The opening moments of The Vow contain visual excerpts from what appears to be the best corporate retreat ever. Groups of people are seen playing volleyball, frolicking on green lawns, dashing together into lakes. The imagery suggests the men and women in this footage belong to a happy club that one would be very lucky to join.
But that club happens to be a dangerous cult, as this absorbing HBO docuseries about NXIVM (pronounced nexium), an organization supposedly focused on wellness and self-actualization, demonstrates over the course of nine episodes. (Seven were made available in advance.) That revelation is not new. In 2017, a New York Times piece revealed that women within the organization were being physically branded as part of a sorority created within NXIVM that was supposed to empower women, but actually forced them to literally become slaves to others who acted as their masters. Previous reporting, most notably in the Albany Times Union in 2012, made the case that the head of NXIVM, Keith Raniere, had brainwashed multiple women in the group into serving as his loyal sexual partners.
None of this is breaking news if you followed any of these stories about NXIVM or Raniere’s downfall — The Vow notes shortly into the first episode (premiering on HBO’s broadcast and streaming platforms on Sunday, August 23) that Raniere, referred to internally as Vanguard, was eventually charged with multiple crimes, including racketeering, wire fraud, and sex trafficking. What is revealing and effective about The Vow, directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, who worked together on the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, is its ability to take its audience into the epicenter of this deceptive pseudo-business while key members are in the process of exposing its more sinister practices to the public.
The series is able to do this because Noujaim took some of NXIVM’s marquee Executive Success seminars in 2010 and remained in contact with people she met during the program. Also, perhaps more crucially, one of its key figures is filmmaker Mark Vicente, the co-director of the trippy film What the Bleep Do We Know!? and a disciple of Raniere’s who rose to the highest ranks of NXIVM leadership. Raniere asked Vicente to work on a documentary about him, so Vicente has tons of intimate footage of the so-called Vanguard that provides a spine around which to build this work of nonfiction.
The stereotype about cults and their leaders is that they appeal to their followers’ most woo-woo instincts, creating communes where members can live freely and, perhaps, engage in some free love. That’s more or less how another excellent docuseries about a cult, Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, depicts what attracted the community that gathered around the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in rural Oregon in the 1980s. NXIVM is different in that, on the surface, it appeals much more directly to the intellect and the psyche, which is why it’s so easy for otherwise intelligent people to get sucked into its vortex.
Noujaim and Amer take their time to explain how the Executive Success Program, or ESP, works by challenging people to rethink their assumptions about themselves, referred to as “limiting beliefs,” and their ideas about ethics and society. The lofty goal at the center of these sessions, as well as NXIVM more generally, is to make its students better people and the world a better place. It’s a little bit self-help and a little bit unconscious-bias training, accompanied by some decidedly weird rituals and flair. Sarah Edmondson, an actress who, alongside Vicente, also climbed the organization’s leadership ranks, says she initially was weirded out by the various colored sashes that members wear to signify what level they’ve achieved in their training. It’s a testament to the power of groupthink that Edmondson and others are able to tuck away their initial misgivings and center their entire lives around the world Raniere has constructed, a choice that eventually led to her having a permanently branded scar a few inches above her crotch.
The measured pacing and focus on NXIVM exposition makes The Vow drag occasionally in its initial episodes. But as this multilayered saga unfolds, that approach becomes an asset. The banality of the sessions and the establishment of the camaraderie among many of the NXIVM regulars makes it easy to understand why people like Edmondson and Vicente were lulled into false senses of security. As more twisted and abusive activities come to light, including the practices of DOS, the aforementioned slave-enabling sorority that former Smallville star and NXIVM member Allison Mack participated in, the nature of those seminars becomes even more sinister. Perhaps the best cover for being immoral is to announce that your main focus is on helping others do the right things.
Even though it’s clear from the beginning that NXIVM is going to fall apart, the series still generates tension as multiple once-loyalists decide to leave and fear what may happen to them if they do, starting with Vicente’s wife, Bonnie Piesse, whom he met in the program. We witness constant clandestine and (wisely, it turns out) recorded phone conversations between the NXIVM skeptics who are sharing information to build their cases, as well as arguments between those trying to escape and the loyalists who insist they are overreacting. As outrageous as some of the facts are — the ways in which Raniere and his cohorts harass certain women who left NXIVM are appalling, to put it mildly — Noujaim and Amer maintain a restrained approach. The storytelling in The Vow easily could have adopted a Tiger King–style “You’re not going to believe this” stance. Instead the series shows respect to those who were victimized by NXIVM and refrains from taking easy potshots at the group’s practices or even Raniere, who, especially when he’s dressed for his regular late-night volleyball games with a sweatband plastered across his forehead, doesn’t exactly exude “exalted one” vibes.
The story of NXIVM is massive. It’s impossible for every notable detail to make the final cut. That said, there are some omissions that seem significant. For example, investigative journalist Frank Parlato, who has written extensively about NXIVM over the years, is mentioned in early episodes and characterized as someone who isn’t always viewed as credible. But in the seventh episode, Parlato becomes a supporting figure in the series as he helps actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India refuses to leave NXIVM, in her attempt to get law enforcement involved in the situation. Given all the evidence Parlato has compiled and his willingness to help, he comes across as semi-heroic, albeit eccentric. A visit to his website, the Frank Report, reveals that it’s filled with reporting on NXIVM but also posts written by Roger Stone and at least one defense of QAnon, a juxtaposition that caused so much cognitive dissonance in my brain that it turned into a popping-confetti cannon. While it’s understandable that Noujaim and Amer decided that a whole sidebar on Parlato would be too distracting, this still raises the question of what other notable information or nuances may have been sliced out of the series.
Ironically, the recent focus in the news on the cultlike believers in QAnon conspiracy theories makes The Vow an especially relevant watch. While NXIVM coaches often preached the notion that trusting one’s intuition can be misleading — “Your intuition was just a feeling, a viscera,” Bonnie Piesse says in the second episode — the series is a testimony to how vital it is to check one’s gut and apply real, unvarnished critical thinking to events unfolding around us. Any of us can potentially have the wool pulled over our eyes by a dude who calls himself Vanguard, or anonymous online posters, or even a president. It’s what we do after we realize our vision has been obscured that truly defines whether we’re good or bad, and whether we’re safe or still in grave danger.