Red Stewart reviews the second episode of Waco…
A storm is alluded to a couple of times in ‘The Stranger Across the Street’, first as a Biblical event entailing the opening of the Fifth Seal and subsequent arrival of the Armies of Babylon, and second as a literal hurricane.
In most cases I would have criticized this as heavy-handed storytelling, but it’s all about the context that these lines are presented in. The former is during a sermon Koresh is giving to his fellow Branch Davidians, while the latter is at the end of a heavy conversation between sisters and Koresh’s wives Rachel and Michelle. And as you can guess from these two situations, the vast majority of Waco’s second episode is spent bathing in this “calm before the storm.” I would argue 90-95 percent of the 47 minute runtime is devoted to the Branch Davidians, and examining their unique family dynamic and subjective beliefs about everything that they are doing.
This was a wise decision by the Dowdle Brothers because, the way the show is set-up, the next six episodes are set to focus on the eponymous 51-day siege, and you can’t expect audiences to care about the people under attack if you don’t invest any time with them. At the same time, you do need that objective “straight man” to represent viewers going into this world of polygamy, child brides, and martyrdom.
‘The Strangers Across the Street’ provides two in the form of undercover ATF agent Jacob Vazquez and returning recent recruit David Thibodeau. Thibodeau has, of course, been with the Branch Davidians for several months now, but there are many signs that he has not fully bought into Koresh’s philosophies: his driving motivation for staying instead being tied to a not-so-subtle attraction to Michelle. Still, Thibodeau clearly sees Koresh as a father figure of sorts, being willing to follow his commands even if he does not necessarily agree with them.
Vazquez, on the other hand, is torn between two different sides. On the one hand he has to complete his duties for the government, but on the other he does see Koresh for the three-dimensional figure that he is, and John Leguizamo does an amazing job selling that physical and emotional uncertainty Vazquez feels every time he has to confront Koresh. His shifting attitudes regarding Koresh stand in stark contrast to his fellow ATF agents, as well as the media, both of which seek to demonize the Branch Davidians based on stories and secondhand information.
The media I found to be a fascinating aspect to the show. Though this is the first episode there journalists and news reporters are officially introduced, it was stated at the end of the pilot that part of the reason the ATF decided to scope out the Koresh compound was to improve their media image following the Ruby Ridge skirmish. Considering Waco costume designer Karyn Wagner told me how the news media ended up shaping the negative, long-lasting narrative of the Waco Siege, it will be interesting to see what role they play down the line.
As stated before, though, the bulk of ‘The Strangers Across the Street’ rests on exploring the Branch Davidians, and it is here that the Dowdle Brothers turn an objective eye to the more grotesque features of Koresh’s belief system, namely that he married a 12-year old girl Michelle and had a child with her. Of course, from an outsider’s point-of-view, it is right to call this child abuse and a sex crime. But biographical television has an obligation to treat its subject matter fairly, and so we see this play out not only as though it’s a normal thing, but that the intercourse is not even the worst part of it. In a heartfelt conversation between Michelle and Rachel, we learn that Michelle’s real gripe with becoming David’s wife is that she had no say in the matter: her life choices have been dictated entirely by her sister, who cites the word of God as her reasoning.
The most intriguing parts of the episode, for me personally, were the conversations Koresh has with Vazquez, right down to the very end where he’s begging him to call off the upcoming raid that will lead to the inevitable siege. Kitsch and Leguizamo really showcase how both their characters are trying to overcome the limits of their occupation, and how that task is ultimately impossible.
A small portion of the episode is devoted to exploring the aftermath of Ruby Ridge from Noesner’s perspective. He feels guilty that the FBI got away with murder, but is prevented from filing a formal complaint due to a deeper guilt he holds from the handling of a previous hostage situation in Sperryville, Virginia. It’s evident that the writers are planning on turning Waco into an attempted redemption story for Noesner, but I am willing to see how things go before I lay a final judgment on the direction.
Overall, ‘The Strangers Across the Street’ slowed things down in preparation of the siege. And while it was nice to see the characters fleshed out more, a few clichés and short run time prevented the writing from being as deep as it could have been.