Episode 6: “Day 51”
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Written by John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle
* For a recap & review of the penultimate episode, “Stalling for Time” – click here
Day 40. The psychological operations by the FBI continue, as does the music emanating from the Branch Davidians themselves inside where Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) wails on the drums. Meanwhile, the mental state of those in Mount Carmel is deteriorating, least of which certainly isn’t their leader, David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch). It’s a horrifying scene, all around.
Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) has all but been hobbled in his role as negotiator. On the radio, Ron Engelman (Eric Lange) is laying out the philosophies of the Branch Davidians in simple terms, joined by a theologian named Professor Tabor (David Grant Wright); all of which is heard inside the Waco compound. The expert happens not to believe in the insanity of Koresh. Perhaps it’s more a case of religious delusion, more than mental instability. Or maybe it’s a big, scary mix.
“David Koresh is not crazy. His theology follows a coherent logic. Agree with it or not, there‘s something to it.”
Meanwhile, there’s a communications link to the outside world once the Branch Davidians use their satellite to send messages out to Engelman’s radio show. Outside, Tony Prince (Glenn Fleshler) gets a visit from Engelman, along with lawyers for Koresh and Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks). The FBI are feeling quite caught off guard at this point. Although Noesner sees this as opportunity.
Lawyers Jack Zimmerman (Jon Kristian Moore) and Dick DeGuerin (Rex Linn) are allowed to go inside, where they speak Koresh and Schneider, as well as the others. They tell the Branch Davidians there’s a “case for self defence.” All the same, the cult leader doesn’t see them getting a truly fair trial when they’re up against the government itself. Nevertheless, he does see fate working its hand, and of course God, too.
On the phone, Koresh speaks with Gary again. He tells the negotiator a miracle’s occurred. The sign from God has told David to come out, apparently. First, he has to write the Seven Seals. He estimates it’ll take a week, then they’re leave. You can bet that Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham) and Prince don’t entirely see Gary’s side of things, though the latter gives his negotiator one more week.
The Branch Davidians are happy to hear they’ll soon be able to go outside again, live normal lives once more. Judy (Andrea Riseborough) begins transcribing the manuscript as Koresh preaches the word to her orally. The lawyers are working out the kinks with Price. But Decker’s aggressive attitude, it’s clearly going to boil over and cause more problems before the standoff is over.
“My idea of crazy has been changing”
Nobody in the FBI other than Gary believes Koresh is actually writing his manuscript. Noesner asks Schneider to send some pages of what’s been written so far, in a show of good faith. This won’t fly with the cult leader, who won’t reveal his work until it’s finished. Trouble’s brewing outside, too. Already Decker and Prince are getting anxious, keeping their negotiator out of the loop. The two FBI men have gone up the ladder to Janet Reno (Connie Ventress). Historically, Reno wasn’t given all the information appropriate to make the decision, though she was made to believe she had everything necessary. Essentially, Prince and Decker greased Reno into bringing approval for an assault on Mt. Carmel directly to President Clinton.
Back at the compound when Gary sees CS gas on trucks, he’s pissed. He brings up the fact it’s a “war crime” to us it, according to the Geneva Convention. This prompts the negotiator into trying harder with the Branch Davidians. He’s angrier with Steve now, if only for the fact he knows something horrific is going to happen to them. Not to mention the FBI are actively working against Gary, sending him packing so that he won’t disrupt their assault, or their narrative. Sadly, he’s the sole person there who understands the federal government has created the entire situation, and they’ll also reap what they sow on the wrong side of history.
Tanks are rolling further onto Mt. Carmel. This sends Koresh into a fit. It doesn’t help he’s left without Gary negotiating, and instead Walter is going against almost every rule in the negotiator’s handbook. Koresh is already spiralling into incredible anger, further by the second. He’s threatened, and sees what’s about to happen will label this “one of the saddest days the world‘s ever known.” Eerily prophetic.
And so we come to the fateful Day 51 of the standoff. Psyops continue into the night, as do the encroaching tanks continue their movement onto Mt. Carmel territory circling the building. Schneider gets a call that there’s tear gas about to be thrown inside, and this makes him crazy. Not as crazy as Koresh when he gets word of the attack. He orders the women and children put away safely; not all the women make it to the protective vault before getting knocked around by falling walls. The men scramble for the guns, as the walls are breached and gas fills the compound.
The FBI breaches the vault where the women and children are hiding, and this causes structural damage trapping them, forcing them to try escaping through another route. Yet they have nowhere to go. Nothing to do except suffocate and die. Back at home, Gary and his wife Carol (Stephanie Kurtzuba) watch in horror along with the rest of America and the world as the violence unfolds on television.
Soon, a fire breaks out from the gas, and the compound begins burning. Smoke billows from the main building. All of a sudden, the entire place is collapsing, and people are struggling to see, rushing to flee. The women and children are going to cook alive and burn within the vault. Koresh tries to save them but can do nothing. He watches a tank inscribed with the words AVENGING ANGEL tear down a wall in front of him; strange irony. He stays inside, whereas others run from the fire. Thibodeau launches himself through a window where he’s arrested by FBI agents. Michele (Julia Garner) is not that lucky, neither are many of the women downstairs.
Inside, Koresh sits waiting to be consumed by the blaze when Steve finds him. The two men silently come to an understanding. David removes his gas mask, then Steve shoots him in the head before turning the gun on himself. A quick death compared to the pain many of the others suffered in their final moments. Out surveying the wreckage, Decker’s finally seeing the destruction in his method of doing things. At home, Gary weeps for the lives he couldn’t save – the lives he wasn’t allowed to save.
In the aftermath, families wait to hear if their loved ones emerged from Mt. Carmel safely and alive. Balenda Thibodeau (Camryn Manheim) is happy to hear her son survived, and Koresh’s mother is left to grieve not just her son, her league of grandchildren. American citizens are left questioning what their own government would do to them. Despite Koresh’s abuse of underage girls, it doesn’t excuse what the FBI did at Waco. This is not the perfect case to argue with due to the cult leader’s transgressions. Again, it doesn’t take away the fatal mistakes of the American federal government, which never should’ve happened, no matter what Koresh had done.
“We are, all of us, Americans. When did we start seeing each other as the enemy?”
Later, Noesner’s called to give his testimony in the legal proceedings following the massacre. A role he’s sadly already had a brush with due to Ruby Ridge. Then there’s a guy like Thibodeau, who never signed up for anything cult-like yet got reeled into the cult of personality which surrounded Koresh, all leading to him nearly dying, and having to leave behind friends he made to die. Thibodeau went on to co-write a book about the events at Waco. That doesn’t mean he’ll ever forget the tragedy.
Waco‘s been a great miniseries. They included things the general public didn’t necessarily know from the mainstream coverage of the case. Most of all, we get a look at how the federal government botched what could’ve been a successful negotiation were Noesner listened to right up until the end. There are aspects of Koresh that could use their own miniseries. But at a time when the federal government is being questioned in many ways, it’s compelling to look back at the Waco incident and get a broad look at the sociopolitical ramifications. A fantastic bit of work, from acting to writing to filmmaking.