The Waco siege was made for television. From the opening volley of the February 28, 1993, raid on the Branch Davidians’ compound at Mount Carmel, which was captured in real time by a local news crew, to the April 19 fire that brought the subsequent 51-day standoff to its ashen, funereal end, there was nary a moment of the Waco saga that didn’t play out in front of a camera. Inside the complex, David Koresh, the Branch Davidians’ self-proclaimed messiah, was making his own videos as well, taping himself even while he lay seriously wounded, using a camera provided to him by the FBI. Taken collectively, all of that footage helped sustain the Waco standoff within the 24-hour cable news cycle that, in 1993, was still a recent phenomenon. And it ensured that the event now known simply as “Waco” would never really leave our screens again.
Netflix’s three-part docuseries Waco: American Apocalypse, debuting on March 22, makes judicious use of those archival videos, including a few that—while they don’t add any revelations—at least have the novelty of having never been broadcast before. It adds fresh interviews conducted with survivors and key players, along with some modern documentary frippery, like CGI models and simulated drone footage. But in the end, the story is the same one we’ve been watching for thirty years now, an unbroken loop of images that always leads to the same agonizing end.
Directed by the Dallas-bred filmmaker Tiller Russell, Waco: American Apocalypse is billed as the “definitive” account of what happened. But as its place amid the recurrent waves of Waco-related content suggests, this is inherently impossible. Waco is a malleable history, its images capable of being endlessly reshaped and recontextualized by the countless books, documentaries, TV specials, and YouTube rants it’s inspired. Perhaps because so much of it remains a mystery, the machinations both outside and inside that compound distant and inscrutable, Waco has also been a favorite subject for projection. Before the siege was even over, cameras had already rolled on its very first TV dramatization, with Wings’s Tim Daly playing Koresh. The most recent of these slightly fictionalized takes, the Taylor Kitsch–starring Waco, premiered in 2018; a sequel, Waco: The Aftermath, premieres on Showtime this April. Each of these retellings has, in its own way, claimed to tell us what really happened. That there are so many versions of this story tells us there can be no “definitive” account. And after all that sifting through the ashes, when everyone from Ted Koppel to Ted Nugent has weighed on Waco, what truths are still left to be uncovered? What more is there to say, really?
Perhaps what distinguishes Waco: American Apocalypse most from its many predecessors is that it doesn’t say much of anything. It doesn’t offer the damning arguments of documentaries like 1997’s Waco: The Rules of Engagement. It doesn’t regard Koresh as either the megalomaniacal monster or the flawed yet earnest martyr propagated in those TV movies. Instead, Waco: American Apocalypse aims for what Russell has described as a more “humanist” approach, owning up to the fatal faults, on both sides, that combined to create tragedy. The series’s thesis, if it has one, is more or less summed up by the mother of one of the Branch Davidians’ few survivors: both David Koresh and the federal government abused their power; both are to blame for what happened. But ultimately, Waco: American Apocalypse is less interested in causes than effects, focusing instead on the heavy personal tolls this experience exacted from everyone involved.
On the government side, we hear from people like Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents Bill Buford and Jim Cavanaugh; FBI agent Bob Ricks; FBI sniper Christopher Whitcomb; and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. Branch Davidian survivors Heather Burson, Kathryn Schroeder, and David Thibodeau are there to offer their own accounts of what was happening inside the compound and, to the best of their understanding, inside Koresh’s mind. Most of these people have told their stories before; many have written books of their own. Their views remain unchanged. Whatever biases you may bring into Waco: American Apocalypse will likewise go unchallenged, given that the series gingerly steps around each of the story’s most stalwart controversies. Did the ATF or the Branch Davidians shoot first? Was the fire that engulfed Mount Carmel set on Koresh’s orders? Or was it exacerbated—or even directly caused—by the FBI’s impulsive actions?
These are questions that other Waco films have built their entire cases around. But Waco: American Apocalypse simply allows both sides to present their opposing viewpoints, then briskly moves on. It touches on some of the larger historical contexts that are now so familiar to the Waco story—the tragedy’s role in radicalizing far-right extremists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, its significance in the still-raging culture wars over gun rights, religious freedom, and government intervention—but it never fully explores them. Instead, it aims for a neutral comprehensiveness that veers occasionally into Wikipedia-style breeziness. Whereas the entire first episode is dedicated to retracing the ATF’s raid on Mount Carmel in granular detail, breaking down tactical maneuvers and weapon calibers in a way that should thrill any World War II documentary buff, the series spends maybe seven minutes explaining David Koresh’s life story. Entire weeks are elided through title-card jumps.
Where Waco: American Apocalypse does choose to linger is in the emotions. That “humanist” approach can often be quietly affecting, as in the slight quaver that enters Noesner’s voice while he’s discussing all the children he couldn’t save. But it can just as often turn mawkish, as when Russell shows us dead and wounded ATF agents being carted off, then scores it with a lugubrious country-rock ballad. Sometimes the show is even downright manipulative. Did we really need to watch Burson, the last child to leave the Branch Davidian compound, listen to a recording of her final phone call with her father just so we could comprehend her loss? Although Waco: American Apocalypse, unlike so many other accounts, delicately avoids many of the more graphic details of the Branch Davidians’ lives and deaths, it’s often equally opportunistic about indulging in their pain.
Why put the survivors through it all over again? Well, tragedy plus time equals a streaming series, of course, and it’s surely no coincidence that Waco: American Apocalypse arrives on the heels of a true-crime boom that has yielded similar revisits with the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. (I suppose we can be grateful that TikTok hasn’t revived David Koresh as a sex symbol—so far, at least.) As with the assault on Waco, these are well-worn subjects that have nevertheless grown distant and ancient to younger audiences. Waco: American Apocalypse may thus provide a useful primer, suitable for history teachers to roll out on days when they’re hungover, perhaps. It delivers the broad strokes and big, emotional takeaways within the tightly compelling story structure of the modern documentary, and it avoids anything that’s too messy or overly complicated.
But for everyone who has even a passing familiarity with what really happened, however, Waco: American Apocalypse is likely to feel redundant and ruminative, replaying the tapes and reopening old wounds to no apparent end. Without anything new to say, the best that it can offer is a mournful shake of the head.