The Master Manipulators of ‘The Vow’
The documentary was never about its subjects making amends with the past. It was about shifting alliances, like any good reality TV show.
There’s a scene in the finale of The Vow, HBO’s series on the NXIVM multilevel-marketing cult, that captures the essence of its nine episodes. Catherine Oxenberg, the former Dynasty actress and onetime NXIVM dabbler, pulls into her Malibu driveway on the heels of a tense meeting with her still-ensnared daughter, India. As she steps out of her vehicle, we see a couple there to greet her: filmmaker Mark Vicente and his wife, the actress Bonnie Piesse. The duo of NXIVM defectors, along with Oxenberg and two fellow ex-members, Sarah Edmondson and Nippy Ames, form a conspiratorial pod to take the organization down. Vicente wraps Oxenberg in a tender embrace, and she dissolves into sobs.
“I love you, we’re inspired by you, and we have your back until the end,” says Vicente, stroking Oxenberg’s long hair with almost fatherly care. “We’re here until the end.”
This heartwarming exchange is the emotional climax before the big reveal: Leader Keith Raniere’s eventual arrest and extradition from his hideaway in Mexico. Of course, we knew that part was coming. The series traced tense interpersonal melodramas rife with betrayal and sex cult intrigue. But it also, critically, led viewers toward the foregone conclusion of justice. Raniere’s arrest took place more than two years ago. Buffered by its frame of publicly documented outcomes from a relatively recent past, The Vow presented less like a documentary series, as its creators purported it to be, than a cannily produced reality show.
In lieu of unpacking the layers of conspiracy, manipulation, and profit that allowed Raniere to carry out genuinely monstrous acts on NXIVM members — apparently, for years — The Vow zoomed in on the self-flagellating Scooby Squad that’s assembled, on camera, to take him down. We see their remorse and emotional catharsis, disbelief…