I’m old enough to remember when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ (ATF) raid of David Koresh’s compound resulted in a 51-day standoff that left 76 people dead. But I was also full of youthful naïveté and a strong belief about who was right and who was wrong. What I recall most from that time is thinking, “Why would anyone live in a cult and follow a man who thinks he’s God? Why would they give their life for him?”
Waco humanizes the story, making not only Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) but also his followers fully developed characters. The six-episode series focuses on the nine months leading up to the 1993 raid and its horrifying aftermath. By the time we meet Koresh, he’s already the leader of Branch Davidians, “married” to multiple women and the father of 13 children born by these various wives. He has a gift for recognizing the vulnerable and the wounded—the lost souls. Those whose lives remain empty even when they have a law degree from Harvard or own their own pool company or live in Hawaii. When Koresh meets David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) at a bar, he immediately sees in the drummer someone who is searching for attention, desperate for love.
From Waco’s perspective, Koresh is a devoted follower of God who truly believes he is doing what’s best for those who follow him. He runs every morning with his son and has convinced all the husbands that they can no longer have sex with their wives. But, of course, he can, because he’s doing God’s work. “I assume the burden of sex for us all,” Koresh tells Thibodeau. Later, we see him stopping during sex with his first wife, Rachel (Melissa Benoist), because he was enjoying it too much.
Koresh also took Rachel’s younger sister Michelle (Julia Garner) as his bride when she was just 12 years old. It is these disturbing and salacious facts that we remember. In the three episodes made available for review, there’s not enough condemnation of these crimes. In fact, what Waco does best is make Koresh not a monster. It almost poses the question, “Could he be a compassionate leader even though he was sexually abusing Michelle and perhaps others?” Which prompts another: Can I like the miniseries while also being concerned by its perspective?
Waco spends more time on another troubling story. One of an FBI and ATF still recovering from the deadly hostage situation in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. One of an overeager and aggressive agent who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. One of an ATF agent whose warnings to call off the raid were ignored. One of a negotiator who tried to de-escalate things when he was surrounded by those who wanted to escalate everything. “If we come out of that compound with a bunch of kids and loaded guns, it might remind Congress why they need us,” one bureau chief says ominously. The FBI even had a public relations person on site trying to control the narrative.
The miniseries, which press notes tell us writers and executive producers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle spent years researching, portrays Koresh as a sympathetic character. “His ability to understand scripture is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” follower Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) tells Thibodeau. But Steve is also struggling because his wife, Judy (Andrea Riseborough), is pregnant with Koresh’s child. Viewers will have to remember that the reason there was a shootout on February 28, 1993 was not only because of a misguided (according to the series) government raid, but also because the Branch Davidians had an arsenal with which to shoot back. Koresh claims they weren’t going to use the guns. While that may be true, they still had them.
I’ll confess that the main reason I wanted to review Waco is because of Kitsch, who I’ve adored since his days as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights. (Really, who hasn’t?) Kitsch disappears into the role so convincingly that I often forgot that’s who I was watching. He threads that tricky needle of making Koresh caring but not innocent, misunderstood but also dangerous. Kitsch brings the charisma that makes it understandable why people would want to live on a compound with no running water or outside life.
The performances in general are fantastic. An early standout is John Leguizamo as Jacob Vazquez, an agent sent by the ATF to gather intel on Koresh. Koresh’s followers beg him to not invite Jacob into the compound, but he sees Jacob as one more soul he can save. “That man, he’s searching. God sent him to me. Who am I to turn him away?” he asks. Jacob, it should be noted, is a composite character created “based on events that took place.” Much of the story comes from interviews producers had with Thibodeau and Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), head of FBI negotiations. That leads one to believe that the series will continue to show both sides of this tragedy.
Spike rebranded itself as the Paramount Network on January 18, moving away from its former image as “the first network for men” (remember The Joe Schmo Show?) The Spike twitter account even had a humorous meltdown in the days leading up to the switch. Waco is indicative of the type of edgy programming the new Paramount Network is planning. The coming months will bring a TV version of Heathers and American Women, starring Alicia Silverstone and Menu Suvari.
Waco is thought-provoking, risky, and engaging, with the type of nuanced performances that should garner Emmy nominations. As The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be surprisingly timely, so too is Waco. Twenty-five years after that horrible catastrophe in Texas, we are more confused than ever about news sources and what to believe. Now Koresh and his followers are getting their due, and a network is getting a terrific start.
Waco premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on the Paramount Network.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .