As the stare-down between sect leader David Koresh and the FBI’s tactical lead Mitch Decker made clear at the end of last week’s episode, Waco has left the relative safety of conversations between Koresh’s rational right-hand man, Steve Schneider, and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. In Wednesday’s episode, the reins are officially taken over by each opposing party’s more extremist leaders—Decker and Koresh. Stalling for time, Noesner’s preferred approach, is no longer an option for the FBI.
When, on day 25, Noesner makes his final of many ignored pleas to persuade the Branch Davidians with positive reinforcement rather than punishment, Decker counters with the FBI’s position: ” Five thousand to one, those are the odds against us . . . You know how we keep order with those odds? We project strength and the people believe in that strength,” Decker says. For Decker, then, this new shift is a show of power. “This is more than a situation now, Gary—this is a symbol. Are we kind of agency who coddles cop killers? Or are we the goddamned FBI?”
But Decker and his boss, Tony Prince, aren’t the only ones around who think displays of strength are what keep power intact. As Koresh restores his own influence inside the compound, we can feel as each leader digs his heels just as deeply into parallel roads toward disaster. In testing his own conviction, Koresh seems to wonder if he’s the kind of prophet who turns away from his message, or is he the goddamned Messiah?
Koresh doesn’t hesitate to wield his own power as his congregants face the temptation to leave. In the FBI negotiation team’s only success of the episode, Noesner and his assistant Walter Graves are able to convince Kathy Schroeder to come outside the compound to see her youngest child who left in the early days of the siege. Kathy pleads with Koresh to understand that her son needs her, but he only responds, “If you’re looking for my blessing, you ain’t getting it.” He tells her to take another Branch Davidian man named Brad with her who was caught drinking. “We are all one body here,” Koresh says. “And for that body to work properly, we all have to be in harmony. If one finger isn’t working, or if someone decides to go out on their own, then we’re all out of harmony.”
In Koresh’s eyes, everyone seems to be failing except him; Koresh is only growing stronger in his conviction that they all need to stay put, even though he openly tells those closest to him that God is no longer speaking to him. But when he finds those very companions—Rachel, the Schneiders, Dwayne Martin, and David Thibodeau—questioning what the best options for a solution are, he hisses that there’s only one option, and he owes them no explanation for his plans. When Rachel attempts to make her husband understand that he’s not the only one suffering here, Koresh reminds her that the suffering is the very point, “This is our withering!” he yells. “Get out of my chapel.”
This is one of Koresh’s many pointed uses of the word “my” throughout the episode, including when the pleas of Thibodeau’s mother in the news finally sank in to her son. Throughout the series, he and Michele have forged a real bond—she is (on paper, at least) his wife, after all, married in the second episode to protect Koresh from potential statutory rape charges—and Thibodeau, still turning over his mother’s words, asks Koresh if he leaves, if Michele and her daughter could go with him. Koresh wields his authority mightily over his followers: “Michele and Serenity? That is my wife, and my daughter. They’re mine to protect—not yours.”
For Koresh, this standoff has become a singular battle—a symbol that he can protect his people solely with his messianic prophecy. The problem with both sides treating a delicate situation like a symbol is that their reasoning stops being grounded in reality. Realistically, the FBI had to know that the Branch Davidians weren’t going to suddenly start responding to threats and ultimatums on day 23, which is why the highly rational Noesner is at his wits end when he hears that Decker’s plan is to begin psychological operations. “Just for shits and giggles, let me get this straight,” Noesner says to Prince. “You want to take a guy that we’re fairly certain is unstable to begin with and attempt to drive him crazy with psychological pressure in hopes that somehow that will make him more reasonable?”
That is the plan. But to be fair, stalling for time isn’t really working either. Because if you stand still long enough, it begins to feel like you’re waiting for something; being taken by surprise isn’t a risk Decker and Prince are willing to take. When Noesner makes one last plea to Decker to restore the Branch Davidian’s electricity and try to work with them, Decker reminds him that in the real world, there are 5,000 people to every officer of the law. They’re only able to keep the order by projecting strength, and making sure people believe in that strength. “So when we sit outside of a place like this for weeks on end, we look weak in front of the rest of the world.” This siege is a symbol.
Whereas Decker and Prince aren’t willing to wait idly by as their authority slips away from them, Koresh has already gotten what he’s been waiting for—and it only further enforces his authority. The Branch Davidians have been waiting for their withering, and here it is: Koresh’s prophecy showcase. The FBI pulls out their blinding lights and giant speakers to blast the sounds of tires screeching and animals being tortured into the windows of Mount Carmel in the middle of the night. And inside Mount Carmel, David Koresh pulls out his guitar.
Dwayne Martin finally got an old generator working, and when he tells Koresh it has about 10 minutes’ worth of gas in it, Koresh responds, “I know what I wanna do with it.” As the FBI attempts to flex their symbolic strength against the Branch Davidians, on day 25, Koresh flexes back. Standing in the uppermost window of the Mount Carmel Complex, with his congregation gathered behind him, Koresh uses his 10 minutes of gasoline to rock out—electric guitar, amped up, with a mic—to The Call’s “I Still Believe” as the FBI looks on in shock: I want to give out / I want to give in / This is our crime / This is our sin / But I still believe / I still believe.
As far as we know, this didn’t really happen. Koresh did have a rock band called—you guessed it—Messiah that he toured around Waco, touting a song written some five years before the Branch Davidian siege called “Mad Man In Waco.” (Please, please, please won’t you listen / It’s not what it appears to be / We didn’t want to hurt anybody / Just set our people free.) Koresh’s impromptu rock concert for the FBI stands as the Waco’s most artistic liberty taken yet, and while the image of Koresh framed in a window under the FBI’s spotlight, jamming out with a bunch of women in shin-length skirts behind him seems a little absurd, the reality we know is coming in Waco‘s finale is similarly preposterous.
This siege can ultimately only symbolize power for one of the opposing parties involved, and thus far, the immovable faith of the Branch Davidians is winning: all the people who were questioning their options throughout this episode, are now back behind David Koresh as he sings about still believing. Decker turns off his own torture speakers, looking on in fury as Koresh sings. Prince turns to him: “If we were to go in, what would that look like?” Twenty-six more days to go.