The case of NXIVM, the Albany, N.Y.-based “self-help group” whose bizarre and seemingly cult-like aspects have been covered widely — merges a sort of enormity of evil with the prosaic in ways that can make it hard to connect with at first. What was done to aspirants within the group, who allege having been starved as well as held down and scarred with a cauterizing pen in order to be marked as slaves, represents perhaps the height of inhumanity. Yet such cruel behavior was enacted by individuals whose bland pleasantness reads more like the stuff of contemporary wellness culture than like, well, cult leaders.
This is among the contradictions explored by “The Vow,” HBO’s intriguing true-crime documentary series that captures the world of NXIVM through a couple of key voices. One of those belongs to Sarah Edmondson, a Canadian actor whose thinking about NXIVM radically shifted after she was forcibly branded. She went on to become an apostate from a movement that sold itself to her as being about self-improvement and ethics, and turned into a leading voice in the media describing its actions. Here, she walks us through her experience of being drawn into the cult, a journey that can at times distract viewers. What Edmondson describes, and what we later see, is a process of seminars and lectures about the power of changing one’s mind that are, for lack of a better word, boring — at least to the uninitiated.
It can be productive, both from the perspective of spreading information about NXIVM and of creating an eventually chewy, provocative entertainment, to dwell within that boredom. But early on, there can be a bit of a disconnect within “The Vow,” as it tends to burrow into the banality of Keith Raniere, the group’s ringleader, and his deputies. It’s startling to see Raniere, for instance, finesse Allison Mack, the “Smallville” actor drawn into the NXIVM web, through a conversation whose unremarkably flat repetitiveness is precisely what makes it remarkable. This dullness of affect also makes NXIVM hard to battle against, which another of the documentary’s participants, actor Catherine Oxenberg, learns as she tries to extricate her daughter: The group thrives on its appearance as an anodyne organization simply helping individuals break old, toxic bonds.
But other moments within “The Vow” can inhabit NXIVM’s flatness a little too completely. We can understand how the group gained purchase through multilevel-marketing-style pitches, without having to observe it in quite such punishing detail, especially given the docu-series’ generous nine-episode run. In the main, though, “The Vow” pushes back against its slack pace to become television that compels — both for the access it has and for what it does with that access. Edmondson describes her process of becoming inculcated into NXIVM’s abusive regimen as “the frog in the pot of boiling water”: She didn’t know that the climate around her was growing dangerous until it was nearly too late. This series, in its methodical nature, attempts to restage Edmondson’s own coming into consciousness, and that it largely succeeds is an impressive feat of bearing witness.