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'Waco': Taylor Kitsch is cult leader David Koresh in a fiery miniseries

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in “Waco.” (Photo: Paramount Network)

You probably remember the broad outline, at least, of the story of David Koresh, the leader of a cult called the Branch Davidians, who led his group in a violent standoff with government agents from his compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. That story gets the miniseries treatment in Waco, a six-part production that begins airing Wednesday on the Paramount Network (formerly Spike TV). It stars Taylor Kitsch as Koresh and Michael Shannon as Gary Noesner, an FBI hostage negotiator.

In tackling this material, show creators John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle take pains to make Koresh something other than a religious zealot. Koresh’s preachings, rooted in the Book of Revelations, are presented as eccentric theories but not doomsday prophecy, at least in the three episodes made available for review. His group of disciples, who willingly live in a remote house in Waco with no running water and little contact with the outside world, are frequently shown as a happy clan. This is despite the fact that Koresh seemed to have felt free to have sex with any woman of his choice there, some of them underage, and the fact that the cult kept very young children — some of them fathered by Koresh — on these barren premises without any opportunity to be free. There was also the assertion by the ATF, the government bureau that regulates firearms, that Koresh had stockpiled a large supply of automatic weapons.

On the other side of the equation, Waco portrays the ATF and the FBI as mostly ineffectual screwups who initiated the violence that resulted in a bloody siege. Only Shannon’s Gary, the calm-voiced negotiator, seems sensible or particularly intelligent. When you add in Kitsch’s charismatic performance, Waco comes out an oddity: A show that’s more or less on the side of a violent, exploitative cult.

Other familiar faces in Waco include Supergirl, Melissa Benoist, as Koresh’s wife, Rachel; John Leguizamo as an undercover ATF agent, and Rory Culkin as cult member David Thibodeau. The reenactments of the government assault on the compound, and the aggressive response by the cult, are well-staged. If you’re looking to learn more about the roots of this tragedy, I recommend watching Oklahoma City, the remarkable 2017 documentary by filmmaker Barak Goodman, now available on Netflix. It does an amazing job of summarizing the ideas and details of the radical movements that inspired the Branch Davidians, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992.

Waco airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the Paramount Network.

Check out Taylor Kitsch talking about the toll of playing David Koresh here:

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