WACO: American Apocalypse is a stark reminder that people will do anything if you attach God to it

Mar 23, 2023

I remember watching the Branch Davidian stand-off every day after school.

The 51 day ordeal was the biggest story on the planet, and eventually claimed the lives of 76 people, including 25 children and two pregnant women.

David Koresh was the first example of a present-day wanna-be deity I had ever heard of, and only the second cult leader I knew by name. The other was Jim Jones.

WACO: American Apocalypse on Netflix examines the actions of not just Koresh and his followers of Branch Davidians, but also the tactics of the ATF, FBI and the American government who were ultimately responsible for killing Koresh’s followers. Yes, Koresh had armed the Branch Davidians to the teeth, but the actions of the FBI and ATF amounted to overkill, literally.

The format of this series is what sets it apart from other docuseries dealing with an issue that had two clear sides. The interesting aspect of the story is how difficult it can be to decipher which side was good, and which was bad. Obviously Koresh is a villain, a con artist and a man who sexually abused several underage girls, but the FBI hostage negotiation team, the ATF and the Clinton administration were trigger-happy cowboys who handled everything badly from the beginning.

Director Tiller Russell knows this, but did lean, perhaps understandably so, towards the side of the government in the first two episodes. It was probably a tough tightwire to walk for a director of a series like this, and while he did a good job laying out the parameters and motivations of each side, he probably failed at really hammering down the responsibility the government had in finding a peaceful resolution.

Russell did find a way to spotlight the split between negotiators and tactical units by episode three, especially when the audience saw the inner workings and disconnect between those two units. One such example is when the negotiators successfully bartered for the release of 7 members, including two elderly women, only to watch the tactical team then run over Koresh’s car with a tank. The perceived betrayal outraged Koresh, making further negotiations near impossible.

And of course, the brutal climax when the compound was invaded by the FBI and ATF, and the disputed claims on each side as to who was responsible for lighting the complex on fire. That question remains unanswered.

For me, this series was interesting in that it contained a ton of parallels between the Branch Davidians and the cult I have been covering for a year, the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church. A present-day deity, the way in which ex members are excommunicated, and the sexual abuse of children.

This is a 4 star docuseries, and highly recommended.

Contributing Writers

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