'The Vow' Reframes the Narrative About Cults

HBO's latest docuseries anchors its look at the NXIVM cult with jarring first-person accounts and impressive archival footage.

Hbo The Vow
HBO

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at HBO’s new NXIVM docuseries, The Vow.

HBO’s The Vow tells the story of the rise and fall of NXIVM, a modern-day American cult. With its affluent trappings, including an Upstate New York location and a membership that prominently features heiresses and actors, NXIVM has mostly been an object of lurid media fascination rather than a thorough examination. It would be easy to retell the tabloid version of this bizarre story and still rack up rubbernecking viewers. Instead, The Vow opts to dig deeper, and the result is mesmerizing and strangely powerful.

The nine-part documentary series, which is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Square), humanizes its ex-cult-member subjects through detailed and witness-anchored inside accounts. The controversial NXIVM is a self-described “multi-level marketing company” whose secret offshoot, DOS (“Dominus Obsequious Sororium”) was exposed as a “sex cult” in 2017. Noujaim and Amer have a penchant for reframing subjects who aren’t traditional heroes (see last year’s The Great Hack), and here they present an engrossing, character-driven docuseries with a gold mine of new and never before seen archival footage.

The Vow succeeds by setting up a narrative structure that mirrors the journey that several ex-NXIVM members have taken. At the start, the filmmakers drop us into the near-utopian vision of ethical camaraderie and thoughtful idealism that new members discovered upon joining the group in the mid-2000s. We learn the language they learned. We feel the feelings they felt. Large parts of the series’ early episodes are devoted to showing us the shining, strangely pristine tip of an iceberg. Then The Vow reveals the structure in its entirety: massive, dangerous, and shrouded in mind-numbing darkness.

There’s also present-day momentum inherent in The Vow that goes beyond a simple regurgitation of facts. A camera crew follows anxiety-riddled yet tenacious ex-members of NXVIM, beginning even before the 2017 New York Times article broke the news about DOS’ alleged crimes. For decades, common knowledge has held that the type of people who join cults are weak-minded wanderers, but these survivors — among them documentarian Mark Vicente and actors Bonnie Piesse, Sarah Edmondson, and Anthony Ames — are clearly smart, deeply principled, and above all, resilient.

Some of these ex-members compare NXIVM to an abusive relationship — it was, after all, exposed in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Most of them speak candidly about the situation’s complex mix of personal responsibility and victimhood. NXIVM’s takedown unfolds like a thrilling game of chess, with clever, close-knit people using effective strategies, some of which they learned within the cult they’ve just escaped, to knock its pieces off the board one at a time.

And then there’s the other player: NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, who technically held no position in the company aside from the honorific “Vanguard.” Raniere is the tricky, mystical center of a story that defies belief, the brain worm that infects viewers of The Vow and will stay rattling around in our minds long after we’ve finished the series.

At times Raniere appears in footage looking like a hippie David Foster Wallace, riffing on everything from the science of immortality to the danger of relying on art during chat sessions after late-night volleyball games. Other times he could pass as a slouchy and eccentric tech CEO, defending NXIVM’s intricate and strange philosophies with ease and making them sound less like mind control and more like critical thinking.

He’s a startlingly effective mixed bag — confident, humble, approachable, and awkward. Slowly but surely, The Vow makes the case that he’s used these charms along with his mellow openness and seemingly unrehearsed curiosity to gain power, sex, and devoted followers throughout his entire life.

The series is an embarrassment of home video riches specifically because, according to Vicente, Raniere told NXIVM members to document everything they could so future generations could study their work. Even with all that footage, we never see Raniere slip up onscreen; his abuses are meticulously planned and his followers are deeply ingratiated to him.

Because of all this, a clear picture of his manipulation only comes through once deprogrammed survivors start actively looking for evidence against him. Every early red flag (he thinks he can cure Tourettes?) is countered by a reassurance (the Dalai Lama endorsed him!) that allows him to keep an all-encompassing hold over his followers.

I screened the first seven episodes of The Vow, which paint a dark picture of Raniere and his female partners in crime. Still, several of the most shocking claims that have been previously leveled at the founder, including a follower’s apparent mysterious disappearance, an alleged belief in Nazi reincarnation, and an unconfirmed claim that he was “experimenting on” his own son, aren’t even addressed.

The breadth and depth of the man’s manipulation are such that documentarians can either opt to create a mesmerizingly up-close portrait of Raniere and his followers or relay an exhaustive list of his alleged crimes and offenses in full for shock value. In choosing to attempt the former, The Vow eschews expectations and becomes a rich and surprisingly empathetic examination of an often-sensationalized topic.

Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.