In the two years since HBO’s The Vow aired its first season, the show has been appraised and re-appraised regarding its approach to the infamous NXIVM cult and its leader, Keith Raniere. The initial episodes were built around former members Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson, the latter of whom went public in a 2017 New York Times exposé that blew the lid off of the NXIVM story and its most shocking detail: that an inner circle of women took part in a sex slavery arrangement and were branded with Raneire's initials. To support those revelations, Vicente supplied hours and hours of video and audio of Raniere, recorded at the leader's behest. That footage was undeniably captivating, but it also raised questions about how much Vicente and Edmondson's participation pushed the series toward protecting their reputations. After all, despite being framed as principled whistleblowers, they also spent years as willing and active NXIVM participants.
Those questions will have to be tabled, because even though Vicente and Edmondson were interviewed for The Vow Part Two, they are no longer the main attractions. This time, directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer focus on someone who was conspicuously absent the first time around: NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman.
Of course, the filmmakers might have preferred to chat with Keith Raniere himself, but since he’s on trial in a Brooklyn courtroom that doesn't allow video or audio recording, they have to rely on workarounds to get that story out, like interviewing prosecutor Moira Penza and constantly cutting to shots of the Brooklyn court building. That leaves Salzman, who was essentially second-in-command to Raniere at NXIVM, as the season’s vital primary source. She’s the one who can tell us things we haven’t heard before.
And does she ever. Salzman ends up being the most fascinating subject the show has encountered in two seasons; a woman who turned her back on Raniere after the federal charges came down — and who at the time of filming was being prosecuted herself — but still desperately wants to hold on to some sense of righteousness regarding the life's work she put into NXIVM. Over the course of six episodes, Salzman's story becomes a compelling character study of culpability, complicity, and how much a person is ultimately willing to concede about her participation in a fraud that harmed many people, including her own children.
The season kicks off with archived video of NXIVM's curriculum materials for their Executive Success Programs, and we see Salzman reassuring whatever recruit might be watching that it's only haters who throw around terminology like "cult." The footage is consistent with videos of Nancy that appeared in the first season, and its presence at the top of Season 2 is crucial, because it reminds the audience of everything we already know about her: how she used psychobabble about self-improvement to lure people into NXIVM's programs; how she supported the group's hierarchies (the sashes! remember the sashes?); how she propped up Raniere as a messianic "Vanguard." Everything about this lady is suspect, and it's crucial we remember that as we meet her in 2020: under house arrest, disarmed and isolated, somewhat repentant. Unlike Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson, we can't just take Nancy's words on good faith. We've seen an entire season's worth of her as a NXIVM leader. This isn’t good for image rehab, but it makes for engrossing TV.
By the time these episodes started filming, Nancy had already pled guilty to charges of conspiracy and racketeering (hence the house arrest), and she'd turned on Raniere. Throughout this season, she attempts — if for no one's benefit but her own — to further separate herself from the terrible things Keith did, in particular his sexual misconduct. "The sex cult was Keith's thing," Nancy says, like she's talking about a friend being into Phish or LARPing. "My company didn't need to be destroyed." This determination to defend NXIVM's self-help work is self-evidently dubious, and no matter how many stories Nancy tells about being aghast at Keith's behavior, the audience is well equipped to interrogate why she stayed. Why did it take a federal indictment to break her loyalty? How seriously can we take her concessions about her own mistakes?
In contrast to this complex portrait, the show’s attempts to document Keith Raniere's villainy are once again marred by an overdetermined structure. For instance, crucial charges against him are saved for later episodes, which feels like pandering to an audience that’s hungry for shocking twists.
Still, for all that's frustrating about The Vow, the cumulative effect of watching both seasons is remarkably gratifying. It’s true that a documentary shouldn't make you work so hard to locate the moral and ethical ground upon which it stands, and there's undeniably something icky about bringing Keith Raniere's story into popular culture to be pored over and gossiped about. But there's immense satisfaction in wrestling with a story like Nancy's, which doesn't provide easy answers. The Vow and its viewers end up better for wading into her moral contradictions.
The Vow Part Two premieres October 17 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and HBO Max.
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.