"Five thousand people to every one officer of the law. You know how we keep order with those odds?" asks one senior FBI agent in Paramount's new TV miniseries Waco. "Because they believe we are more powerful than we are. We project strength and the people believe in that strength."
The line is startling in its brutish cynicism, but it accurately sums up the lesson of Waco's six-episode dramatization of the infamous and deadly 1993 standoff between the federal government and the Branch Davidian religious sect.
Government agents are shown as almost uniformly incompetent, heartless, and oblivious to the consequences of their decisions. The Davidians are meanwhile depicted as mostly honest, sympathetic, and smart people taken in by charismatic messiah figure David Koresh. Bridging the gap is an FBI negotiator, Gary Noesner, who pushes his bosses to treat the Davidians as human while constantly fretting about the dangers of militarized cops.
At Waco's heart is a sharp critique of power and those who exercise it. This includes federal agents as well as the cult leader, whose own manipulative emotional hold over his followers eventually leads everyone to their doom. Though at times ignoring Koresh's flaws and those of his acolytes, the show is a refreshing rehabilitation of a group of people unfairly derided for too long as murderous cultists up against brave, upright law enforcement.