The events that occurred in Waco, Texas in 1993 stunned the world. A group known as the Branch Davidians had come into a standoff against American law enforcement. After an extremely bloody skirmish, the next forty-plus days resulted in an unprecedented siege. It ended in a fire and death, with more than eighty deaths. For a generation who may not have lived through these events, Waco: American Apocalypse serves as a cliff notes version of events. However, the examination of what this moment meant for America, mere weeks after the thirtieth anniversary of the catastrophe, barely scratches the long implications of the death and violence of the standoff.
Director Tiller Russell looks at the final days of the incident in Waco. The footage assembled depicts the weeks leading up to the siege and the months that followed. Much of the video evidence had not been released previously. Russell goes further, pulling eyewitness testimony from both Branch Davidian survivors and ATF agents on the ground. The compilation makes for an intriguing portrait of the events.
Throughout much of the series, Russell reminds us why David Koresh, the leader of the Davidians, truly earned the monster moniker. This represents Waco: American Apocalypse‘s strongest aspect. While there are moments where it wavers between who was in the wrong, the series never lets Koresh off the hook for his actions.
However, the juxtapositioning of the ATF agents with the Branch Davidian narrative makes for a “he said, she said, they said” style that begins to blur the lines. Perhaps Russell wants us to remember the oversights and issues the government created. However, this often ignores the far more evangelistic and extremist beliefs of a group that opened fire on federal agents with assault weapons. Too many moments throughout the series lend the Davidians sympathy and open the door to see them as martyrs.
In the last five years, the Branch Davidians have been reclaimed by far-right activists as those who stood up to government oppression. Combined with their love of guns, these individuals promise future events like Waco. If any of these individuals follow through on this threat, they will not be the first. Timothy McVeigh cited Waco as a reason for the Oklahoma City bombing. Events like January 6th, Charlottesville, and the Buffalo shootings stem from shootouts like Waco and Ruby Ridge. The links are obvious and need to be examined.
Earlier in the series, one of the Branch Davidians preaches about her extremism. Another believes Koresh did not sleep with girls because, in their mind, a twelve-year-old already came of age. The work to explain the extremist views of the Davidians does not come until after these moments occur. Rather than framing the group as fringe and extremist ideology, Waco: American Apocalypse allows the audience to feel sorrow for these people who aided in the deaths of more than eighty men, women, and children.
Instead, Waco: American Apocalypse embraces faux-dramatic storytelling beats. One individual from the ATF believes he saw David Koresh in his crosshairs. An episode ends with this cliffhanger, only for the finale to tell us that Koresh did not die by this man’s hand. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Waco knows how this ended, and to milk, the story for drama feels disrespectful to many who died.
Ultimately, some will enjoy American Apocalypse. Yet the story of Waco deserves a more thorough understanding than the surface-level one depicted here. Netflix continues to push for more true crime but rarely asks its talent to reckon with the power of their stories. It’s a shame because Russell could have dug further into the Waco story. At a time when government distrust and militant attitudes are at an all-time high, this may have been a powerful deterrent.
Alan’s Rating: 3/10
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