Cultures make prophetic promises they can almost never fulfill, which in turn causes them to revise these guarantees to keep their flock in line and their scams alive. In this regard, few have faced a greater obstacle than Remnant Fellowship Church, whose founder and leader Gwen Shamblin routinely preached that being faithful to God – primarily by maintaining a slim waist and training children to be docile and submissive – resulted in glorious financial, family, and spiritual rewards. It was all well and good during the prosperous Remnant Fellowship times, but it became a troublesome problem on May 29, 2021, when a plane piloted by Shamblin’s husband Joe Lara crashed on its way to a Florida MAGA rally and instantly killed Shamblin and everyone else on board.
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That tragedy served as a de facto cliffhanger for The way down: God, greed and the cult of Gwen ShamblinHBO Max’s documentary series from September last year, and this is where director Marina Zenovich tackles The Road Down Part 2, a two-rate coda that examines what this disaster has meant for Remnant Fellowship Church and Shamblin’s accompanying Weigh Down Workshop diet company. The latter was the vehicle that first brought fame and fortune to Shamblin himself, a nutritionist who argued that true believers should pass on their hunger for food to devotion to the Almighty. It was a program that claimed that losing pounds was a piety, and through books, VHS tapes and teaching in the church, it made Shamblin a national sensation. In addition, it allowed her to form the Remnant Fellowship Church, a Brentwood, Tennessee-based religious organization that Zenovich’s revelation revealed to be an isolated Christian cult that punished the heavy, isolated members of friends and relatives, brainwashed children to embrace its sacred trinity – denied doctrines, oppressed women through misogynistic power structures, and urged parents to abuse and beat their children to obedient submission.
Known for both her charismatic sermons and her ever-growing hair (which eventually topped off by a remarkably foot-high beehive), Shamblin promoted the notion that magnificent things came to those who knelt before God, while bad things were the by-product of infidelity. Therefore, her untimely death – even more so than her granddaughter’s previous, sudden death – was a monumental complication for the church. The road downThe second part is curious about how the leaders of the organization will explain this situation to their legions of members and whether anyone will buy what they sell. But what it concludes is more than a little deflationary. It was apparently not long enough to wait six months before delivering the last two installments, as Director Zenovich offers little insight into the future of the Remnant Fellowship Church, whose plans to reconfigure its doctrine – and hierarchical structure – remain changing, or in at least still largely hidden from the public.
Without exciting bombs about either the subsequent phase of the church or about the fate of Lara’s former partner Natasha Pavlovich and their daughter, The road down shifts his attention to the plane crash itself. Early indications are that Shamblin’s amateur pilot husband Lara – a former actor who apparently married Shamblin less out of love or affection than out of a desire for a wealthy benefactor who would give him the high life (and country music career) he longed for – was ill-equipped to handle the type of aircraft and bad weather conditions he faced on the day of the disaster. CGI reproductions of the vessel’s flight plan, tuned to Lara’s final radio transmissions, confirm this theory, although as an official remark it is certainly possible that a technical fault could have caused the fatal accident. As with the sustainability of Remnant Fellowship Church, it is simply too early to say.
Consequently, The road downs return commitment feels decidedly premature. There are tempting hints that Shamblin’s daughter Elizabeth – seen as frighteningly skeletal in archive video clips – may not be the heir everyone thought she would be, and there is more predictable news that Elizabeth’s brother Michael (whose relationship with the church was always the stone) has been divorced from his wife and broken the bond to his mother’s empire. For the most part, though, Zenovich seems to have thrown herself into a detailed description of what’s next for Shamblin’s cult and the many acolytes she nurtured along the way, providing sparse revelations that could propel her story forward. These two complementary episodes feel like additions that in most respects end the saga indefinitely, uncertain about what the Remnant Fellowship Church will look like in the ensuing era – if, that is, it continues to exist at all.
Without much in the way of exciting developments, The road down turns inward for its concluding chapter and addresses the way in which Remnant Fellowship Church responded to the negative publicity generated by the documentary premiere in late 2021. Even there, however, Zenovich informs us of unsurprising measures taken by Shamblin’s successors – namely correspondences to HBO, which rejected all the allegations against them, and websites set up to spread their self-serving narratives. Of course, Remnant Fellowship Church did not like to be proclaimed as a cult that advised men to keep wives and daughters under their authoritarian thumbs up; who fully supported the child murderers Joseph and Sonya Smith, who were convicted of killing their 8-year-old son Joseph; and it was run as a money-making enterprise designed to supply the pockets of Shamblin and Lara, who enjoyed the innumerable fruits of the work of their followers. But it was clear before, and The Road Down Part 2 adds small details or nuances to such ideas.
The most surprising of all is that The road downThe second part features interviews with a handful of remnant survivors who emerged after last fall’s premiere, but who barely take the time to elaborate on their stories. Instead, these individuals put more effort into defending themselves against online claims that they are gullible fraudsters than they do by telling about their appalling personal trials, which is frustrating, both because their claims are less than completely convincing (in considering the absurd nonsense that Shamblin threw) and because they do not offer anything that expands our understanding of the day-to-day running of the Remnant Fellowship Church. The most director Zenovich deduces from these conversations is that Shamblin was reportedly also homophobic – hardly the kind of eye-opener that justifies this disappointingly sparse follow-up.
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