Type keyword(s) to search

Quick Hits

The Vow Part Two Succeeded in Spite of Keith Raniere

Season 2 flopped as a courtroom documentary but succeeded as a psychological study of Raniere's second-in-command.
  • Keith Raniere, The Vow Part Two (HBO)
    Keith Raniere, The Vow Part Two (HBO)

    With its sixth and final episode, titled "Crime and Punishment," The Vow Part Two finally delivered the full picture it’s been developing all season. That the episode had so much ground to cover was seemingly by design. Creators Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer cast a wide net this season, covering Keith Raniere's trial, which included a laundry list of revelations about his abuses that were not covered in Part One, the efforts by a band of NXIVM loyalists to help him win in the court of public opinion (to predictably dubious results), and the first-person testimony of Nancy Salzman, NXIVM's co-founder who, at the time of filming, was awaiting sentencing on her own charges.

    Now at season's end, we can look back and fairly say The Vow Part Two told some stories more successfully than others. Ultimately, the season was unsatisfying as a chronicle of Raniere's trial. A lot of that had to do with limited access: Without being able to put a camera in the courtroom, the show resorted to talking heads with the prosecutor and defense attorney, plus a lot of workarounds like voiceover and even animation. The lack of access to Raniere himself created a massive hole at the center of the docuseries. For as compelling a story as The Vow has been telling over the course of these two seasons, it's a demonstrably weaker show when it's telling third-person stories rather than first-person accounts. For as much as Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson's efforts in Season 1 to polish up their image after defecting from NXIVM rankled, their first-person accounts were crucial to the audience's understanding of and fascination with the cult.

    In telling the story of Raniere's trial — including a lot of information that was missing in Season 1 about his abuses of cult members, like his long-term sexual relationship with Lauren Salzman and his sexual manipulation of a 15-year-old cult member, which, according to Raniere's defense attorney, was what swung the case against him irreversibly — the lack of access to the major players left significant voids in the show's narrative. The absence of key members of the sex-cult "sorority" DOS, like Alison Mack and Lauren Salzman, felt increasingly conspicuous in the documentary. There isn't much to be done if someone isn't willing to talk to you, but it definitely hinders how well The Vow told the court story.

    The Vow Part Two did succeed in one instance, so much so that it redeems not only the season, but the decision to have a second season at all. By getting Nancy Salzman to participate, the show ends up being a thoroughly fascinating psychological exploration of a woman who was both victim and victimizer in NXIVM. That woman is a mess of contradictions, and watching her work her way through them on camera is often uncomfortable but utterly captivating. In the season finale alone, Nancy seems to be speaking out loud some long-festering doubts about "the work" that she and Raniere did and which she's long held up as sacred, even in the face of the abuses that Raniere enacted. Given her past as a nurse and as someone with a seemingly sincere motivation towards healing, Nancy's embrace of the various brands of pseudoscience at the heart of NXIVM's curriculum could at least be seen as sincere, if ultimately warped by Raniere's influence. At the beginning of the season, Nancy held firm to the idea that the work she did for people was good, even if how Keith chose to abuse his power was bad.

    Six episodes later, Nancy's not so sure anymore. "If you're this wrong," Nancy muses about her failure to properly clock Keith's villainy, "can you really trust yourself?" Later in the finale, she seems to break down further in a spiral of rhetorical questions. "[Keith] couldn't have done the evil if he hadn't done the good. So did he do the good so he could do the evil? I don't know, but maybe that's true. Maybe he only did the good so we would believe in him. So he could do this."

    But even as Nancy is dismantling these notions of her life's work, the show presents her with just enough distance to allow for skepticism. When Nancy — who has always professed ignorance of what was happening in DOS or with Keith's relationships with the women in NXIVM — talks in hindsight about Keith's manipulative relationship with Alison Mack, she does so with a curious amount of insight into that dynamic for someone who only learned about it after the fact. And by the end of the episode, Nancy's momentary allowances that maybe she does deserve to go to jail for the evils that happened "on [her] watch" at NXIVM seem to have faded a bit once the harsh prospect of prison becomes a cold reality.

    Ultimately, The Vow promised to tell the story of Keith Raniere and his NXIVM sex cult, a story that was told more satisfyingly in Part One than it was in Part Two. But the show actually delivered on a story it never bothered to promise, yet was more accurate and honest about what happened at NXIVM: Keith Raniere's victims became victimizers. Watching someone as high-placed as Nancy Salzman wrestle with that, however imperfectly, was in the end far better TV than watching the outcome of a trial we all read about months ago. In that way, The Vow was able to succeed in spite of Keith Raniere, not because of him.

    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, Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer, Keith Raniere, Nancy Salzman, NXIVM