Podcast review: American Scandal – Waco

Wondery podcast Waco revisits the story of self-styled Messiah David Koresh, and his stand-off with the FBI in 1993.

David Koresh – born Vernon Howell – was a lonely youngster who later claimed to be the Messiah.

American Scandal: Waco covers Koresh’s early history – his visions and prophesies. It also details the growth of the Branch Davidian, Koresh’s religious community.

But the main focus is the events which led to 1993 siege between federal agents and Koresh in Waco, Texas.

The stand-off took place at the Mount Carmel compound. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) believed the Branch Davidians were stockpiling illegal weapons here. The resulting siege lasted for 51 days. In total, four agents and more than 80 church members died.

The siege seems at each step to mirror Koresh’s end-times prophesies – arguably exactly what he wanted.

Now, however, some would argue the events mimic in miniature key questions about nationhood, justice, liberty and the right to bear arms: what it means to be American, perhaps. This represents quite an about face in public perception since the 90s.

What’s the Waco podcast like?

Waco is a 6-part podcast. The first five episodes are a dramatic reconstruction of events, narrated by host Lindsey Graham. The final episode is an interview between Graham and Eric Benson of Texas Monthly magazine.

Like The Dating Game Killer, the podcast’s narrative style has the feel of a fictional drama, with all the characters voiced by Graham. This distancing makes the events seem more entertainment than true and tragic recent history. This may appeal to you. Arguably it softens otherwise upsetting details.

In either case, it’s not until the final episode that there’s a sifting and weighing of the evidence and wider context. Ultimately the sense remains that the truth about what really happened in Waco lies in doubt – or simply can’t be trusted.

The blame game

Opinions about Koresh, the Branch Davidians and the Waco siege are still pretty polarised.

The group has been described as a cult, and Koresh a manipulative and dangerous guru – a Jim Jones character [content warning: Jonestown Massacre]. Rumours include his sexual manipulation, and that he slept with married women and even children.

It’s surprising that the podcast’s narrative doesn’t spend more time laying out these claims, and their evidence, a little more baldly.

In fact, the series paints Koresh and the group in a fairly credible and sympathetic light. This contrasts with the heavy-handed aggression of the FBI and ATF.

The reasons for this approach becomes clearer in the podcast’s final episode. Here, Eric Benson evaluates the claims against Koresh, pointing out that some claims may be questionable or unreliable.

Accusations about Koresh, for example, come from former followers. Benson points out they may be motivated by other grievances or survivor’s guilt. Official investigations into the federal agencies, meanwhile, were biased in favour of the government. Much testimony, then, seems suspect.

Constant, real-time media coverage also did much to shape public perception at the time. And yet, for all the footage, much remains unknown about the final days in the compound, and the accuracy of witness statements. It’s not even entirely clear how Koresh and other church members – including many children – actually died.

Where can I listen to American Scandal: Waco?

You can catch this show for free wherever you usually get your podcasts, or directly from wondery.com.

Picture credit: Glen Carrie (in composite)