet through his gas mask. Dowdle directs the set piece with little subtlety, amping up the theatrical bombast inside the Branch’s home, while Decker and the other agents helplessly watch the holocaust they’ve invented unfold.
Where Waco has been peppered with strange, period-specific humor throughout the course of its previous five hours, this fifty-first day of the stand-off is presented with nothing but sadness. Noesner weeps in his bedroom as a CNN broadcast plays in the den, knowing that he could've saved these people had senior leadership not been so hellbent on painting the religious cult as child-abusing monsters who couldn't be stopped utilizing anything less than absolute destruction. David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) narrowly escapes by diving through a window, a fireball literally hot on his tail. When his name is listed by an FBI official as one of the few survivors, his mother (Camryn Manheim) cries out in joy, all while Koresh's mom (Blaire Chandler) sits on the motel bed beside her in shock. The world may have watched this sordid tale play out on news broadcasts with jaws agape, but those involved were devastated by the brutality of a ruthless United States government.
Or, at least, that's what Waco would like us to believe. The show's equally somber - and very necessary - coda reassures us that this is all a wild act of speculation on the creators' part, but that the facts and FBI's history of using questionable tactics in these scenarios are well documented. Those who want to paint the series as being nothing more than conspiracy theorist fantasy have every right to do so, but there are documents readily available that also support its possibly insane claims. The Dowdles fall just short of going Full Oliver Stone and having one of their lead characters break the fourth wall and state "it's up to you"; instructing their audience to go out and uncover the truth. Yet in the end, that still seems to be the main purpose behind Waco's very creation: to question the evidence as its been presented to us and try to discover multiple sides behind every piece of history. Even if it's all an elaborate fiction, their series was mostly worth it, if only for the numerous Lawnmower Man references.