Days after the world watched a fire take the lives of 76 people, bringing a gruesome end to a 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI, my parents announced to friends and family that they were moving to Texas—my dad was going to be the pastor of the First Baptist Waco. One particularly spirited neighbor of ours in Charleston, South Carolina, responded, “My God, Walker, what did you do to the bishop?”
Baptists, of course, don’t have bishops, and Waco certainly wasn’t the hellish landscape people saw play out on TV. But it’s true that the town has a complicated history when it comes to politics and religion, the two defining themes of Waco, a six-part miniseries premiering on the newly minted Paramount Network (formerly Spike).
No matter how many times its citizens informed curious outsiders that the Branch Davidian siege actually took place thirteen miles outside of the city, anyone who claims Waco has heard some version of, “Something bad happened there, right?” And after 25 years, just as Waco’s citizens—including but not limited to those charming and telegenic Gainses, their Silos, and Texas-tourist numbers that now outrank the Alamo—have nearly earned those thirteen miles of distance from the Branch Davidian tragedy, their city is once again linked to it.
The name recognition alone makes co-creators’ John and Drew Dowdle choice perfect: Waco. A single word, with all the baggage, lore, complexity, repute, and unanswered questions it brings along with it. Judging by the first episode, Waco seeks neither to answer all those questions, nor to rewrite history. Rather than simply reenacting for us how the 51-day siege at Mount Carmel went down, Wednesday’s premiere smartly sets the stage for why it ever came to this: a perfect storm of the ATF at their most desperate, the FBI at its most obstinate, the Branch Davidians being challenged by their own righteousness, and a hostage negotiation team trying—and failing—to keep it all from blowing up.
Wednesday’s premiere opens on the whistling Central Texas planes, recreating the moment on February 28, 1993 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed up at the Mount Carmel Center with an artillery of livestock trucks packed with agents. The Dowdle brothers have said they wanted to tell this story “from the inside out,” and so the series begins appropriately with that infamous first hollered plea from Koresh, as he looks in horror down the faceless barrel of militarized law enforcement: “Please! There are women and children in here!”
After the title card rolls—”WACO,” there’s that word—the timeline jumps back to show Koresh, nine months earlier, preaching to some of those women, children, and men about the joy that comes from “becoming more than you are today.” If I have a criticism of the premiere, it’s that. Although depictions of the frazzled state and thirsty politicking of the ATF and FBI are stated rather plainly, the introduction to the Branch Davidians’ leader is almost timid. Koresh was no Charles Manson, but allegations of child abuse and wives as young as twelve years old remain completely outside the line of sight for this first episode.
In Taylor Kitsch, Waco has a charming lead—that’s a positive for a television series, but perhaps a rewriting of history when it comes to David Koresh, not noted by most outside the Mount Carmel Center for being particularly charismatic. In the end, it might be another aspect of Kitsch’s leading man quality that lends itself to a more accurate depiction of Koresh: an enduring desire to follow his lead, even when you’re not entirely sure why.
The handful of Branch Davidians we’re introduced to in the premiere are testing those bounds of devotion as they face the progressively challenging revelations about their leader. Koresh’s right-hand man, Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks), finds out early in the episode that his wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough) is pregnant. Schneider was not thrilled. Later, as he’s packing a bag to leave Mount Carmel, she tells him, “You men, with all your talk of suffering and . . . everything you sacrifice for your faith. But you know what? I’m that sacrifice. You sacrificed me!” It’s a thrilling challenge of what is clearly a patriarchal culture.
Judy wanted to leave when David Koresh had his revelation that all of the women on the compound should become his wives in order to generate the 24 children that he believes will become the “24 elders who will sit in judgement over the end of times” as told in Revelations. So why did Steve make her stay if he didn’t want her to carry Koresh’s child? “Well, if your wife has the chance to marry the Lamb of God, who am I to hold her back?” he snarks. Still, when Steve later explains to a newcomer how Koresh’s grasp of the Bible moved him from pursuing a doctorate in Hawaii to living without running water in Waco, his faith seems resolutely restored.
Waco takes care with depicting the Branch Davidians not as blind followers, but as devout believers motivated by a doctrine that’s all but impossible for others to comprehend. Teetering on the line of congregant and gawking outsider is the aforementioned newcomer, David Thibodeau (an actual survivor of the siege and author of A Place Called Waco, one of two memoirs this series is based on), played with weary curiosity by Rory Culkin. Koresh asks Thibodeau to fill in on drums for his band while in town—bet you didn’t expect to hear “My Sharona” in this hour—and then back to Mount Carmel to stay in their makeshift community for a while. After six months contributing to the farm and befriending the people, Koresh hits Thibodeau with the final interview question: “You think you could remain celibate if you stay?”
As Koresh explains it, he had a revelation a few years ago “that really shook things up”: man’s own enslavement to his sexual desire muddies spiritual clarity. Koresh explains that he has “assumed the burden of sex for all of us—but not for my own kicks.”
In the midst of introducing the followers’ and their devotion, Waco brought in the other integral parts of this story: the ATF and FBI. To set that stage, the premiere weaves in and out of another, mishandled incident that preceded Waco: the eleven-day siege on the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. When the ATF arrived at Randy Weaver’s home to arrest him for selling illegal sawed-off shotguns, a shootout ensued, leaving Weaver’s thirteen-year-old son dead. We watch as the FBI rolls in to take over the disaster, and then issues shoot-on-sight directive that leaves yet another Weaver dead. Finally, in walks a voice of reason in the form of Gary Noesner (a simultaneously stoic and empathetic Michael Shannon), author of Waco‘s other primary source, Stalling for Time: My Life As an FBI Hostage Negotiator.
While the head of the FBI’s hostage rescue team worries about keeping this mess pinned on the ATF, Noesner meets Randy Weaver on his level in a fictionalized account of events (Noesner wasn’t actually a negotiator at Ruby Ridge). He tells Weaver that if he wants to get back at the people who killed his family, he has to stay alive: “Dead men don’t get a trial. You die . . . you give everyone here a free pass.” Randy Weaver eventually surrenders.
But the FBI still got a free pass for their role in the deaths at Ruby Ridge, despite Noesner’s insistence to his boss that their Bureau mishandled the situation. As we find out at the ATF’s headquarters, their response to having the “crappy case” pinned on them, is to find a better case to inspire Congress to keep them funded. Enter a religious group outside Waco, Texas, flagged by UPS for a delivery of grenade casings, headed up by a polygamist named David Koresh who’s allegedly spent over $200,000 on guns in the last few years. “If we come out of that compound with a bunch of innocent kids and loaded guns . . . it might remind Congress why they need us.”
I don’t need to remind you what happened next, and neither does Waco. The series takes on as its responsibility instead, to tell you why it happened. Why the ATF and FBI’s aggressive and violent approach against its own civilians was a recipe for disaster from the beginning. And, hopefully, after six episodes, Waco won’t be the only entity continually standing trial for a massacre that happened thirteen miles outside of it.