Waco Skims a Very American Tragedy

The new Paramount miniseries about the 1993 siege doesn’t quite get to the heart of how David Koresh happened.

Taylor Kitsch stars as David Koresh in Paramount's miniseries 'Waco'

The story of the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993 is such a fundamentally American one—such a charged and tragic conflict between dogmatic believers and overbearing authorities—that it’s hard to grasp how it hasn’t been dramatized into a television series before. It’s a tale of men bearing arms, of charismatic and damaged hucksters, of lost souls putting their faith in a man who promised them both joy and the end of the world. It ended, as most epic American stories do, with a gunfight, drawn out over two months. But no one won. Not the Branch Davidians, around 80 of whom lost their lives, including more than 20 children. Not the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, whose raid on the religious community led by David Koresh at Mount Carmel was characterized by an impossible number of blunders, and a profound—and entirely unnecessary—number of dead bodies on the ground.

In the aftermath of Waco, so catastrophic an event that it became immediately mononymous, there were punchlines on late-night television, Nightline investigations, a made-for-TV movie starring Tim Daly, and a spurt of books and documentaries. The work that most thoughtfully dissected the cultural origins of Waco, though, was fiction: John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. Published in 1996, and taking its title from a line in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the novel considered the dual poles of American culture, religion and Hollywood, and the comfort and escape offered by both. In the book’s final section, a lonely and disaffected dropout named after Clark Gable joins a commune that shuns popular culture, but finds his faith challenged during the apocalyptic group’s march toward a final reckoning.

There are glimpses of insight in Waco, a new six-part miniseries debuting Wednesday on the Paramount Network (the rebranded name for what used to be Spike). Toward the end of the third episode, after the ATF’s calamitous first engagement with the Branch Davidians has left 10 people dead, an FBI negotiator, Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), offers David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) a prize for his surrender: He’ll broadcast Koresh’s religious teachings on national television. Koresh agrees. He’s convinced the wide transmission of his message will persuade the whole country that he’s the Lamb of God, and as he listens to his own words, he’s soothed, smiling serenely at the sound of his own voice. But after the broadcast ends, his expression shifts as news anchors weigh in, deriding his “rambling discourse” and labeling him a “cheap thug.” Koresh is enraged, humiliated. “God spoke to me,” he snarls at Noesner. “We ain’t coming out.”

Things might have gone a little differently if Koresh, like Charles Manson before him, had gotten the music career he wanted. In the summer of 1991, as David Thibodeau recalls in his book A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, Koresh had established himself as a leader at Mount Carmel, where he preached a prophetic reading of the Bible involving the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation. But he had dreams of rock stardom, making trips to Los Angeles to pitch an album. His continued failures left him increasingly dissatisfied. One night, Thibodeau writes, Koresh “threw up his hands. ‘You know, in the end I have to say, who needs the world? My true purpose is to work with a small group of people, give them the chance to fulfill the Seals. This is all I want; I don’t want any more.’” But Koresh’s religious ambitions were inseparable from his musical dreams—both grandiose, laughable schemes in which he became a central force in global consciousness.

The challenge for Waco, which was developed by The Weinstein Company (whose name is no longer attached to it), is to find some sense in all this sound and fury—to explain not just how Waco happened, but also why, and how all of it relates to Koresh’s careful construction of his own mystique. It’s the rare work of prestige drama that’s frustratingly truncated, because there’s so much more to the story than can be satisfyingly condensed into six episodes. The adaptation—created and directed by John Erick Dowdle (No Escape), and written by his brother, Drew—is based on two definitive interpretations of the Waco siege, Thibodeau’s book, and Gary Noesner’s memoir, Stalling for Time. Waco is largely defined by these separate narratives of what went wrong, both inside and outside of Mount Carmel. It’s balanced to a fault, sometimes overly so.

What Waco needs, and fails to achieve, is a complex, unified theory of Koresh. How did a skinny, neglected high-school dropout reinvent himself as the one true interpreter of the Bible, and a central force in bringing about end times? Kitsch plays Koresh as a deluded cornball, gripping his electric guitar and shaking his preposterous mullet through a cover of “My Sharona.” There’s nothing threatening about him, but there’s also nothing really compelling. He’s palpably transparent, with the genial patter of a used-car salesman rather than a prophet. In one scene he and Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) are repairing a roof, as Koresh explains that the men in the community are celibate because sexuality keeps people prisoners to their basest instincts. “I’ve assumed the burden of sex for us all,” Koresh explains, and somehow Thibodeau doesn’t laugh out loud.

Waco is generous when it comes to portraying Koresh’s followers, although it offers a limited view of what they looked and sounded like (the characters are all American, even though a large proportion in reality were from Australia and Britain). It also has an embarrassingly talented cast, from Shannon and Kitsch to Melissa Benoist as Koresh’s wife, Rachel; Julia Garner as Rachel’s sister, Michelle, who was “married” to him as well at the age of 12 after he saw their union in a vision; and Andrea Riseborough as Judy, one of David’s many subsequent “wives.” Paul Sparks plays Judy’s husband, Steve, Koresh’s trusted deputy who’s chafing at his wife being impregnated by another man, even one who’s the Lamb of God.

There are some subtle parallels between the storylines of Steve’s growing disaffection with Koresh’s abuse of power and Noesner’s increasing discomfort within the FBI, which is still reeling from a disastrous standoff with a white nationalist in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Noesner prefers negotiation to brute force, which puts him at odds with the trend toward militarization in law enforcement. “If you put more guns in people’s hands they’re gonna use them,” he argues. “There’s a paradox to power. The more force you bring to a situation, the more likely you are to meet resistance.” Shannon, forlorn but determined as Noesner, is all gentle reasoning in the face of his colleagues’ pigheaded rush to arm up, and the point he makes rings truer now—as anti-government protesters openly carry assault rifles in American cities—than ever.

In that sense, Waco is an effective primer on recent trends in American extremism. You can draw a line between Koresh home-schooling the many children at Mount Carmel to protect them from secular influences and the mini-cult David and Louise Turpin reportedly established in their home in California, torturing all 13 of their children in the name of God. The anti-government sentiment set off by Ruby Ridge and Waco has influenced all manner of uprisings, from the Tea Party movement to the growth of militias. But with just six episodes to condense a multitude of information into, Waco skims the history rather than underlining the arguments it so badly wants to make.

It also largely wastes its incredible cast in the first three episodes made available for review, although Garner shines as Michelle, and Benoist imbues Rachel with a steely, sorority-sister kind of authority. The biggest question mark in the series is Kitsch’s Koresh, who remains at a distance from the audience. Waco nods to some integral moments in his biography (how he was bullied for needing special-education classes for his dyslexia, how he never knew his father) and, at least at this point, neglects others (how he found religion). But there’s little to comprehend in how he persuaded several dozen people to sacrifice not just their own lives but also their children’s. “We were at Waco with David because we believed in him and in his message,” one of his disciples, Livingstone Fagan, told Vice in 2009. “If people were going to come and tell us we couldn’t believe David’s truth and his role then we weren’t just going to go home … We were going to fight.” How does someone inspire that kind of devotion? Waco doesn’t tell.

And that matters, because the question is about so much more than Koresh. The question of how people choose their false prophets, and why some figures can seem like heaven-sent saviors to some Americans and absurd snake-oil salesmen to others, is an urgent one. There are few heroes in Waco, the righteous Noesner aside. But everyone is looking for one, and the lack of eligible subjects leaves them putting their faith—and their lives—in the hands of the unworthy.