How the Shocking Cult Miniseries 'Waco' on Netflix Reframes an American Tragedy

The Taylor Kitsch docudrama first aired in 2018, but it's found a new audience on streaming.

waco show
Paramount Network

Towards the end of the penultimate episode of Waco, a six-episode retelling of the events surrounding the deadly siege and standoff at a Texas compound owned by the Branch Davidians, the religious cult leader David Koresh, played with a hunky blankness by Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch, finally unleashes hell. No, he doesn't respond to the meddling of the ATF, FBI, and local law enforcement agencies by firing off rounds from one of the many guns his religious sect illegally modified and kept in their compound. He doesn't toss a bomb or start a fire. He plugs in his Flying-V guitar, steps up to a microphone, and delivers a cover of "I Still Believe" by The Call, taunting his enemies by using up the last of the gas in the building's backup generator to recreate a scene from The Lost Boys. All he needs is a saxophone. 
While Texas Monthly indicates that this bizarre moment didn't actually happen -- Koresh did have a band and recorded his own original songs -- it's reflective of the show's macho camp sensibility and the creators' take on Koresh as a wayward rock god in search of an adoring audience. Koresh's love of the cheesy horror film The Lawnmower Man, which is also documented in the miniseries, was reportedly very real, and the show occasionally depicts him as a curious consumer of popular culture. (Early on, he meets Rory Culkin's David Thibodeau while in search of a drummer to play "My Sharona" at a dive bar.) Repeatedly, he's shown considering the intended effects of the various mediums -- including television, radio, and the printed word -- he used to send out his message of rapture and salvation. 
So perhaps it's oddly fitting that Waco, which originally aired back in 2018 on the Paramount Network (the channel formerly known as Spike and current home to the hit Yellowstone), would find a new audience on Netflix after debuting on the platform in April, right as much of the world went into lockdown following the outbreak of the coronavirus. For the past two weeks, the show has been a fixture in Netflix's Top 10, and a search of social media reveals that many viewers are watching the series under the impression that it's a "new" show produced by Netflix, and not the modern-day equivalent of a rerun. Unlike another recent basic-cable-to-Netflix phenomenon like You, there obviously won't be a Season 2 coming soon.

waco show
Paramount Network

After building up tension for five episodes, focusing on the strategic trade-offs made between Koresh and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (a calm and steely Michael Shannon, who executive produced the show along with Kitsch), Waco speeds ahead towards the grim end of the story. The first title card in the last episode announces that it's now "Day 40," one of the more significant time jumps in the show's portrayal of the stand-off, and the days tick by over the course of the hour as the trigger-happy bureaucrats at the FBI lose patience with Koresh's claims that he's working on his final manuscript. He swears he'll come out once he's finished with his magnum opus, a lengthy work about the Seven Seals that he dictates as Andrea Riseborough's Judy, one of his many wives, pounds away at a typewriter with bleeding fingers. 
Again, Koresh realizes that his battle with the government is a war of public relations. He refuses to be rushed in carefully carving every word of his version of a lengthy press release or a blog post. "I'm telling you, you'll get it when it's done," he petulantly screams at Paul Sparks's put-upon Steve, the former theology professor tasked with playing the middle-man between Koresh and the authorities. As effective as Kitsch is in the role, he also hilariously overplays a handful of moments in the finale with a kind of wide-eyed, full-throated gusto. His screaming of "No, no, no, no!" into the phone at one point tilts into the realm of unintentional comedy. 

Repeatedly, Waco frames its central conflict as a branding crisis, putting emphasis on details like the role of the cameraman brought along to the initial botched raid by the ATF and the importance of a local radio host. The rank-and-file Branch Davidians want to be viewed as "normal" folks, God-fearing people who love their kids and just want the authorities to leave them alone. The FBI, particularly the bull-headed tactical expert Mitch (Shea Whigham), wants to be perceived as a powerful force of law and order, but Shannon's level-headed interlocutor tries to convince the hawkish agents there's another way out. They simply can't see eye to eye.

waco show
Paramount Network

That often incongruous mix of perspectives can likely be attributed to the show's source material. The series was adapted from two different memoirs about the event: A Place Called Waco by David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson, which focuses on the interior workings of the compound, and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner, the FBI agent portrayed by Michael Shannon. In a sense, the show often feels like a response to long-existing media narratives surrounding the event, which often painted the Branch Davidians and Koresh as one-dimensional lunatics or argued the ATF was recklessly pursuing a destructive path without consideration for human life. ("History’s not going to be on your side with this one, Mitch," warns Shannon's Gary in the second-to-last episode.) By choosing a thoughtful skeptic like Thibodeau and a cautious egghead like Noesner as its two audience surrogates, Waco attempts to correct the record. 
That type of multi-perspective balancing act can make the show unwieldy, especially as writers John Erick and Drew Dowdle chronicle the horrifying final hours of the event, which led to the death of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children. In an age of streaming television glut, Waco is the rare miniseries that could've probably used a couple additional episodes, particularly to sketch out the complicated history of Koresh's relationship with the Branch Davidians before the raid. Throwing a pair of wide-framed aviator glasses on the actor who played Tim Riggins, the all-American football star, to play David Koresh, the psychologically abusive cult leader, is the type of wild casting choice that should be applauded. Whether he's strumming a power chord or putting on a gas mask, you believe him. It's a shame the show doesn't always show the same degree of faith.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.
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