Religious cults and their leaders scandalize the American mind more, perhaps, than they do any other culture. Cults may be the ultimate abuse of the sacred American prerogatives of freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly, wasting both on voluntary submission to leaders who are undeserving almost by definition. Liberal culture distrusts the religious visionary just as it distrusts most polticial visionaries, on the assumption that such people are out for themselves, interested more in receiving the submission of the gullible than in anything else, unless they happen to be authentically insane, when they might be even more dangerous. The Dowdle brothers' six-part miniseries about the fatal 1993 government siege of the Branch Davidian community in Texas may scandalize audiences most through its efforts to humanize Davidian leader David Koresh. As played by Taylor "John Carter" Kitsch, Koresh is often quite a mundane figure, seen early going out for a jog with his son and playing with a rock band in a bar. It's only when discussing religion that a certain madness emerges; David believes that he's the lamb of God who will open the seven seals of Revelation, after which his children shall be judges over the earth. With great responsibility comes great privilege: David claims the right -- he sees it as his duty -- to take multiple wives while the other Davidian men remain celibate. For all that, things don't seem so awful at his compound, apart maybe from the stockpiling of weapons that attracts the attention of the ATF.
According to the miniseries it's only under pressure from the government, once he believes that he has only a short time to complete his prophetic work, does David become something like the demonic figure the feds took him to be all along, holding dozens of innocents hostage to his ambition. The immolation of the compound thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a liberal government that fears the implicit tyranny of cults, but even then Waco, based partly on a survivor's memoir, takes pains to show that Koresh wasn't directly responsible for his followers' deaths, except insofar as he blundered by trapping them in a bunker without realizing how easily a tear-gas assault can turn into an inferno.
From the other side, Waco follows the account of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon in a rare good-guy role), who came to Texas after bringing the Ruby Ridge siege to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout, Noesner's main concern is saving lives, which infuriates his colleague Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), whose own concern for the children in the compound is eclipsed by his impatient contempt for Koresh. Mitch becomes the real bad guy of the piece, but in a way that implicates an audience likely to share his impatience with Noesner's seeming coddling (at taxpayers' expense) of a despicable villain's stall tactics. He gets a sort of moral comeuppance at the end when, after the final assault goes to hell, he makes an agonized single-handed effort to rescue Rachel Koresh (Melissa "Supergirl" Benoist) from a compacted escape hatch. The scene sums up the tragedy of Waco, at least as the Dowdles see it, by underscoring Mitch's sincere desire to rescue innocents (however complicit Rachel may have been as David's primary wife) while showing how his own bullying tactics sabotaged his best impulses.
The show as a whole will no doubt please those who see the Waco siege as Exhibit A of big-government intrusiveness against people's right to live as they please, but by now I don't think anyone doubts that the government went too far there, nor do I think that saying so implies any endorsement of religious cults. Some may wonder whether Waco goes too far in portraying Koresh as a tragic antihero as late in the game as the end of episode five when, defying Mitch's psy-op tactics, David performs an impromptu rock concert, but that's inevitably a matter of subjective perception. The miniseries for all its virtues doesn't change my view that the Waco story was a double tragedy, most obviously in the way it ended, but also because cults like Koresh's are a human tragedy in the first place.