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Crime News

Was 'Waco' Too Sympathetic On The Branch Davidians? Critics Weigh In

After the finale, here's why everyone is talking about the miniseries "Waco." 

By Sowmya Krishnamurthy

In 1993, authorities sieged the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas is what continues to be a controversial moment in law enforcement history. Known as "Waco," the incident featured a standoff between Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a reclusive religious sect known as the Branch Davidians, led by their leader David Koresh. The incident lasted 51 days and left four federal agents as well as 82 Branch Davidians, including Koresh, dead.

One of the biggest mysteries around the incident is who started the blaze that ultimately burned down the Waco compound and killed the adults and children inside. Was it on the orders of Koresh, who believed he was Jesus reincarnated, or was it the work of the government hoping to smoke out the heavily-armed cult? An independent investigation found that the blaze started inside the building, as Time reported, but that continues to remain a point of contention.

Twenty-five years later, the miniseries "Waco" (Paramount Network) is a scripted retelling about those events starring Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch. After the finale, did the series do the siege justice or was it too sympathetic on the Branch Davidians? TV critics weighed in.

The series was called "unnervingly sympathetic" to Koresh by The Hollywood Reporter. The review states that the cult's reported crimes, including polygamy and statutory rape, are not shown. In 1993, victims from the cult told a doctor that Koresh had multiple wives as young as 13 and 14 years old, according to The New York Times.

"The treatment of Koresh is as a caring, sympathetic Biblical scholar — a Biblical genius, even! — whose interest in guns and jailbait and the upcoming apocalypse is sane, sincere and decently intentioned," says The Hollywood Reporter review. "It doesn't especially matter if you, as a viewer, believe anything he's saying because in the miniseries, he does."

This sentiment is echoed in the The New York Times review, which notes that Koresh (played by Kitsch) is portrayed with compassion and his alleged crimes glossed over. 

"'Waco' is a workmanlike summary of events that paints a largely, some might say excessively, sympathetic portrait of Koresh and his followers," the review states. It adds, "The Branch Davidians are generally shown as an amiable, levelheaded, fun-loving bunch..."

The issue of Koresh's alleged underage brides is treated "fairly gently," reviewed Variety. The reviewer says that this part of the narrative needs to be delved into. 

"Another jarring element is that Koresh’s history of sleeping with underage women — 'brides,' in his view — is treated fairly gently, as if, in the grand scheme of things, that part of the story didn’t matter much. Then or now, such behavior would be deeply troubling — if not illegal — but these concerns are briefly raised only to be brushed aside."

Lorraine Ali at The Los Angeles Times found the portrayal of the cult leader problematic too.

"It's so busy delivering Spam-sized chunks of ham-fisted dialogue defending the misunderstood Koresh, it loses all those other critical threads that make Waco a cautionary tale for all sides," she writes. 

The critic at The Atlantic says that there needs to be a unified narrative on who Koresh really was to explain why the cult and later, the siege occurred. 

"The challenge for "Waco"... is to find some sense in all this sound and fury—to explain not just how Waco happened, but also why, and how all of it relates to Koresh’s careful construction of his own mystique," the reviewer shares. "What Waco needs, and fails to achieve, is a complex, unified theory of Koresh."

What did you think of Waco? Catch up on the miniseries here.

[Photo: Paramount]