The Way Down is a Devastating Portrait of a Diabolical Cult Leader

Gwen Shamblin docuseries poster
Courtesy of HBO Max

Welcome to W TV Club, in which W magazine’s editors choose a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. Our November picks will be a selection of docuseries. This week, culture editor Brooke Marine recommends The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, an HBO Max docuseries about the leader of a weight loss cult.

If you want to learn how a weight loss program became the basis for a religion, and effectively a cult, then you can’t miss Marina Zenovich’s The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin.

My very first question when presented with the thumbnail on the HBO Max app was, why does that lady’s hair look like that? Surely, I thought, this must be an exaggerated rendering taking some amount of creative license. But no, Gwen Shamblin Lara—the leader of a Christian diet program called The Weigh Down Workshop and later, the founder of the Remnant Fellowship church in Brentwood, Tennessee—really did tease her hair as high as a beehive, as the docuseries reveals.

But that’s not where my perceptions about this series ceased to be challenged. I initially thought this would be a silly, sensationalized takedown of ’90s and ’00s weight loss and self-help culture, but I was wrong about that, too. Lara wrote many books, appeared on talk shows and had some profiles written in reputable publications about her—and her problematic methods of putting your trust in Christ and slimming down to shed not only pounds, but also sin. The investigation into celebrity evangelism and the obsession with status is fascinating on its own, but by the third episode of this series, I was absolutely sick to my stomach at the devastating amount of manipulation, child abuse, and eventual murder that took place under the watchful eye of the Remnant Fellowship’s leader.

I’ve been curious about the heightened number of investigations into modern-day cults of late; the suggestion is that we are probably surrounded by them and don’t even realize it. Docuseries like The Vow and LuLaRich emphasize multilevel marketing structures at the base of these organizations that allow them to flourish. Everything uncovered there was chilling too, but the horrors on display in The Way Down, especially as told by former church members, feel especially sinister.

It’s only made all the more eerie when it is revealed—from the very beginning of the docuseries and circled back to later on—that on May 29, 2021, Lara and six other church leaders died in a plane crash shortly after takeoff from Tennessee to Palm Beach, Florida. (Two more episodes will be released next year, following the development of Lara and her husband Joe Lara’s death.)