Cults, their followers, and their ultimate spectacular ends have captured public imagination for decades, but only one cult met their tragic end as publicly as David Koresh and his followers in Waco. April 19, 1993, is forever marked in history as one of the most spectacular failures of the FBI and ATF when the Branch Davidian compound known as Mount Carmel burned to the ground after a 51-day standoff. To mark the 25th anniversary of this event, the Paramount Network (formerly known as Spike TV) has developed a six-episode miniseries based on survivor David Thibodeau’s memoir, A Place Called Waco, and FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner’s memoir, Stalling for Time.
A Place Called Waco, re-released this month as Waco: A Survivor’s Story to coincide with the new show, was first published a scant 6 years after the siege at Waco came to an end. It gives remarkable insight into the daily operations of the cult as well as a sense of what David Koresh was like as a friend and religious leader. It’s important to note, however, that this memoir—as with all other media—is not without bias. This story is David Thibodeau’s truth as he remembers it and as he interpreted events at the time.
Will we ever really know what David Koresh was really like? Will we ever understand his motivations? And was he really receiving a message from God, or was he suffering from some kind of undiagnosed mental disorder? There’s a range of media that explores these questions, and we’ll be exploring a few of them here in a six-part series.
The first episode of the miniseries begins roughly at the same point as David Thibodeau’s memoir: with a glimpse of Waco on the fateful day followed by Thibodeau’s recollection of meeting David (portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, who is also a producer on the show) for the first time. In the show, it’s clear that the story told will not be from Thibodeau’s point of view; Koresh is the focal point.
The facts of Thibodeau’s meeting with Koresh for the first time are a bit glamorized in the show as they meet at a bar where Koresh’s band has a gig. I suppose that’s a bit more romantic than meeting at a Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard. What they do show is Thibodeau’s skepticism, portrayed by the prolific young actor Rory Culkin, as he first listens to Koresh’s interpretations of the bible.
Unfortunately, the show skips forward quite a few months, leaving out Thibodeau’s extremely important struggle to come to terms not only with Koresh’s religious teachings but also with some of the more extreme rules Koresh has put into place for those who choose to live at the main compound at Mount Carmel—namely that of celibacy and Koresh’s penchant for polygamy. Without seeing that struggle, it’s very hard to understand the motivations of someone like Thibodeau, who spurned organized religion, saying in his memoir:
“Under the urging of Mim, my paternal grandmother, I attended Sunday school and midnight mass at Easter, but organized religion and the holy rollers on TV disgusted me with their hypocrisies.”
How does someone go from this feeling of disgust for organized religion to the almost militaristic regiment of Koresh’s doomsday cult? Someone who just wanted to play music in a rock band—a career usually filled with booze and women—to a place where such things were strictly prohibited? It’s a shame the show doesn’t delve into this psychological shift more.
The other aspect of this first episode that I found alarming was the portrayal of Michelle Jones. Jones is played by Julia Garner, an actress in her mid-20s, which makes hard to reconcile the fact that the real Michelle—the younger sister of Koresh’s young wife Rachel (who was only 14 when they married)—was only 15 when she met Thibodeau and that her two-year-old daughter, Serenity, was Koresh’s. Perhaps this will become clearer in later episodes, but Koresh’s hebephilia—or fascination with early adolescent girls—is completely glossed over, with the ick factor of his sexual preferences taken out by casting someone who’s clearly older and more mature to play the 15-year-old.
Despite these initial inaccuracies, I’m curious to see what else the show has to offer in the coming weeks. The Gary Noesner point of view is probably the most interesting side of the show so far. I was hoping that by including both Thibodeau’s point of view and the point of view of the FBI hostage negotiator, we’d get a more balanced view of what happened at Waco—but that remains to be seen. Noesner’s story, for the purposes of Waco, begins at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where a number of government agencies made several mistakes that ended in an unnecessary loss of life and led to—along with the siege at Waco—reforms in use of deadly force policies. But I digress.
Again, the show glosses over details. Noesner doesn’t arrive at the scene until the standoff has already begun. Randy Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris have resisted arrest by six US Marshalls when they arrive to serve a bench warrant to Weaver after he failed to appear in court for firearms charges. In the resulting shootout, one US Marshall is killed, as is Weaver’s son, Sammy. Shortly afterward, Weaver’s wife, Vicky, was shot and killed by an FBI sniper, and the two sides squared off for a total of 11 days. In the show, Noesner shows up very shortly after Vicky’s death, and our hero ends the standoff in what seems like an afternoon.
I understand that for cinematic purposes events need to be abridged somewhat, but after 25 years, we have a whole new generation of people who either weren’t alive yet or were too young to remember the events of Waco. For some of us, it’s seared into our cultural conscience and gave rise to other incidents that forever changed America as we know it today. We’ll get into those things in the coming weeks. Paramount TV’s show, we must remember, is a dramatized fictional portrayal. To get a firmer grasp on what happened at Waco on that fateful day in 1993, we must also look at other media.
Next week, we’ll take a deeper dive into David Koresh, the man, with a complete review of Waco: A Survivor’s Story as well as some other media that bring up some important coverage of the event and posit some psychological theories about the infamous cult leader. Stay tuned!
Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.