Waco: The Aftermath (2023) Episode 5 Recap & Ending Explained: The Evil Reigns

Waco The Aftermath Episode 5

Waco: The Aftermath (2023) Episode 5 Recap & Ending Explained: “Reckoning” is the fifth and final episode of Showtime’s limited series Waco: The Aftermath (2023). It’s a sequel of sorts to the network’s 2018 mini-series Waco, which chronicled the 51-day stand-off between Branch Davidians and Federal agents that culminated on a disastrous note on April 19, 1993, with the death of 76 Branch Davidians. While the United States government failed to acknowledge the federal agencies’ mistakes, Waco and the Ruby Ridge incidents became a rallying cry for extremist right-wing. It resulted in the rise of militia movement. Though seen as fringe elements, the conspiratorial bunch came under their government’s attention after the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the Waco siege.

Waco: The Aftermath looks at the threat of militia movements alongside the trial of five surviving Branch Davidians, who were prosecuted on murder and conspiracy charges. One thing that was evident throughout the limited series was the lack of robust source material. The characters also lacked the complexities that were aplenty in Waco (2018). Eventually, the dramatization here was too far-fetched and  even implausible. Now let’s focus on the final episode of the limited series and perceive the inevitable grim toll of US domestic terrorism.

Waco: The Aftermath (2023) Episode 5 ‘Reckoning’ Recap:

Did Carol Howe Gather any Intel at Elohim City?

Episode 5, titled Reckoning, opens at Elohim City with Carol Howe (Abbey Lee) spying on Andy the German (Seamus Dever) as he leaves his trailer. Carol uses the opportunity to covertly gets inside Andy’s trailer, looking for any helpful information. Apart from guns and Nazi literature, she stumbles upon a work desk with circuits and chemicals. Subsequently, Carol takes a little diary from the shelf that says, ‘Anhydrous hydrazine,’ Ammonium nitrate,’ and ‘Nitromethane.’ She memorizes the chemical names, but to her dismay, as she looks through the trailer’s blinds, Carol sees Andy walking back to the trailer.

She hides behind a large cabinet as Andy retrieves something. He takes a look at his desk and his hidden small diary. He feels something is amiss, but his buddy outside calls him. Andy leaves his trailer, and soon Carol also sneaks out. Unfortunately, someone watches Carol from a distance.

Later in the night, when Carol is asleep, the men forcefully take her and drop her into a hole in the ground. Pappy Millar (Paul Dillon) – Elohim City’s Founder – questions Carol on why she was inside Andy’s trailer. She feigns ignorance, claiming that she was stupid, high, and didn’t know it was Andy’s trailer. However, Andy is sure she saw something she shouldn’t have. They contemplate killing her. As the men are talking, Carol lifts herself from the hole and runs fast into the woods. The men shoot at her, but she gets away.

What does Gary Noesner Convey after Taking the Stand?

Defense lawyer Dan Cogdell (Giovanni Ribisi) calls FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) to the stand. Dan knows that Gary is a man with a conscience, and he believes Gary will speak about the flaws of the FBI’s tactical approach during the Waco siege. He wants to establish that the Branch Davidians weren’t a suicide cult and that only the breakdown of communications and an excessive showcase of force led to the catastrophe on April 19, 1993.

Upon taking the stand, Gary emphasizes that his negotiation team got out 35 people from Mount Carmel Center during the siege. He further states they built trust with the Branch Davidians over the weeks. Dan counters him by asking how difficult it was to build trust since the other members of his team were using tanks, sleep deprivation techniques, and cutting off power to intimidate the people inside. Gary initially tries to maintain the official tone, asserting that his negotiation team worked in conjunction with the tactical HRT team.

Dan questions if the HRT’s actions were antithetical to the approach of Gary’s negotiation team. Gary answers the question by saying they both had the same objective of getting the people out. Then Dan moves to the crucial question of why Gary or any representative of the negotiation team was not present when the attorney general was briefed before the final days of the siege (on April 12th, 1993). Once again, Gary avoids giving a straight answer and states that the leadership felt it was right to conduct a raid on April 19th.

Dan keeps pressing Gary for his personal opinion. He also brings up a valid point of why Gary forwarded Steve Schneider’s (David Koresh’s confidant) request for a computer (on April 16th) to speed up David’s process of writing his interpretation of the seven seals. David allegedly promised that he and his followers would come out once he finished writing it. Dan questions whether it means Gary didn’t even know the raid was happening. Then Dan riles Gary by citing an HRT quote that said they were left with no choice since negotiations failed.

Reckoning Waco The Aftermath
Michael Shannon’s Gary Noesner is questioned by Giovanni Ribisi’s defense lawyer character, Dan Cogdell.

Exasperated by Dan’s questioning, Gary finally says, “Cut to the chase. Just asks the question.” What question wonders Dan, and Gary replies, “You wanna know if it was inevitable, if they were planning to die all along.” When Dan asks that question, Gary says No. He says all the Branch Davidians could have been brought out alive without tactical maneuvers and with more time. Gary further says the FBI was just tired of the press and wanted it (the siege) to be over at any cost. Now Dan feels with Gary’s crucial testimony; the jury will see things in a new light.

What Is the Jury’s Verdict? 

Dan Cogdell delivers a powerful closing speech. He says the trial isn’t about whether the government has the right to attack its own citizens. The government already feels that it has the right. Hence, the real question is, “When the United States government comes for you and your family with no plan for peaceful surrender, do you have the right to defend yourselves?”

The jury then reached a verdict and handed it over to Judge Walter Smith (David Costabile). On the conspiracy, murder, and abetting the murder of federal agents, all four defendants are acquitted. Three defendants – Paul Fatta, Ruth Riddle, and Livingstone Fagan – were found guilty on the charge of using an illegal firearm. Since Clive Doyle didn’t use a firearm, he can taste the freedom soon. Dan, however, asks the Judge to reconsider the final verdict. He says it doesn’t make sense for the three to be convicted of using an illegal firearm when they aren’t convicted of the actual crime, i.e., conspiracy and abetting the murder of federal agents.

The Judge finds it to be a legal paradox. He reflects on it and declares that he is vacating the convictions on the firearms charges. The verdict rejoices the four defendants and their lawyers.

Will Carol’s Intel Lead to an Inquiry on Elohim City? 

After escaping from Elohim City, Carol safely reaches Oklahoma City and meets Gary. He finds that the chemicals she mentions – racing fuel and fertilizer – are the combination used to make a bomb in the Turner Diaries novel. This neo-nazi novel inspired Timothy McVeigh and many extremist right-wingers. Later, Gary has a fierce verbal confrontation with HRT head Mitch Decker (Shea Wingham) in the corridors of the FBI office. Mitch was enraged by Gary’s testimony which pinned the blame on his tactical team. Gary begs him to see how Waco has affected the entire country, particularly the escalation of militia presence.

Gary asks for Mitch’s support to look into the impending threat of militia movement. First of all, to convince the FBI’s top brass to conduct an inquiry on Elohim City based on his findings. When Mitch learns about Gary’s doubts about a big attack, he also accompanies Gary to convince their superior, Alan Sanborn( Stevem Williams). Alan agrees to speak with Gary’s Confidential Informant (CI), Carol Howe.

 Alan questions Carol on how she got into Aryan Brotherhood. She tells him about Wild Bill, his bank robberies, the physical abuse she suffered under him, and how she snitched on him. Then Alan asks if she is still in contact with Wild Bill. Initially, she says no, but when Alan speaks of checking the phone logs, Carol agrees that she has talked with Wild Bill a few times after he was incarcerated. Subsequently, Alan dismisses all of Carol’s efforts and wonders if she has handed them intel about a bomb with ulterior motives.

He further enquires if this was an elaborate plot of Elohim City to draw an FBI raid so that they can shoot at the feds and play victims like the Branch Davidians at Waco. Gary and Carol part ways as they are disappointed that the federal agency wouldn’t believe both of them.

Why Did the Judge Change His Mind?

Clive Doyle (John Hoogenakker) and Ruth Riddle (Kali Rocha) are happy to leave the prison complex. As they enjoy the sun and wait for the outer doors of the prison to open, a guard, after receiving a phone call, takes back Ruth using force. Meanwhile, Dan is at their regular hangout place, Polo Lounge Diner. The bartender reveals that their lawyers’ favorite waitress Jocelyn has left the job. He also says she came out of nowhere and begged for a job. Dan finds out that Jocelyn joined as a waitress just a few days before the beginning of the trial on January 1995. Dan has long doubted that someone is leaking information about the defense strategies. Could it be Jocelyn?

But before delving more into that, Dan, his fellow lawyers, and three defendants are called back to the San Antonio court premises. To everyone’s surprise, Judge Walter Smith says he made a hasty decision. Now he wants to convict and sentence the three defendants on the firearms charges. The Judge gives Ruth a five-year sentence, Paul Fatta 15 years, and Livingstone gets 40 years. This shocks everyone in the courtroom, including the prosecutor Bill Johnston (Michael Cassidy), since even five years is an unfair sentence for a firearm charge. Dan and the defendants vehemently protest the Judge’s ruling. The Judge simply threatens to throw out Dan, and the war of words eventually leads to the bailiff forcefully making Dan leave the courtroom.

Surprisingly, prosecutor Bill sits down with Dan and calms him down. Even the prosecutor is taken aback by the Judge’s change of mind and unbelievably harsh ruling. It’s unclear what or who pushed the Judge to such extremes. Nevertheless, it seems like the government didn’t want the defendants to walk free, so much so that it even overturned an impartial jury’s verdict. Prosecutor Bill seeks Dan’s help to prosecute the ATF agents for perjury.

Waco: The Aftermath (2023) Ending, Explained:

The Evil Reigns

In ‘Reckoning,’ not much is added to Vernon Howell’s (Keean Johnson) backstory. Similar to episode 1, Vernon’s transformation into David Koresh is once again seen through the perspective of Clive Doyle. Whether Clive regrets bringing up his daughter under Vernon’s manipulative and predatorial behavior is unclear. At one point, Clive remembers his daughter asking him if they should believe every word that comes out of Vernon’s mouth as God’s? Clive tries to convince his daughter that Vernon has a unique gift and they have to follow him.

Later, Clive receives news of George Roden being admitted to a mental institution. Vernon is pleased, and with no one to oppose him for Branch Davidian leadership, he takes back his flock and assumes the command of Mount Carmel Center. Clive, freed from the prison, is finally seen at the place where Mount Carmel Center stood. He and a few other people have gathered to commemorate the lives lost on the second anniversary of their death. Gary also pays a visit and delivers a speech about the ‘nature of evil.’

As per his plan, Timothy McVeigh (Alex Breaux) rents a truck with a false identity and loads it up with explosives. Gary speaks of how both sides engaged in the conflict was scared of each other and reduced the other side to ‘evil.’ He professes that despite their differences, they are fallible people and need to bridge the differences by acknowledging their mistakes. Gary’s speech is juxtaposed with visuals of Timothy driving his truck toward Oklahoma City (his deeds are the cause of the communication breakdown Gary is talking about).

Elsewhere, at Arkansas prison, the white supremacist on death row, Richard Snell (Chip Carriere), is offered the chance to look at television news. Richard is scheduled to die through lethal injection on April 19th. Instead of a last meal, Richard has asked for a TV set to watch the news of their savagery (previously hinted in episode 3).

Timothy McVeigh parks the truck in front of the Oklahoma City Federal building and leaves. Soon, the bomb shatters the building, killing 168 people, including 19 children. The series ends with Gary sitting in his car and listening to the President’s speech, condemning the ‘act of cowardice and evil.’

Final Thoughts:

John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle’s Waco (2018) took quite a few creative liberties to portray the 51-day deadly siege. Nevertheless, it was a gripping fictional retelling of events that made us emotionally invest in the characters and conflicts. Though David Koresh’s criminal behavior and manipulative nature were a little downplayed, the creators perfectly zeroed in on the federal agencies’ militarist attitudes.

Waco: The Aftermath, however, suffered from a lack of focus and clarity. As an engaging courtroom drama, it works to an extent. But the whole Timothy McVeigh and Elohim City subplot had too little material. From the first to the last episode, they simply remain as the ‘crazy right-wingers,’ and we learn nothing about their community or their mode of operation. Abbey Lee’s character absolutely offers nothing, apart from a few cinematic tense sequences.

While the real Gary Noesner regretted the loss of lives due to the tactical approach at Waco, he left the negotiation team after the 25th day.  Moreover, he never went against his own agency to testify in court, and he believes in the official version that the Branch Davidians started the fire and committed suicide. Waco: The Aftermath’s portrayal of Gary as a lone crusader with a conscience has nothing to do with the real Gary Noesner.

Of course, these ‘based on true story’ movies or series can be too farfetched that it’s on the verge of concocting falsehoods. But at least such works can be engrossing enough. Waco: The Aftermath somehow fails in that aspect, too, since there’s not much tension or complexity to the proceedings. How long can a series only sustain on foreboding scenes and music? Eventually, the series largely works due to the courtroom drama and the good performances all around.

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Waco: The Aftermath (2023) Episode 5 Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Waco: The Aftermath (2023) Episode 5 Cast: Michael Shannon, Keean Johnson, Abbey Lee, Giovanni Ribisi, Matthew Manelo, Alex Breaux, Shea Wingham, and Kali Rocha