‘Waco’ Review: Taylor Kitsch Will Make You Want to Join a Cult
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.
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.
Again, one of the things that Waco does so well is explore why Koresh is able to get away with all of this. The miniseries makes it far too easy to sympathize with him and his armed followers who are “just” looking for hope and peace. The cast is absolutely stellar, from Paul Sparks and Shea Whigham to Julia Garner and Melissa Benoist, not to mention Andrea Riseborough and John Leguizamo (there are a few gnarly wigs, but there are always are in a period piece). Every character, particularly the cult members, are immediately and instantly brought to life fully, with exceptional and emotional nuance. The same is not so for the governmental side of things, which speaks to the series’ imbalances. But John Erick Dowdle and Dennie Gordon’s direction is absolutely gorgeous, as the stark Texas plains, impending storms, and sunny afternoons are shot in a placid tone that permeates everything about the depiction of Mount Carmel.
The only character who doesn’t quite work is Rory Culkin’s extremely dry take on David Thibodeau, perhaps because Thibodeau had a hand in consulting on the show. It speaks to Waco’s reverential treatment of the Branch Davidians, though, as innocents who were caught up in the ATF and FBI’s poorly handled raids. It’s almost, ironically, propaganda.
It also sits in stark contrast to Discovery’s 90s-set anthology Manhunt: Unabomber, which chronicled the FBI’s hunt for Ted Kaczynski. In the penultimate episode, Paul Bettany shined in his portrayal of Kaczynski, humanizing him and allowing us to see how a smart kid with a lot of potential ended up as a killer, thanks largely to an incredible amount of psychological abuse. But, crucially, it never paints him as a man who was just a misunderstood genius. The pathos came in seeing how Kaczynski, in different circumstances, could have lived life on his own terms instead of feeling compelled to destroy others’. In Waco, there is no “other” option for Koresh because it never sees him as being in the wrong. That’s a huge issue.
Waco is the first major production for the rebranded Paramount Network, formerly Spike TV, which is looking to broaden its audience from just appealing to young men. Parent company Viacom recently moved the fledgling series The Shannara Chronicles over to Spike from MTV in its second season, to help bolster the upcoming Paramount’s original scripted content, but it withered and died on the vine. Waco has enough profile with its cast and in the 25th anniversary of the event to likely pull more viewers, though, and as a “prestige” project it makes sense for a network looking to definite itself in a more serious tone.
Yet as fascinating as Kitsch is to watch as Koresh (and he is truly outstanding), and as stellar as Waco’s entire cast is, there is an uncomfortable feeling of being fed a story that lionizes a cult leader in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s exploring truth so much as providing a particular point of view. Yes, there was an unbelievably terrible and unnecessary lead-up to the tragedy that killed most of the residents of Mount Carmel (the details of which are still disputed), but if the lesson is one of hubris and the clashing of individualism versus governmental control, the hand is overplayed.
Rating: ★★ Fair – A disappointing take despite a wonderful cast
Waco premieres Wednesday, January 24th on The Paramount Network