HBO’s The Vow tells the story of NXIVM, the multi-level marketing, and self-improvement organization that housed a sex cult.
The Vow’s name originates from a sub-group of NXIVM, called Dominus Obsequious Sororium or DOS. In Latin, it’s direct translation would be “Master over Slave Women.” The group was also referred to as The Vow, because all the women agreed to become slaves to member’s of DOS’ hierarchy, including NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, for the rest of their lives.
DOS was introduced as an exclusive and secret society of women that was created on the grounds of female empowerment and self-help, however, it ended up being a sex trafficking ring. These women were victims of both mental and physical abuse as they were enslaved, used for sex, and mutilated by human branding.
The nine-part documentary includes direct dialogue from former members of NXIVM and most prominently former DOS victim, Sarah Edmunson. These people recollect their stories of leaving the organization and bring the audience with them as they eventually take it down.
Bonnie Piesse, Mark Vicente, and Sarah Edmonson, all ex-members of NXIVM, open up about how they were recruited to be in the organization, their roles, daily life as a member, and the stories of their awakenings.
These interviews are accompanied by actual footage from inside NXIVM’s various meetings and development seminars. Watching these recordings becomes increasingly chilling as the series progresses because of the information that comes to light.
Many of the members’ stories were similar: they were introduced to the organization through a friend or colleague and took a five-day seminar that they found to be enlightening, so they stuck with it. Eventually, they became established members and were introduced to Raniere, who at the time they referred to as “Vanguard.” He was held in extremely high regard by NXIVM members.
Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, directors of The Vow, often used Raniere’s tendency to gloat about his method, intelligence, and success to emphasize his narcissism. This also added to the cult leader character the series was trying to portray him as.
Some of the more shocking information in The Vow happens early on in the series. For example, the topic of human branding was presented in the third episode. This was intentional on the filmmaker’s part, as it allowed them enough time to build up to this unbelievable information as well as enough time to explain what the branding meant to DOS and Raniere.
Though the former members seemed to have verifiable evidence of NXIVM’s wrongdoings, it was not deemed urgent by The New York Times. The story finally got front-page coverage during the rise of the Me Too movement. Soon after major publications began covering the allegations against the organization, the authorities began actively investigating the case. This was a particularly interesting angle that the series provided because it demonstrated how relevance and media attention can impact justice.
The Vow is overall worth the watch for its compelling storytelling. The detailed interviews, a large amount of evidence, and editing style are all factors that add to the value of the documentary as a whole. It’ll leave viewers wanting more information with every episode.
The message that is most impactful from this series is that the human mind is much more delicate than people would like to believe. This is stressed by the fact that many of the members of NXIVM were established individuals with successful careers and relationships, yet they were still able to be coerced into engaging in dangerous behavior. The story of NXIVM is a reminder that there is a vulnerability in everyone, even the strong, that can be abused.
HBO has confirmed The Vow’s return for a second season that will focus on the trials and conviction of several members of NXIVM and DOS. This was expected, as the first season’s finale included a cliffhanger ending: a phone call from an imprisoned Raniere in September 2020.
“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,” Raniere said ominously.
On Oct. 27, 2020, Keith Raniere, 60, was sentenced to 120 years in federal prison for sex trafficking, wire fraud, racketeering, and forced labor conspiracy amongst other crimes.
The Vow: Part Two will be coming in 2021. Until then, all episodes from its first season are now available exclusively on HBO Max.