‘Waco’ Review: Taylor Kitsch Will Make You Want to Join a Cult

     January 24, 2018

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In the Paramount Network miniseries Waco, created by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, Mount Carmel is more like a hippie commune than a cult. The Texas compound was the homestead of the Branch Davidians, led at that time (the early 1990s) by David Koresh, a Bible fundamentalist who believed himself to be a Messiah figure. In the TV adaptation of the notorious true story (mainly thanks to some horrendously stupid decisions by the ATF and later the FBI), Taylor Kitsch plays Koresh as a kindly, mild-mannered, and extremely charismatic leader who seems to only want the believers of Mount Carmel to lead a better life. Sign me up!

This is Waco’s first and most pervasive problem, as it immediately (and throughout the first three of its eventual six episodes) paints Koresh as a kind of misunderstood Messiah. The series lionizes him, brushing over his polygamy, weapon stockpiles, and the fact that he married his first wife at the age of 14, and reportedly carried on relationships with other girls (including his wife’s sister), who were even younger than that. Kitsch, along with Waco’s compelling script, does a fantastic job of making us understand how Koresh could convince hundreds of men and women — some of whom had Harvard degrees, were professors of theology, and more — to believe in him and his revelations. He’s someone who made everyone feel welcome, seen, and understood, and then only casually brought up things like the celibacy required at Mount Carmel by all men other than himself. The children born there were almost all his, a fundamentalist army who were not allowed to go past a short border fence. But even that is painted as idyllic, as Koresh takes the time to jog in the mornings with one of his sons, and “punishes” another by letting him eat the ice cream he was angling to steal. None of the compound’s abuses, as were written about at the time, are addressed.

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Image via Paramount Network

Waco tells two narratives: the story of Koresh and Mount Carmel, and that of an FBI negotiator who tried to deescalate the situation. Both are based on books, A Place Called Waco, by Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau, and Stalling For Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator, written by the FBI’s Gary Noesner, both of whom are portrayed in the series. But Waco makes its allegiances clear. Other than Michael Shannon’s woebegone Noesner (a rare good-guy role for Shannon), every ATF and FBI character is a villain or dangerously incompetent, creating a storm of idiocy that led to the completely unnecessary deaths of over 80 individuals over the course of a 51-day stand off. On the heels of Ruby Ridge, which the miniseries also portrays briefly to introduce both Noesner and the militarized insanity of government agencies that aren’t being held accountable, the choice is clear: the heroes are the individuals just trying to live life in privacy, while the U.S. Government is an evil giant trying to crush them and take away their liberties.

That is, in this particular political climate, a very unnecessary take. The events of Ruby Ridge and Waco, horrific and unnecessary as they were, do not justify this miniseries’ pointed ambiguity towards Koresh. Though in its first three episodes Waco bounces around in time, from just before the first ATF siege on Mount Carmel to what came after, it doesn’t investigate the prior power struggles within the Branch Davidians, or how Koresh came to take it over. It only briefly hints at some of the fundamentalist practices that defined the cult, and there is just one throwaway line from a girl who was in a sexual relationship with Koresh as a minor. But since she’s forced into marriage with another man (while still having sex with Koresh as his “spiritual wife,” as per the compound’s rules), it’s painted as being fine and well.

Television