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Series / Waco

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"This is our time to prove through suffering that we are worthy of the miracle that's to come. The Kingdom of Heaven is coming, I promise you."

"There's a paradox to power. The more force you bring to a situation, the more likely you are to meet resistance."
Gary Noesner

Waco is a six-episode miniseries broadcast on the Paramount Network in January 2018.

Based on two books that depict the 1993 Waco standoff, A Place Called Waco by David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson, and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner, the series dramatizes the real-life 51-day siege by the FBI and the ATF on Mount Carmel, Waco, Texas. Said ranch is the headquarters of the Branch Davidians, a right-wing religious group fixated on the seven seals mentioned in the Book of Revelation and convinced that their charismatic leader David Koresh is the next Messiah. Tensions between the government agencies and the Branch Davidians slowly escalate in the coming weeks, leading to an infamously fatal fire.

Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon star as Koresh and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. Other main cast members include Andrea Riseborough and Paul Sparks as Judy and Steve Schneider, longtime David Koresh loyalists, Rory Culkin as David Thibodeau, a relatively new member of the Davidians, Melissa Benoist as Koresh's first and legal wife Rachel, Julia Garner as Rachel's younger sister Michelle, John Leguizamo as ATF agent Jacob Vazquez, and Shea Whigham and Glenn Fleshler as FBI highers-up Mitch Decker and Tony Prince.

A five-episode sequel miniseries named Waco: The Aftermath was released on April 16, 2023 on Showtime. As the name implies, it focuses on the trials of the surviving Branch Davidians, how the event affected law enforcement and the rise of domestic extremism, culminating with the Oklahoma City Bombing.


  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Koresh got Michelle pregnant at twelve. She is fourteen at the time of the series, with a toddler named Serenity.
  • Ambiguous Situation: As in real life, the FBI and Branch Davidians each claim that the other started the fire that killed most of the Branch Davidians after the compound was gassed with flammable tear gas. The FBI tries to sweep it under the rug with "mass suicide", but as the closing text maintains, there is enough ambiguity present that this is likely untrue.
  • Artistic License History:
    • For the sake of cast size, the show depicts Gary Noesner and a single subordinate as the only FBI negotiators on the scene. In real life, there was a whole team of 25 people.
    • In real life, the FBI surveillance team claimed to be college students, which was a Paper-Thin Disguise. In the series, they claim to be ranchers.
    • The names are changed on the FBI top brass, likely due to the extremely unflattering portrayal. Jeff Jamar is renamed Tony Prince, and Richard Rogers is renamed Mitch Decker. The counterpart of ATF agent Robert Rodriguez is named Jacob Vazquez here.
    • While there are many disputed facts around the event in real life, the show takes a definitive side on certain situations:
      • In real life, both sides dispute who fired the first shot, while in the series, it's shown that the FBI dog team fired first.
      • In real life, both sides dispute whether the fire was a mass suicide attempt. The FBI allege they recorded Branch Dividians talking about spreading Coleman fuel around the compound on the final day of the siege, whereas external reports determined the cause of the fire to be as a result of the tear gas canisters. In the show the Coleman fuel discussions are never depicted and it is heavily implied that the fire was an accident.
      • The autopsy report could not determine whether Steve Schneider shot himself, while in the series he dies by suicide - shooting himself in the head.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Koresh has Steve kill him by shooting him in the head when he accepts that all is lost.
  • Blame Game:
    • When the shit hits the fan the FBI and ATF point fingers at each other for both Ruby Ridge and Waco.
    • Also Jacob Vazquez was more or less thrown under the bus by the ATF during a press conference. He was so disgusted he got up and walked out.
  • Bluff the Impostor: In the second episode, Koresh, suspicious of his new neighbor who claims to be a rancher, asks him a question about cows. Vazquez, who is a government agent and not a rancher, fails to provide a good answer, tipping Koresh off that he's not who he says he is.
  • Blatant Lies:The FBI commits a huge number of these:
    • Prince denies using psyops on the compound (blasting loud music and cutting the power) and claims he doesn't even know what they are.
    • He and Decker lie to the Attorney General herself to get permission to assault the compound.
    • During the assault, the Davidians hear a news report falsely claiming gunfire was coming from the compound.
  • Commonality Connection: Despite Thibodeau's mother resenting Koresh's mother for the situation that the former's son is in, the two of them connect over being clueless teen mothers and wait out the tail end of the siege together.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Early in the siege, the federal official who had been watching Koresh from the ranch next door chews everyone out and says that they could have easily nabbed him when Koresh went on his morning jog from the compound to the mailbox and back.
  • Cult Colony: Depicts a real-life example. Mount Carmel is a ranch in the middle of nowhere; its owner and the Branch Davidians' leader David Koresh has "taken on the duties of the flesh" for the group. Married men remain celibate while Koresh has sex with their wives and fathers children by them.
  • Deadly Gas: Played With. The FBI maintains that they used a non-lethal tear gas to drive the Davidians out, but their tanks inadvertently blocked many escape routs. Tear gas is also known to be flammable, but they had no firetrucks on standby in case a fire did break out. As a result, many adults and children died either from the fire or from suffocation; the women and children locked in the vault were essentially trapped in a Gas Chamber.
  • Death of a Child: It is continuously emphasized that the safety of the children in the compound is of the utmost priority (and is great for PR). Thus, the securing of a few children from the Branch Davidians by the FBI early on is seen as a win, and the fact that a third of the casualties by suffocation or fire on the last day of the siege were children is a huge tragedy.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The FBI brass, who spent the whole siege demonizing the Branch Davidians and pushing for brutal tactics, react with confusion and horror as the fire starts. Decker breaks down while trying to rescue Rachel from the school bus.
  • Fingore: Judy Schneider is shot in the hand on the first day of the siege, and refuses to leave the compound so it can be treated. Steve worries that she'll end up having to lose her whole hand. Her finger's condition doesn't seem to improve, and she talks about it hurting while transcribing Koresh's manifesto.
  • Funny Background Event: The FBI headquarters is gradually wallpapered with amusing and condescending doodles by agents. One has "Jesus Christ Superstar" scratched out and replaced with "David Koresh Rockstar" (which is now a real album). Another has a caricature of David Koresh as Gene Simmons, with the caption, "Would you Kiss David Koresh?"
  • A God Am I: Koresh believes himself a messiah, put on this earth to spread the truth about the seven seals.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: David Koresh is portrayed fairly sympathetically here, and the series leaves out many of the sordid details of his past. While the show openly discusses his polygamy and statutory rape habits at Waco, it generally portrays him as a peace-loving weirdo who presides over a happy community of followers. The series doesn't mention some of his real-life crimes, such as impregnating and then stalking a 15-year-old girl when he was 19 as well as wresting control of the Branch Davidians from a rival leader in a dispute that culminated in a gunfight and attempted murder charge. The latter is addressed in the follow-up series.
  • How We Got Here: The series opens with the ATF about to raid Mount Carmel, before jumping back nine months to show the lead-up to the shootout.
  • Idiot Ball: The FBI and ATF takes turns holding it. So much so Gary, threatens to file a complaint.
  • It's All About Me: David is determined to keep the Branch Davidians in his orbit and stay in Mount Carmel even though it might not be in their best interests to do so, likely as it feeds his ego. At the end, the FBI accuses him of not caring about anyone else in the compound other than himself.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: The FBI and the ATF, involved first in Ruby Ridge and then at Waco, don't see eye-to-eye on how to handle these situations. One of the first things the FBI does when they arrive at Ruby Ridge is to ensure that all the agents at the perimeter are ATF so that they will be blamed for the situation's poor resolution.
  • Last-Name Basis: Everyone refers to David Thibodeau by his last name, likely to avoid confusion with David Koresh.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: This is part of what is straining the Schneiders' marriage. Steve mentions that they had been trying to get pregnant for years with no success. He's not thrilled that Koresh has chosen Judy to bear his kids to begin with, but the fact that she got pregnant right away by Koresh grates on him.
  • Marriage Before Romance: Downplayed. Koresh marries Thibodeau to Michelle for legality purposes, but considers Michelle his wife. Sparks do begin to fly between the two of them before and during the siege, but it is tragically cut short.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Koresh is facing a conundrum with his second 'wife', the teenage Michelle, as polygamy and having sex with a minor you aren't married to are illegal. So he marries her to Thibodeau to ward off questions by authorities, but the marriage is in name only. (To him, anyway.)
  • Meaningful Name: The series changes the names of the FBI officers in charge, and it's easy to see the intended meaning. Tony "Prince" is the officer in charge, who at first tries to be reasonable but ultimately pulls rank over Gary to side with Decker. Mitch "Decker" keeps advocating to hit the Branch Davidians with aggressive actions.
  • Morton's Fork: David Koresh is caught in one of these with his practice of having sex with multiple underage girls. Having sex with girls between 14-18 is statutory rape unless she is your wife, but claiming them as wives would be an admission of polygamy. The Branch Davidian's resident law expert incorrectly calls it a Catch-22 Dilemma.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Mitch says this to Gary, claiming that as FBI agents they both have blood on their hands.
  • Only Sane Man: In every episode, Gary is repeatedly shown to be the only one advocating for tactics that will bring about a peaceful outcome, while the ATF and FBI brass repeatedly undermine him with more combative tactics, resulting in tragedies.
  • The Place: Titled after the city where the action takes place.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: The series is set around the time of ripe growth for this movement. As early as the Ruby Ridge incident, depicted in the first episode, there are already right-wing gun owners decrying the FBI's actions. The ATF orders a raid on Mount Carmel because they believe the Branch Davidians to be illegally moving and modifying arms (i.e. as a group of these).
  • Real Person Cameo: The real David Thibodeau and Gary Noesner appear in one of the last scenes of the series as a security guard and a visitor in Congress (very briefly and not showing their full faces). It's also the only scene where their characters interact.
  • Roman Clef: The real names of FBI agents were changed due to it being an unflattering portrayal and it having Artistic License History in the aim of telling a better story.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • One of the mothers leaves the compound despite David's continuous pressure for her to stay when she realizes that her son was separated from his brothers.
    • Rachel finally has this realization when the FBI gasses the compound and tries to free herself and her children despite Koresh's instructions to stay in the vault. However, because the FBI has been knocking the structure around, her escape route is blocked and she dies along with some of the other mothers.
    • Thibodeau also realizes that he's had enough with David Koresh when the two men meet in a burning hallway after realizing that most of the Branch Davidians are locked in rooms where they can't get out. He jumps out a window and into FBI custody.
  • The Siege: A modern version. The FBI has surrounded Mount Carmel and alternately tries to negotiate with and put pressure on the Branch Davidians to leave the compound, in hopes that their dwindling resources will force them to cooperate. It does not end up working out.
  • Slave to PR: The series implies this was the real reason behind the ATF targeting Koresh, to make up for the blame they got for Ruby Ridge. If they could be seen as heroes, the ATF wouldn't be disbanded and ATF agents wouldn't lose their jobs. They even brought their own cameraman to the scene!
  • Stock Footage: The series inserts real news footage into the depiction of the siege. Some of the news reports shown are also real.
  • Teen Pregnancy: A recurring situation. Thibodeau's mother had him at 16, Koresh's at 14. Michelle had her daughter at 12, and it's implied her sister Rachel was of a similar age when she started bearing Koresh's children.
  • Television Geography: Waco in real life is a city of over 100,000 people, ample rainfall, and lots of forest. The compound itself was in the middle of acres of lush farmland. You wouldn't know this from the series, however, which decided to depict Waco as a desert wasteland in the middle of nowhere.
  • Top Wife: Rachel, as Koresh's first and legal wife, has a little of this attitude when she talks down to Judy, who has recently given birth to one of Koresh's children. She tuts that Judy, as the mother of one of Koresh's children, now has his ear, so she should follow Rachel's lead more.
  • Warm Place, Warm Lighting: The show does this with different states in the United States. Scenes set around Mount Carmel, in the middle of the Texas desert, are yellow-tinted to emphasize the heat and dust. Scenes set elsewhere, like at FBI headquarters or at the Capitol, are not.

"This is no longer a situation, Gary. It's a symbol."