The Vow—Season 1

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8.0 Overall Score

Interesting to see the inner workings of a cult

Confusing timeline of events, not enough exploration of Raniere’s past this season

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Do you take the vow?

In March 2018, Keith Raniere was arrested in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  With his arrest a story of a cult was revealed.  A group called NXIVM circled around Raniere but also fell under other blanket companies like ESP.  The enigmatic leader the group, Raniere espoused knowledge and tried to open up his followers to their inner workers…unfortunately, it was built on lies.  Raniere’s past and “education” was unfounded and as NXIVM’s power and size grew, Raniere became more and more untouchable.  When a group of former NXIVM members decide to end Raniere’s reign, the claws come out, and the battle begins.

The Vow—Season 1 is an HBO Documentary series which aired from August 23, 2020 to October 18, 2020.  The series follows the rise and fall of the organization NXIVM and its leader Mark Raniere (August 26, 1960 Brooklyn, New York).  The series was directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer.

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I’m out when he said “Let’s play volleyball”…nope…I’m done

My first encounter with NXIVM (like many people) was the arrest of Raniere and his tie to Allison Mack who I was familiar with due to watching all ten seasons of Smallville.  Cults are kind of fascinating in that there are a few different “styles” of cults that attract different people, but cults always have you begging the question “Would I fall for it?”

First thing is that unless there is something extremely, extremely wrong with someone, no one says “Gee, I want to join a cult”.  Cults evolve through manipulation, group thought, and generally under the power of one person who often has a network of helpers to push their goal.  The idea of “What is a cult” can be debated (aka are basic religions cults?  Are fraternities and sororities?  Or going really abstract is government in general a cult?)  Regardless the feeling, NXIVM easily fits into the category, and it is a cult which operated smartly.

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…and now he’s suckered the Dalai Llama

Cults that can establish themselves financially and legitimately seems to have a better foothold and are able to earn a better reputation (or at least be ignored by agencies, news organizations, and groups that might try to bring them down).  NXIVM does that and the series tries to explain the complex web of operations that controls the group which all leads to Mark Raniere…who smartly keeps his name off of most things.

One of the first things I did when I heard about NXIVM was to look up Raniere and that is a little bit of the undefined aspect of this series.  Someone like a Charles Manson or Jim Jones couldn’t be searched out on the internet and required harder work to discover any lies about the past…Raniere evolved in the age of the internet and there appeared to be tons of information surrounding him…or a lack there of.  The series mostly paints Raniere as a guru who espouses “wisdom” to his people because of his education, science background, and enlightenment…but the fact that none of that was really true isn’t explored.  It also could have been really easily fact-checked by a lot of the people involved in Raniere’s group since the members of NXIVM are on the wealthy side.

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Yes…scarring symbols into your privates is a perfectly normal thing to do….regardless if they are initials

The documentary is interesting in that many documentaries happen after the fact, but The Vow unfolds as it happens.  It is the group’s attempts to bust Raniere and the frustration of a lot of evidence but the inability to find what is needed to stick.  The “present day” stuff is intermingled with past events since Raniere taped and recorded many of his messages along with his followers, but the timeline presented in The Vow isn’t always clear in its presentation and I wish that I didn’t have to go to something like a Wikipedia to get a timeline since the timeline does seem important.

The next aspect are the players involved.  Everyone trying to bring down Raniere was involved in NXIVM to some extent.  People like Sarah Edmondson come off as extremely sympathetic while others still come off as unbalanced.  Allison Mack is potentially the most disappointing (personally) because I enjoyed her character on Smallville, and she seems less brainwashed and more of a coconspirator with Raniere…plus, you have to remember she is an actress when you see clips of her spilling her guts and crying as she makes revelations in meetings.  Catherine Oxenberg isn’t the “lead” of the documentary but comes off as the heart of the documentary by representing parents caught with the idea of freeing their children while at the same time potentially sending them to jail.  While I like Bonnie Piesse, I feel that her husband Mark Vincente isn’t as sympathetic since he really pushed the whole order of NXIVM.  It does offer the debate of does blowing the whistle on something wipe out the crimes of which you were a very active enabler?

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Pity party for poor Keith

The Vow—Season 1 is an interesting true-crime series that is a bit strange since it is a series with a planned second season.  I hope that The Vow—Season 2 (which is scheduled to look at the trial of Keith Raniere) will go deeper into how Raniere was able to set himself up in a position to get this power because of his pretty public past and poor reputation.  I found Raniere creepy throughout the documentary, but I’m also approaching it as someone who has the value of hindsight.  You would like to think that you wouldn’t be trapped (I of course wouldn’t have been trapped because I didn’t meet the financial necessities of NXIVM).  Fortunately, I would have been out as soon as he suggested playing volleyball…I never liked volleyball.

The Vow—Complete Episode Guide:

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“The Science of Joy”

1.1  The Science of Joy Airdate:  08/23/20

Sarah Edmondson is introduced to NXIVM through Mark Vincente and the umbrella program ESP.  The program’s basic structure is explained and how the “plan” gets to the core of fears and logic and integrates them into a person’s psyche.  The growth in the program, and what the sashes mean to the people who earn them.  Mark’s meeting of Bonnie Piesse changes Bonnie’s life and Mark’s.  As NXIVM grows, the endorsement of the Dali Llama could mean a big jump for the movement.

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1.2  Viscera Airdate:  08/30/20

Bonnie begins to have doubts of NXIVM with causes a rift with her husband Mark.  As she starts to come to a self-realization that something is wrong in NXIVM, Bonnie realizes she’s putting herself in a dangerous position and her health starts to be affected.  Mark finds himself getting in closer to Keith Raniere and documenting their time together to show the experience and develop of the organization.  The demands for “allegiance” leads to dangerous requests…and a group called DOS.

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“At Cause”

1.3  At Cause Airdate:  09/06/20

Sarah revelation that she was branded as part of DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium), but because it is her job, she feels trapped.  Mark finds himself guilty for helping Keith advance NXIVM’s strength.  Sarah recalls getting married and having a family within ESP, but her husband Nippy’s ties to the SOP organization (Society of Protectors) in ESP could keep them locked in.  When her friend Lauren Salzman recruits Sarah as part of her DOS pod, Sarah is forced to give the collateral to lock in her alliance…and pulling the trigger on NXIVM could cost her everything.

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“Building Character”

1.4  Building Character Airdate:  09/13/20

Mark, Bonnie, and Sarah are out to get the secret of NXIVM out and “rescue” as many of their recruits as they can before they are in too deep.  Catherine Oxenberg learns of the events in NXIVM and realizes that her daughter India is in danger within the organization.  The Master-Slave relationship is expanded and explored.  Pam Cafritz’s creation of Jness within NXIVM sought to create power for women…and her death could be another mystery.

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“Class 1 Data”

1.5  Class 1 Data Airdate:  09/20/20

NXIVM’s story is out, and NXIVM are on damage control to stop it.  Mark seeks out Kristin Keeffe who had a relationship with Keith…and she has a story to tell.  With struggles with the law, Catherine, Mark, Bonnie, and Sarah decide they have to go to the press about the group.  The events surrounding the meeting with the Dali Llama are revealed and how The Knife was created to combat negative press against NXIVM.  With the story in the lap of newspapers, getting published could be the bigger challenge.

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“Honesty & Disclosure”

1.6  Honesty & Disclosure Airdate:  09/27/20

The #MeToo movement pushes the NXIVM story to the front page of The New York Times.  Barbara Bouchey’s entry to ESP is revealed and what NXIVM meant to her when she started her relationship with Keith…and Barbara’s decision to leave created a rift in the group which led to Mark and Sarah’s rise with into the organization.

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“Blame & Responsibility”

1.7  Blame & Responsibility Airdate:  10/04/20

Catherine realizes that the deeper she gets into the NXIVM and Keith’s past, the more danger she could be facing trying to separate her daughter from him.  Keith’s former lover Toni Natalie shows the danger of going against Keith and his people.  To stop Keith, people involved in NXIVM might have to incriminate themselves.

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“The Wound”

1.8  The Wound Airdate:  10/11/20

With the FBI agreeing to investigate NXIVM and Raniere, and the people fighting to get the case heard begin gathering the evidence.  The formation of SOP is explained and Mark finds himself feeling responsible for the group’s creation while never questioning Keith’s teachings.  The scars of NXIVM run deep and shutting Keith down could mean opening them all again.

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“The Fall”

1.9  The Fall Airdate:  10/18/20

With the FBI investigating him, Raniere flees to Mexico with his top advisors and the opportunity to arrest him is getting smaller.  Mark and Bonnie experience what it is like to go back to the home that turned against them as the moment of truth rises.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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