Is Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God a true-crime documentary? It’s shot like one, albeit with the benefit of 2,700 archived live streams so it doesn’t have to rely on reenactments.
And it plays like one, spinning out from ordinary beginnings to red flags to shattering consequences with the inevitability of tires on black ice. But up until the end of the story, there’s no crime to investigate — at one point, a concerned parent calls the police, only to be told nothing can be done — and the offenses that are eventually committed are all nonviolent. Among the many jaw-dropping details in this story, the most inexplicable is this: Amy Carlson did this to herself.
Carlson’s group, Love Has Won, is most definitely a cult. (It’s still active, along with a number of accounts dedicated to monitoring and exposing it.) The process by which lost souls are drawn toward, smothered in, and manipulated by Carlson’s “love” is textbook stuff, recognizable to anyone who’s seen even a few of the many cult-themed documentaries that have come out over the past few years. What’s interesting about Love Has Won is the way that the internet, and specifically social media, have made cult recruitment easier. Now, with the right SEO tags, a delusional self-proclaimed prophet doesn’t have to go out and proselytize. The suckers come to them.
Social media shapes Love Has Won in other ways as well. The group incorporates essential oils and QAnon conspiracies, two favorites of the chronically online, into its belief system (such as it is, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Carlson isn’t a Republican in any traditional sense, but we do have hours of footage of her preaching about how Donald Trump will save America. Her followers even hawk dubious supplements in order to raise money — despite being bombed out of their minds 24/7, the members of Love Has Won excel at branding. It’s the most modern thing about them.
Love Has Won is assembled in the irreverent style of a Vice documentary, and watching footage from the cult’s live streams is equal parts baffling and irritating. These are just hippies on steroids (or, in this case, massive amounts of booze, weed, and psychedelics), giggling and treating each other’s glassy-eyed brain droppings like precious jewels. Love Has Won’s “teachings'' are laughably flimsy; mostly, they exist to justify whatever behavior Amy Carlson wanted to justify at the time. Have you ever thought you had a great idea when you were stoned, wrote it down so you could remember it later, and returned to it the next day, only to find that it made absolutely no sense? Carlson turned that into a religion.
In another life, these beautiful, naive, malnourished young people could have been New Age influencers, doing roughly the same thing but with a greater degree of clarity. The reasons why they ended up in a high-control group instead speak to the power of the internet, but also the fragility of these lost souls — neither of which series director Hannah Olson (Baby God, The Last Cruise) interrogates too pointedly. In exchange, she gets unfettered access to her subjects, many of whom still believed that Carlson was the literal embodiment of God at the time their interviews were filmed in 2021.
Olson attempts to dive into Carlson’s psyche, but the waters are murky. (By the time Love Has Won started livestreaming daily, Carlson was such a severe alcoholic that she was either in a raging blackout or unconscious most of the time.) We learn some details from Carlson’s family about what in her past might have influenced some of her more extreme beliefs — her insecurity about her weight leading to her encouraging anorexia among her followers, for example. But for the most part, what we know about what Carlson was thinking comes from people who still believe that “Mother God” was in direct contact with Robin Williams, who instructed her to take on a revolving cast of “Father Gods” in order to heal the cosmic masculine through her divine feminine energy. Or something like that.
You’re not going to get much insight into why all this happened, in other words. It’s all too fresh, and the stoned haze has not yet lifted. Instead, Olson concentrates on laying out the whos, whats, whens, and wheres of Love Has Won, and the story is salacious enough to easily sustain a three-hour docuseries. Some of it is hilarious: At one point, a follower accidentally torches the group’s homestead while burning sage, forcing them to return to Colorado after a dramatic flight to Oregon. (This all happened after locals warned Love Has Won about smoking outdoors during wildfire season, as an exasperated reporter explains in an interview.)
But there’s an unsettling undertone as well. The feeling of watching the pixelated live streams and cell phone videos that make up much of Love Has Won is, once again, akin to watching a car crash in slow motion. We see Carlson starve herself to death in real time, her face a shocking shade of gray from ingesting colloidal silver instead of food and her bones sticking out from under her skin. Will no one help her? (They think they are helping. That’s the upsetting part.)
What happens next, after Carlson finally “vacates her body,” is ghastly in the extreme — and also obsessively filmed by her followers. How did a bunch of Colorado hippies get so high, they started playing with corpses? Facebook definitely had something to do with it, and maybe with some hindsight we’ll be able to trace exactly which social trends shaped this tragic, bizarre blip in the history of the internet. For now, the juicy details — and a mother lode of shocking footage — are enough.
Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God premieres November 13 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Katie Rife is a freelance writer and film critic based in Chicago.