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Something's Lurking in Nancy Salzman's House in The Vow Part Two

Episode 2 sees Nancy on house arrest and presents a version of home decor that may haunt you forever.
  • Nancy Salzman in The Vow Part Two (Photo: HBO)
    Nancy Salzman in The Vow Part Two (Photo: HBO)

    The second episode of The Vow Part Two continues to track the downfall of the self-help cult NXIVM and the trial of its founder, Keith Raniere. As with the season premiere, a lot of the focus is on NXIVM's co-founder Nancy Salzman. At the time of filming, Salzman had pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and conspiracy and was under house arrest in Clifton Park, New York, awaiting her sentencing. There, tethered to her ankle monitor, under the accusatory glare of the documentary camera, Salzman began to unpack her long and complicated history with behavioral therapy and eventually, Keith Raniere.

    It would be great to say we were following along closely as Nancy talked about her childhood, her nursing career, and her earliest encounters with Keith, but that wouldn't be 100% truthful. Because we were absolutely distracted by the piece of home decor that appeared at the two-minute mark of last night's episode:

    Nancy Salzman and guest on "The Vow" (HBO)

    That is, as best we can tell, a life-size, three-dimensional cutout of an old woman wearing a housecoat, resting against the wall in Nancy Salzman's new home. Nancy doesn't address it, doesn't explain it, doesn't ever ask it for advice. The production makes sure it's visible in the background of every single interview setup she does in that house, but as far as the viewer is concerned, they may well be experiencing an ocular event of some kind. "Does everybody see that old lady behind Nancy Salzman?" you'll ask with a note of panic, like there's a chance she might just be the It Follows demon coming to claim Nancy as its next victim.

    Aside from being baffling and/or terrifying, the unexplained old-lady standee draws attention to the quiet desperation of Nancy Salzman's living situation. She's been forced out of the big, beautiful house she once lived in when she was riding high off of NXIVM dollars. Nancy makes a visit to that house at one point, and we take in its cookie-cutter suburban expanse, with its spacious rooms and tiled backsplash kitchen.

    The house Nancy is living in at the time of filming is far from a tenement, but it's definitely more modest. And the interior decor is really depressing. Aside from the maybe half-dozen Tiffany-style lamps placed throughout the house, the house is a monument to beige. The furniture, the walls, the carpeting, all communicating to each other in shades of off-white. The beige curtains cast a beige light on the rooms. The framed photos on the wall are all slightly washed out. Nancy's hairless cat even contributes to the drab color scheme.

    The only pop of color that exists in Nancy's house-arrest world is the blue flowered housecoat worn by the ghostly matron propped against the wall in her living room. The woman and her floral housecoat appear almost impressionistic, like Van Gogh was commissioned to paint life-size cutouts of old women for customers looking to scare the hell out of their friends by sticking a random old lady in their house while they sleep. The woman — nameless yet deeply intriguing — wears an expression of vague dismay, or perhaps it's concern. She's frozen in place but idly scratching at her forearm; something is nagging at her soul. Something is amiss. She can't say what. Nancy Salzman knows the feeling.

    I must stress the fact that NO ONE MENTIONS THIS OLD LADY CUTOUT. Not once. Not for the rest of the season. When we cut to a different angle on Nancy, we can see the figure from the side, and it's indeed about an inch and a half wide. Thicker than, say, the cardboard lobby display of Ted Danson that was reportedly the culprit behind the ghostly apparition in Three Men and a Baby. And much like the urban legend that accompanied that film, this unexplained presence in Nancy Salzman's home sent me searching for an explanation. A reverse-image search online only turned up auctions for oil paintings and ads for floral housecoats. Nothing about this looming old woman or what haunted curio shop in some Diagon Alley-esque enclave might have sold it.

    Nancy Salzman and unidentified woman on "The Vow" (HBO)

    Who is this woman?? What is her story? What is she trying to tell Nancy? At the beginning of the episode, Nancy talks about her childhood, how her mother suffered from chronic pain that was often so debilitating that Nancy remembers her crawling, unable to walk. This imprinted upon Nancy significantly enough that it spurred her to go into nursing as a career, and from there into pseudoscience like hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming. Is this impressionistic cutout with its vague expression of a discomfort that cannot ever be allayed a manifestation of Nancy's mother, or at least the version of Nancy's mother that exists in her mind? The matriarch whose pain she can never heal?

    We may never know for sure why this old woman haunts Nancy Salzman's home, or whether Nancy is aware of her presence, or whether her hairless cat hisses at something unseen along the wall all day, to Nancy's annoyed confusion. What secrets does she hold? Will she ever know peace, or will she be idly scratching that arm forever? The Vow Part Two doesn't offer any answers, only more questions.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Vow, HBO, Nancy Salzman