Of course it was about sex. Of course it was a plot to sponge the fat off women, slim them down into slivers of themselves. Of course the beautiful ones moved to the front of the line to be indoctrinated and groomed and kept as special pets. What else could it be? Not every cult leader wants to create a chainlink of women he can keep as devoted sex bots, but nobody is remotely surprised when that’s at the root of things. Smart, manipulative guy who figures out a way to brainwash women into stripping down at a snap of his fingers? Yep, that reads.
“Building Character” is a little frantic, dancing between Sarah, India, and “Jane,” trying to braid together their stories, and relying so much on B-roll of NXIVM’s Albany neighborhood that I was starting to memorize the topographical landscape. It tries to abide by the structure set in the three earlier episodes of The Vow, explaining the group’s terminology (“failure form,” “breaching”) alongside a trickle of new, disgusting revelations. But somehow here there are some hiccups, like The Vow has had enough time to stretch its legs and it needs to just sprint already.
Sarah’s quest is to deprogram as many women that she ushered into DOS as possible. She feels culpable, and she should — remember how potent a recruiter she was, pulling in hundreds of new members? But her energy is made strange by the camera’s presence. It’s hard to know if the footage we see of her zipping around the country and dipping in to visit Malibu was filmed by Mark or the filmmakers (again, some establishing info would be helpful, guys!), and at what point she saw her crusade as something that would go public. She’s clearly earnest and emotional about the havoc she wreaked on all these women’s psyches. But it has me wondering if, in some small part, she took this on as a role, or a form of protection.
Then there are the stories of two other women lured into NXIVM. First, Jane, a filmmaker herself who chooses to be anonymous, saying “I don’t want to defined by the choices that I made.” (Though it’s hard to square that with the larger and longer glimpses of her face that the filmmakers show. By the end of this episode I probably could have sketched her myself.) Her story is a little different than the ones we’ve already heard. “Rachel,” an urban farmer, was the subject of one of Jane’s documentaries and a DOS member. Enchanted by Rachel, she agreed, for reasons she isn’t entirely clear about, to join the group without even knowing another member of NXIVM. She handed in the required collateral — photos, the passwords to her social-media accounts — and vowed her fealty as a slave to Rachel, who, in a bizarre twist, is a Black master.
It’s the smaller rules and rituals in Jane and Rachel’s relationship that are appalling, like the requirement that Jane respond to any text within one minute, that she ask before consuming a single calorie, and receive permission before every text as a punishment. If not, Rachel tells her, she’ll get “a spanking.” I can only assume she means an honest-to-God belt or paddle to the ass.
The larger story here is about the ways that the women inside NXIVM are instructed to turn on one another — but always in the name of “helping,” and “freeing” one another from fears, limitations, those damn “limiting beliefs.” The chain of masters and grandmasters and slaves who need to bring in more slaves makes every woman culpable, and a victim. How do you decide who gets to own each role? When Jane began sleeping with Keith was she getting precisely what she wanted, an intimate relationship with a powerful and kinetic man? Or does his grotesque decision to wait to sleep with her until she’d lost a certain amount of weight and his hold over all of DOS as its founder and ringleader mean that no matter how badly she wanted to sleep with him the relationship could never be anything but a form of abuse? (It isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement that Jane always felt “nauseous and shaky” after sex with Keith.)
Then there’s India Oxenberg, daughter of Hollywood royalty (her mother Catherine starred on Dynasty) and blood royalty (her grandmother is Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia), surely a fine catch for Keith. Her stubbornness is what’s up for study here. Like Jane, she’s been calorie-counting, sleeping with Keith, wearing a literal chain to mark her allegiance. But she doesn’t have the wherewithal — or the friend pulling her arm — to see that what looks like a lovely glade in the woods is actually a giant trap. Jane gets out. India is somebody’s dinner.
But then “Building Character” traces its way up the path of the women of NXIVM, making the case that there’s a more complex psychological error code at play. The women, or at least some of them, know what they’re doing. India, it turns out, is one of Jane’s DOS “aunties” and Alli is the grandmaster of them all, slave only to Keith himself. The glimpse of Alli’s first meeting with Keith is bizarre, almost like she was waiting to be sucked into something, anything, so long as it offered her a little love. She tosses out hyperrsexualized comments, telling him he’s popping her EM cherry and offering, “I hug and I kiss,” when he asks for the former. Her cravings are obvious.
But it turns out that she’s following in some very big footsteps. Pam Cafritz, who absolutely needs to be played by Jessica Hecht in the fictionalized version of this that we all know will eventually be made, was Keith’s long-haired, longtime partner, the woman who essentially made NXIVM happen with her devotion to his genius — and her own warmth and accessibility. (She was also the daughter of two D.C. socialites, and this 2010 Vanity Fair story, written long before NXIVM’s dirty laundry aired, is a great primer.) When Pam died of cancer, Alli sobbed. Then she took her place.
Keith, a man with zero self-awareness, says he created DOS because he saw women “being thwarted by men in positions of power when they tried to make a difference in the world.” Women joined JNESS, another NXIVM women’s group (my caps lock is getting a workout) so they could learn “what female empowerment looks like outside of a male-dominated world.” And yet by the end of this episode, Catherine Oxenberg, Sarah, and their crew are on a mission to rescue as many women as possible from the clutches of a crazed sex cult that brands them and starves them until their hair falls out. And they’re not just rescuing them from Keith, but from other women.