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Recommended: The Way Down on HBO Max

The sudden death of its central figure pushes this cult doc to surprising new places in its final two episodes.
  • Gwen Shamblin (left) in a scene from The Way Down. (Photo: HBO Max)
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    The Way Down | HBO Max
    Five-Episode Documentary Series | TV-MA

    What's The Way Down About?

    After she creates a massively successful Christian diet program called The Weigh Down, Gwen Shamblin founds a church called The Remnant Fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee. As the church grows and scandals accrue, many former members accuse it of being a cult, with Shamblin as the iron-fisted leader. This documentary series explores their experiences, as well as the aftermath of Shamblin's death in a plane crash in May 2021. 

    Who's involved?

    • The series is produced and directed Marina Zenovich, who won two Emmys for her 2008 HBO doc Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and recently helmed 30 for 30 installments about both Lance Armstrong and the Duke lacrosse scandal.
    • Interview subjects are mostly former members of Remnant Fellowship, along with family members of those still inside. Context is provided by scholars who specialize in cult behaviors and by a Nashville reporter who has been covering Shamblin's empire for years. (Members of Remnant are represented by archival video and audio, some of which has never been shared before.)
    • The score is written by Isobel Waller-Bridge (yep, she's Phoebe Waller-Bridge's sister), and Chrissy Teigen is an executive producer credit. 

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    When its first three episodes debuted in September 2021, The Way Down felt like a solid if familiar entry in the growing canon of streaming documentaries about cults. Shamblin herself is an irresistible subject, considering that she (a) was the rare woman to lead a Southern megachurch, (b) attained this empire on the back of a diet fad, and (c) teased her hair so high that one might have climbed it to the gates of heaven itself. If the details of Remnant's cult-like behavior are somewhat predictable — hoarding power and money, alienating people from their families, threatening legal action against dissenters — it's only because cults tend to follow sadly predictable patterns as they destroy people's lives.

    But just a few months before it premiered, the doc was forced into new territory when Shamblin and six other people, including her husband, died in a plane crash. Faced with the implosion of the empire they were chronicling, Zenovich and her team delayed the final two episodes until April 2022, which gave them time to conduct fresh interviews and generally survey the aftershocks of the loss. It also provided the chance to capture the public's response to the first part of the show.

    The resulting final episodes are remarkably nuanced, given how quickly they were made. Former Remnant members process their disbelief on camera, and in some cases, reach out to people they'd left inside the church. Meanwhile, several people who saw the first part of the series come forward with their own testimonies, as well as some remarkable new evidence of how Shamblin tried to control the media's perception of her. Zenovich also takes care to include extensive audio and written statements that Remnant released after Shamblin's death.

    Thanks to these collected voices, it feels like we're hearing from all sides as they try to comprehend the collapse of an era. Their shell-shocked fumbling for meaning reminds us that every castle is built on sand, which is just the type of uncertainty that cults insist they can cure.

    Pairs well with

    • Going Clear, HBO's excellent documentary about the Church of Scientology
    • Big Love, HBO's occasionally brilliant drama about a polygamous Mormon family
    • On Becoming a God in Central FloridaShowtime's pitch black comedy about a woman who finds power in a multi-level marketing company. 

  • The Way Down
    The final two episodes premiere April 28 on HBO Max,
    Starring: Gwen Shamblin Lara.
    Directed by: Marina Zenovich.
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    TOPICS: The Way Down, HBO Max, Gwen Shamblin Lara, Marina Zenovich