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.