HBO’s buzzy NXIVM sex cult docuseries “The Vow” has been criticized for dragging at times over the course of its nine-episode run. But the closing moments of Sunday’s season finale left no doubt about where the storyline is headed in season two, which HBO formally ordered last week.
Warning, spoilers for the finale episode of “The Vow” ahead.
Here comes the counterspin from now-convicted felons Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, co-founders of the self-help programs at the heart of the whole of shocking story that led to federal human trafficking, sex abuse and racketeering charges. “The Fall,” episode 9 of “The Vow,” ends with hints that the pair will go on camera, or at least on the record, with “Vow” directors/executive producers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer.
The closing sequence features what appears to be a glimpse of Salzman under house arrest, complete with a shot of her Apple Watch and her electronic ankle bracelet.
Meanwhile, Raniere’s familiar voice is heard in what is labeled a conversation from last month over a sketchy connection from his holding cell in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. The camera slowly focuses in on a window in the fortress-like facility as the silver-tongued multi-level marketing genius spews more nonsense about the docuseries being only the “top layer” of the truth.
Left with no other defense, Raniere appears to think he can talk his way out of trouble once again, at least in the court of public opinion if not the court of federal prosecutors, where he is set to be sentenced on Oct. 27. He was convicted in June 2019 of seven charges.
Raniere gets the last words on season one of “The Vow,” which might well be frustrating to many viewers. He taunts the filmmakers, and by association the audience. “So, talk to me,” he says.
“The Vow” is a high-profile entry in the cottage industry of Keith Raniere and NXIVM-related documentary projects spurred by the stranger-than-fiction story of the cult-like organization that began in the 1990s as a New Age-y executive improvement and personal growth executive improvement and personal growth self-help program that was run largely as a Ponzi scheme.
Over time, NXIVM adherents came to realize the programs were designed to exploit weaknesses and facilitate forms of blackmail, retaliation and financial crimes. Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagrams spirits fortune, and former “Smallville” star Allison Mack are among those who have been convicted of crimes in connection with the group.
Tens of millions of dollars of gifts from Bronfman and her sister, Sara Bronfman, are known to have been a vital source of support for NXIVM over the years. Mack went from perky child star to sex cult leader involved with a group so deranged that women were persuaded to submit to receiving a brand near the vaginal area as a twisted bonding ritual.
Although there’s no shortage of reportage out there about the NXIVM saga, here are some lingering questions from “The Vow.”
What will Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman have to say for themselves?
The fleeting glimpse of Salzman in the finale indicates she will discuss her break with Raniere and her decision to plead guilty to racketeering and to testify against him at trial last year. The shot shows her removing her ever-present yellow NXIVM sash with voice-over of an older recording of her opining on the pros and cons of extreme loyalty.
Raniere’s remarks indicate he is still working his familiar the turn-the-question-around strategy to manipulate the framing of the question in such a way as to make him look wise or reasonable or forward-thinking. After nine hours of “The Vow,” it’s hard to stomach more mumbo jumbo from him needling producers about “what you’re willing to present as the truth.”
What led Lauren Salzman to break with Raniere and testify against him at trial?
Nancy Salzman’s adult daughter Lauren is portrayed in “The Vow” as a zealous enforcer of bizarre and misogynistic rules conceived by Raniere in the effort to groom sex slaves via the “elite” womens group DOS, where the branding ritual takes place. Lauren Salzman was the “master” to “slave” Sarah Edmondson, the Canadian actress who is prominently featured in “Vow.” Lauren Salzman manipulated Edmondson into submitting to the branding ritual. She faces up to 20 years in prison but is expected to receive leniency for cooperating with prosecutors.
When is Catherine Oxenberg getting her own show?
The former “Dynasty” star emerges as a clear hero of the quest to bring Raniere to justice. “The Vow” is at its best when it is documenting her unwavering drive to free her daughter India from the clutches of Raniere and his compound outside Albany, N.Y. Catherine Oxenberg’s refusal to give up against the face of closed doors and “there’s nothing we can do” answers from law enforcement is touching and inspiring.
Oxenberg proves to anything but a wealthy prima donna who can’t function outside the bubble of Malibu. She’s a devoted mother on a mission. She has earned undeniable street cred in the victims rights and human trafficking advocacy world. After demonstrating her savvy at commanding media coverage to prod law enforcement, it’d be a natural for her to segue into a larger platform for activism and research into human trafficking and cults. For starters, she is prominently featured in Starz’s “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” a four-part documentary about India’s harrowing experiences with Raniere and NXIVM.
Will Mark Vicente seek to resume his filmmaking career?
The South African filmmaker behind the well-received 2004 documentary “What the Bleep Do We Know?” let his early career momentum stall as he became fascinated with the “teachings” of Raniere and drawn into NXIVM. The final episode depicts Vicente’s struggle to come to grips with the damage that he inflicted as a following of Raniere and as a leader of NXIVM and its weird offshoot organization for men, Society of Protectors.
Vicente’s acknowledgement of his culpability on behalf of others is heartfelt, as is his work to put Raniere in handcuffs. But the notoriety from NXIVM might still make it an uphill climb in the endless money and financing hustle that is the burden of most documentarians these days.
Vicente is tearful in “The Fall” as he acknowledges what becomes clear over the course of the series: Raniere seems to enjoy inflicting pain on women. “And that was his joy,” Vicente says with a mix of disbelief and shame.
Why did it take law enforcement so long to act?
One of the overwhelming takeaways from “The Vow” is how much effort had to be expended for law enforcement to take seriously the warnings from those who had fled the organization. Raniere’s history of intimidation through relentless litigation had the effect of casting doubt on the veracity of his accusers. One of the most powerful moments of the series is the sight of Edmondson realizing in October 2017 that the eruption of the #MeToo movement — sparked by the horrifying claims against now-convicted sex abuser Harvey Weinstein — would help their cause.
Can Sarah Edmondson ever find peace?
Edmondson mentions more than once during the first season that she was responsible for bringing more than 2,000 people into NXIVM through the Vancouver center. The weight of her past work hangs heavy on Edmondson throughout the series. Her willingness to go public in the face of uncertainty to the point of allowing photographs of her grotesque brand was a turning point in getting the story out.
Catherine Oxenberg’s determination is not the only uplifting element to “The Vow.” The series in some ways turns on the strength of two marriages at the heart of the story: Mark Vicente and actor-musician Bonnie Piesse and Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames.
Bonnie and Sarah were fortunate enough to leave NXIVM with relationships strong enough to weather the storm. That wasn’t the case for an earlier generation of Raniere girlfriend-victims featured in the series, notably longtime Raniere legal targets Barbara Bouchey and Toni Natalie.
Bonnie’s spontaneous jump for joy at learning the news of Raniere’s arrest on March 15, 2018, is one of the emotional highlights of the finale. It comes after we get an unvarnished look at the depth of Raniere’s sociopathic manipulation of a young woman. Bonnie and Mark’s return to the neighborhood they fled in Albany for the first time in two years is cut with a chilling audio recording of one of the many 3 a.m. walks that Bonnie eagerly joined Raniere on in the name of a deranged mentorship process.
After a few minutes of circular talk, an exasperated Raniere knows what buttons to push on Bonnie.
“Can you just, um, get over this? Please? Not that hard,” he tells her as Bonnie cries after suggesting she is ready to pursue plans outside of Albany. “You look terrible when you control. You look beautiful when you don’t.”