Being a Review, a Sound Thrashing of Monotheism and Cults, Federal Overreach, and, Generally, All Things to All People
Q: Is this really a review of the Netflix limited series?
A: Sort of. In broad strokes. It’s also a critique of monotheism, organized religion, crazy groups that like to live in bunkers with guns, federal law enforcement, etc. Like the series and Koresh, it’s kind of unfocused. If you’re a person of, shall we say, firm (and artificially structured) spiritual belief, if you like guns, believe in unfounded apocalyptic prophecies, believe you are going to heaven (and people like me are going to hell)(for everyone who believes in the rather prosaic descriptions of burning lakes and chains of ice; let me remind you that I’ve spent large segments of my youth in pediatric cancer wards; if hell exists, it’ll pale in comparison to some of the things I’ve personally experienced), you’re not going to like this essay. You might like the series as an interesting commentary on federal interference with local law enforcement/religious issues, but you will have to overcome squeamishness at the fact that the guy in charge was crazier than an angry rattlesnake and raped underage girls.
I remember the Waco stand-off in 1993 somewhat peripherally, as one of the first national news events/crises of which I was aware only through the news (as someone who survived the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the Reagan Administration, and other natural disasters; previous national crises weren’t so much “headlines” for me as much as, “That was news?” to me; but I digress). I was in the second/third grade, and, at the time; like most second-graders, my thought was, “So, carry the two…” Like Chernobyl, I was mostly unaware of it (I was a little over a year old when Chernobyl occurred). If I were inclined toward cynicism; I’d point out that Netflix’s Waco is a snowclone of HBO’s Chernobyl — an incident that, whilst briefly grabbing national attention, is poorly-understood and the public’s knowledge of details are rather vague; and which filmmakers research and dramatise (the source material for this are two memoirs written by the FBI’s lead negotiator and a former cult member).
You probably remember this as that time a creepy sex/survivalist Kooky Kult holed up in a compound in Texas (pro-tip; unless you’re a rancher, smuggler, or soldier, if you live in a compound, that’s a strong indication it’s time to examine your social circle) with a bunch of guns and kids, and somehow got into an armed conflict with federal law enforcement that ended in blood and tears. The snide agnostic in me would like to point out that “it all ended in blood and tears” is pretty much the underlying promise of organized religion. It’s a way of dealing with death that acknowledges that, while death is unavoidable, you also don’t have to die. I guess it makes more sense if you’re more into religion than me (I also feel obligated to point out that there is a lot of evidence that a tendency toward belief is genetically-influenced — not in the sense that if your parents are Muslims, you’re going to be a fan of Allah, but if both are devout Muslims, you’ll be a fan of some form of organized, too; if your parents are lapsed, disinterested Jewish folks, chances are you’re not going to be terribly inclined to believe; obviously, I’m somewhat genetically challenged here; so this whole essay might come off as a sneering critique of religion from someone who finds all of your festive rituals bizarre and confusing)(also, if there’s one thing that pisses off atheists, fundamentalists, and everyone, it’s suggesting that their belief-level is a somewhat biologically determined rationalization rather than a well-thought-out, solidly-developed conclusion). Right. Back on track; the religious group involved were the Branch Davidians, which is an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Church, which are an offshoot of the main Seventh Day Adventist Church, which is an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation Movement/Churches, which was a response to the Catholic Church selling salvation for money. I have some problems with the Catholic Church, but the chain of command is fairly easy to follow, give ’em credit.
If it seems like that’s a rather lengthy aside; well, it is; but it’s also important in the context of understanding how a con-man like Vernon Howell (better known as David Koresh)(played by Taylor Kitsch) could end up with his own bizarre mini-empire in the middle of Texas. I did some preliminary research into that and was quickly exhausted (which brings me to a second caveat; I didn’t do a whole lot of research into this thing, because it got too mentally taxing and confusing too quickly). Suffice it to say that if you thought early Christianity’s marriage to political/economic power was fraught with intrigue, corruption, and mayhem, you have no idea. As I understand it; Koresh wound up in a fight over control of the cult/church/whatever between the son of the group’s founder and/or the founder’s wife (again, it’s all confusing to me)(and, I apologize; I barely researched anything in this essay because just watching this series is an exercise in gazing into the abyss), and wound up using some dirty tricks to gain control (I won’t go into details, but the phrase “interfering with a corpse” is in the Wikipedia entry)(just for clarification, I worked with cadavers, which definitely involved a bit of man-handling and mangling (just because our bodies are put together surprisingly tough, and that gets worse after rigor mortis sets in) but nothing that would legally qualify as “interfering”)(I hope). Howell — who renamed himself David Koresh (after the Biblical king Cyrus who was the emperor of Persia — which is a weird, problematic role model in that he was largely despised by his neighbors and conquered groups, and the Hebrews liked because, as I understand it; he was too busy crushing Asia Minor to properly oppress them; but I digress), claimed to have visions from God that we were living in the Biblical end times, and convinced enough people that he was the real deal that they decided to stay in a compound with limited amenities. The fact that he didn’t foresee (and avoid) his own death is probably a mark against him.
The series’ central conflict is on an FBI negotiator (played by Michael Shannon) trying to get Cyrus Reborn to peacefully leave his compound and face various charges; after the group opens fire on over-zealous ATF agents investigating allegations of gun-running and/or illegal firearm ownership (as is pointed out; in Texas, that’s not really a thing; if you want a grenade launcher, you can probably get a permit for it). Which turns deadly for everyone. Again, this series offers a lot of fascinating questions about this incident, religion, federal agencies and governmental overreach, but never fully explores them. The weird cult stand-off is kind of a framing device used to examine the FBI (and federal law enforcement) becoming a more-militarized, aggressive, trigger-happy agency (as represented by the hilariously incompetent and murderous Hostage Rescue Team leader) in the 21st century, as opposed to a consulting intelligence/investigation agency aimed at scientific/investigation expertise and conflict resolution (as represented by Shannon’s character). That, alone, would be a fascinating discussion; but, like Netflix’s other big docudrama smash centered on fascinatingly insane people, Tiger King, this series moves far too fast to get any significant answers (also, because it’s based on the memoirs of Shannon’s character, and the memoirs of a Waco/Koresh survivor, played by Rory Culkin; I suspect they can’t linger too long on any single subject without showing either in a bad light)(and, given the backlash surrounding their inaccurate portrayal of Carole Baskin in Tiger King, I have no doubt the editors were under pressure to portray everyone who might sue for defamation in the best possible light).
The series essentially follows Shannon’s character on the law-enforcement side, and Culkin’s recruitment into the cult; with the severely botched efforts of federal law enforcement to resolve the issue (which resulted, inevitably, in blood and tears)(and a lot of barbecued fans of the end-times)(as it turns out; they were right on the money about this being the end times; they just didn’t figure out that it was just their end times)(and the series half-heartedly brings up the issue about these sort of self-fulfilling prophecies being self-fulfilling when you live in a heavily armed, paranoid society). I’d get into a detailed summary, but it gets way too weird, way too fast to keep track of, and, in one of the weirder artistic choices, completely glosses over Koresh’s rise to power and descent into madness (they highlight him unraveling under pressure, and the FBI’s deliberate attempts to escalate the situation through psychological warfare). They also only briefly highlight Koresh’s skin-crawling obsession with underage girls with the line, “Why is it that whenever God wants to deliver a message, He always wants his prophets to have a lot of sex with a lot of young women?” I get it; we can’t have anyone examining their beliefs and trying to figure out why David Koresh is crazy, but guys like Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses weren’t.
I’d be interested in that answer, but I think most Americans are aware that there’s a distinct difference between weird, possibly blood-thirsty and evil behavior a few centuries ago — the Crusaders were absolutely not good guys, and, from a modern perspective, most of Muhammad’s behavior would’ve been unacceptable. Part of being an enlightened, modern individual is the ability to say, “That sort of insanity might’ve been acceptable in the middle ages, but, nowadays, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
The TLDR version is; Waco was a disaster for everyone involved, and, even though the federal government probably shouldn’t have gotten involved, that would have allowed a crazy, evil man to continue to horrifically abuse his followers (the show definitely suggests that negotiating with a man who’s convinced he’s God’s Anointed Prophet is an act of bad-faith; but, in all fairness, they also only suggest that the National Guard driving tanks through your front yard isn’t a good idea in an inherently unstable scenario). And sometimes there are no good solutions or answers, and maybe you should examine what your politicians and preachers say with a critical mind. And, for the love of God, don’t bring guns or venomous snakes to church (yes, there are some churches that believe being bitten by venomous snakes and surviving is a sign of faith — it gets even stupider when you do some research). And, to everyone who believes we’re living in end-times; we are. Everyone is; it’s called “life.” It ends with you. The bottom line; if you’re really desperately interested in a new docudrama to replace Tiger King, well, this one isn’t as entertaining, and it approaches its subject with a comparable level of accuracy (I would imagine; Netflix is pretty consistent about their genre offerings).
You might be asking about my further criticism of organized religion, folks’ weird obsession with the Book of Revelations (which was explained by a Christian friend as, essentially, bizarre fan-fiction that most educated Christians dismiss, as it’s one of the few books in the New Testament that is not about Jesus, based on his teachings, or written by someone who knew him)(and, as this person also pointed out with typical Midwestern pragmatism, it’s creepy, upsetting, and offers nothing of value in understanding Christianity or living a better life); all I can say is, like this series, I ran out of mental energy half-way through. Tune in next week for the review of far superior (and funnier) series, The Righteous Gemstones.