The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin

the way down god greed and the cult of gwen shamblin poster review
8.0 Overall Score

A well constructed and interesting documentary


the way down title card review episode guide

Weight-loss through faith!

Gwen Shamblin had a calling.  She believed God talked to her and through her church the Remnant Fellowship, she could change lives.  God not only was the key to controlling desires and protecting oneself from sin, but it was also a means to control weight and other vices.  Gwen built an empire…but all empires have cracks and the Remnant Church could fall.

Directed by Marina Zenovich, The Way Down:  God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin is a documentary series.  Focusing on Gwen Shamblin (February 18, 1955-May 29, 2021) and the Remnant Fellowship Church, the HBO Max five episode documentary was released in two parts (September 30, 2021/April 28, 2021) as a result of the changing story following the death of Shamblin.

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A big church with big secrets?

While this probably could be classified as a “true-crime” documentary, there isn’t a legal means to stand that claim on.  The Remnant Fellowship Church and Gwen Shamblin never really faced very severe charges against them and despite a record of abuse and even the death of a child tied to the church.  “True crime” implies death or salacious activity that breaks the law.  The Way Down is more a cautionary tale about cults and how easily the line can be blurred between religion, fanaticism, and mental abuse.

The church appears (through the lens of the documentary) to be rather abusive to their followers by breaking them and then molding them into more controllable “sheep”.  The weight loss is a gateway to control people and aspects of religion within the Bible (like wives being subservient to their husbands) are mixed into this toxic mix by blending scripture and Shamblin’s interpretation of the scripture.  It is easy to blame the victims and even the people still within the church, but it is a long and slow process that alters people (and the documentary does a good job trying to explain that especially in later episodes).

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Would you risk your afterlife with them?

Gwen Shamblin also still remains a bit of a mystery.  Since she is dead, there is no way for her to explain herself so old clips, depositions, and first-hand accounts by people who knew her are the only way.  Watching the deposition, she struggles with defining her role in the church…and why you could argue it is acting, there seems to be some genuine aspect to it.  It must also be remembered however that at the same time she was living like a king and protecting that life was also a big part of her role in the church.  It is easy to think of her as a buffoon or a clown due to her appearance, but she comes off as someone who has an extreme body dysmorphia which would have been undiagnosed or unaccepted in the church…mental health falls on God’s shoulders.

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Will the real Gwen please stand up?

The disturbing thing about The Way Down is that it is unresolved.  Despite the deaths of Shamblin, her husband, and other high ranking members of the church, the church goes on (as churches usually do).  Churches can be helpful to people who are lost and can do good if carefully tended and cultivated…or they can be bad in the wrong hands.  The future of the Remnant Fellowship is unknown at this point since most of the people involved are still with the church and following Gwen’s “vision”.

There are a lot of these styles of documentaries now, but The Way Down is a better entry in this genre.  It is a solid and nicely outlined telling of the story.  It is largely told by people who left the church or investigated the church, but that can’t be helped since the church has a tight lock on its congregation.  Like HBO’s series The Vow, the story is almost happening in real-time and this creates both an interesting “now-ness” to the documentary, but also the issues of no resolution.  The Way Down is complete for now, but maybe in the future the church will be revisited as a new generation takes charge.

The Way Down:  God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin Complete Episode Guide:

the way down episode 1 the kingdom church steeple

“The Kingdom”

Episode 1        The Kingdom Release Date:  09/30/21

Gwen Shamblin believe God and weight are tied together.  If you follow God, weight won’t be a problem…worship God and not the refrigerator.  In The Weigh Down Workshop, Gwen found herself a star and touring the world…and a powerhouse at the Church of Christ.  When Shamblin finds herself confined, the Remnant Fellowship is born, but more troubles start to arise.  The parents of Delaney Wingerd grow concern about their daughter’s involvement in the church.

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“A Family Affair”

Episode 2        A Family Affair Release Date:  09/30/21

Joe Lara marries Gwen Shamblin to form a powerhouse at the church…but Joe has his own problematic past as Gwen divorces her husband David Shamblin.  Gwen’s children Michael and Elizabeth roles in the church are discussed and the death of one of Elizabeth’s children causes problems with the church’s message while Michael’s personal problems could cause problems for the church.

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“Seen but Not Heard”

Episode 3        Seen But Not Heard Release Date:  09/30/21

Children in the church receive special treatment and are taught to follow their parents.  When Joseph and Sonya Smith’s child Josef dies, media outlets begin to question what is happening there.  The role of men in the church and the subservient women is explored…but Gwen stands above all.  As the Wingerd tries to mend their differences with their daughter Delaney, tragedy strikes on the wedding day.

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Episode 4        Revelations Release Date:  04/28/22

Gwen Shamblin is dead in a plane crash on May 29, 2021 along with her husband Joe Lara and other high ranking members of the church.  Natasha Pavlovich worries about the fate of her child with the death of Joe Lara and recalls his history of flying.  Elizabeth begins to take over the church in her mother’s absence.  The release of The Way Down creates a new controversy in the church and new former members speak out.

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“The Way Forward”

Episode 5        The Way Forward Release Date:  04/28/22

With The Way Down released, the Remnant Fellowship Church is on the defensive…and the followers (and ex-followers) find themselves under attack.  As the church works to evolve, the future of the church is in question.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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