A weird thing happened while I was writing my recap of episode eight. My brain miscalculated and I assumed it was The Vow’s finale. My original draft wondered how on Earth the series’s creators could leave so much hanging in the air. Keith hadn’t even been arrested! The FBI investigation had just begun! Thanks to my astute editor, I learned that there was a whole other episode I hadn’t watched yet — this one. I edited out the bits where I whined about it as a terrible finale. And then I watched episode nine, “The Fall,” believing this was the end of the line.
Now with the news that The Vow was granted a second season, things are again in flux. How can this series go on, with so much of NXIVM and Keith’s history already covered, with nine hours of analysis completed? The last minutes of this episode — “There are many ways of presenting a documentary. Your side is only the very top layer. And depending on what you’re willing to present as the truth, it can go very deep. So talk to me” — are clearly included as cliffhangers. Will season two revolve around Keith’s side of the story, as told from prison? Will we see Keith’s trial? Nancy’s? Lauren Salzman’s? More from Allison Mack? (It’s safe to assume India Oxenberg’s story will still take center stage, since as of “The Fall” she is still in NXIVM’s grip.)
Those questions put this first season into better perspective. For an investigative documentary, The Vow does relatively little investigating. What great luck to be handed a trove of film from Mark, a veteran filmmaker, that captured every speech, every session, every volleyball game. To have such eager, willing participants talking direct-to-camera and sprinting dramatically through desert vistas for your B-roll. Keith’s voice from that jailhouse line didn’t necessarily make me care about his perspective — grifters gonna grift, even on a mic to HBO — but to think about how myopically The Vow has cared about the defectors’ voices, with very little emphasis on the FBI, those reams of lawsuit documents from the 1990s onwards, the files from investigations gone past. The Vow will watch Toni and Barbara and Susan prowl through their folders and hard drives for info on Keith & Co., but from what we can see, they don’t go on any digs of their own.
Which leaves this season finale very, very flat. There’s a man on the lam, for crying out loud, but the producers spend more time watching Sarah and Mark and Catherine text one another than they do investigating the story of exactly how Keith fled to Mexico in his final days as a free man. That footage of him led away in handcuffs, surrounded by palm trees and birds of paradise on what looks like a lush Mexican estate, is extraordinary — it’s clearly from the phone of one of his followers — but that’s the entire climax.
By saving the goods for a second season, The Vow turns this finale into a rehashing of a bunch of things we already know or suspected about Keith, just more stories of the rich kids sponging off their successful parents and Mark launching weird propaganda videos for NXIVM. The Mexican branch of ESP was well-moneyed and very eager and also hideously out of touch, hosting speeches in the street where a millionaire’s kid stands up and proclaims that if everyone just works together — *wipes away a tear* — even poor people will have something to rejoice about. (Oh no, nobody is donating any money or time or energy to ending corruption or lifting people out of poverty, just lots of words!) And while I certainly sympathize with the story of Toni, who had both ears sheared off by a vicious kidnapper, I’m not sure what another defector’s story adds to the mix here.
The same goes for the documentary Mark and Keith filmed together over seven years. (Which may or may not have been the same film as the one where Keith plays a mentor who is also a psychopath? It got a little hazy in there. So many movies!) The point seemed to be Keith’s guile, that he would spend years on a film only to reshoot it entirely because his long hair lends validity to the idea that he’s a cult leader. There’s some credence to that (Charles Manson, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara), but there’s also nothing intrinsically nefarious in reshooting. Are we supposed to believe that The Vow’s producers got every shot the first time? That they never asked participants to restate something or reenact a moment? Like wildlife observers, documentarians must interfere to some degree in order to bear witness.
With that said — Keith, I agree that you looked very culty with the longer hair!
Bonnie and Mark just so happen to be visiting their old stomping grounds — their house in Albany, ESP’s offices, the retreat where they held V Week — when the news comes in that Keith has been arrested and is heading for Texas and then New York. More retrospective tales about Keith’s abuse (telling Bonnie to lick a puddle) drive home the point that when she and Mark left for L.A. they truly fled. What delightful happenstance that they are back in Albany when Keith is hauled across the border by the U.S. Marshals. Or, perhaps, what great framing and setup by The Vow’s creators. (A small, funny bit: Bonnie, formerly Beru in the Star Wars prequels, yelling “I want to go let the rebels know!” when she hears of Keith’s indictment.)
Scenes of the two outside the courthouse, with Sarah (who is oddly abandoned in this final episode) watching on TV from home, are designed to paint the defectors as victorious, if still befuddled by the messes they’ve made of their lives. (See: Mark reading Take Back Your Life, Janja Lalich and Madeleine Landau Tobias’s self-help book for former cult members.) And yes, they are the victors in some sense — their persistence paid off, and Keith could go to jail for the rest of his life. But how arbitrary is the line between those who are now NXIVM’s victims and those who stayed with Keith until the bitter end, and may end up in prison themselves?
Keith’s lawyers argue that everyone involved was a grown adult, that manipulation isn’t a crime, that ESP members joined of their own volition. But the notion of guilt is so slippery here. How much blame should Allison Mack shoulder if she too was brainwashed? Do Mark and Nippy deserve an out because they “saw the light” before Keith’s scheme came crashing down? Is it possible that the biggest victims of all are the ones who chased the car carrying a handcuffed Keith, still convinced that he was their personal savior?
If The Vow’s biggest success is to stew in this murk and avoid easy answers, its greatest failing is that by its first season’s final episode it still has only given us the briefest of glimpses into what culpability really looks like. Then again, there’s always next season.