"Documentaries about cults are a little like horror films; they provide us with the visceral thrill of seeing other people battle a terrifying monster — all while feeling secure in our superiority: We would never pick up a creepy hitchhiker or fail to check the back seat of a darkened car like those dolts on screen," says Kristen Baldwin of the nine-part HBO docuseries from directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim. "But cult leaders aren’t always as simple to spot as machete-wielding maniacs, and the people who fall prey to their manipulation tactics are not the weak-minded nincompoops we’d prefer them to be. What’s so chilling about The Vow — HBO’s immersive new docuseries about NXIVM, the New York-based 'self-help group' brought down by charges of sexual slavery — is how vividly it illustrates the seductive and insidious ways these groups lure intelligent, well-meaning people into servitude."
The Vow takes its time to become interesting: "The first two episodes present a lot of dense information regarding NXIVM’s philosophy, the organizational structure and where (founder Keith) Raniere fits in," says Kristen Lopez. "...The first two episodes also have moments where the subjects will stare off into the middle distance in a desert as a means of showing their feelings towards the group in the early stages. Once things take a turn and the group starts discussing DOS — a sect within the cult — that the pretentious theatrics subside and The Vow becomes a straightforward documentary. Once things ramp up The Vow becomes as fascinating as expected, but it’s unclear if an audience will stick around to see that assumption bear fruit."
The Vow really excels when it finally gets going: "Other moments within The Vow can inhabit NXIVM’s flatness a little too completely," says Daniel D'Addario. "We can understand how the group gained purchase through multilevel-marketing-style pitches, without having to observe it in quite such punishing detail, especially given the docu-series’ generous nine-episode run. In the main, though, The Vow pushes back against its slack pace to become television that compels — both for the access it has and for what it does with that access. (former member Sarah) Edmondson describes her process of becoming inculcated into NXIVM’s abusive regimen as “the frog in the pot of boiling water”: She didn’t know that the climate around her was growing dangerous until it was nearly too late. This series, in its methodical nature, attempts to restage Edmondson’s own coming into consciousness, and that it largely succeeds is an impressive feat of bearing witness."
The Vow is a fascinating, but not exactly exciting, addition to the documentary slate: "It takes time for the series to get around to discussing the most exploitative aspects of the organization, including Dominus Obsequious Sororium, known as DOS or The Vow, the secret all-female organization within NXIVM (pronounced nex-e-um) that was at the center of the most horrifying acts that allegedly took place, including branding 'sex slaves' with Raniere's initials and using 'collateral' — which could be private information, embarrassing confessions, or even nude photographs — to blackmail women into submission and silence," says Kaitlin Thomas. "But by building a foundation of knowledge and carefully shedding light on the events that eventually led up to the blistering 2017 New York Times exposé that made NXIVM and its leader front page news, the filmmakers are able to build a sympathetic narrative for their subjects that explains how something as unbelievable as this story could happen."