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The Vow Review 2020 Tv Show Series Season Cast Crew Online
Stars: Anthony Ames, Sarah Edmondson, Bonnie Piesse
The case of NXIVM, the Albany, N.Y.-based “self-help group” whose bizarre and seemingly cult-like aspects have been covered widely — merges a sort of enormity of evil with the prosaic in ways that can make it hard to connect with at first. What was done to aspirants within the group, who allege having been starved as well as held down and scarred with a cauterizing pen in order to be marked as slaves, represents perhaps the height of inhumanity. Yet such cruel behavior was enacted by individuals whose bland pleasantness reads more like the stuff of contemporary wellness culture than like, well, cult leaders.
This is among the contradictions explored by “The Vow,” HBO’s intriguing true-crime documentary series that captures the world of NXIVM through a couple of key voices. One of those belongs to Sarah Edmondson, a Canadian actor whose thinking about NXIVM radically shifted after she was forcibly branded. She went on to become an apostate from a movement that sold itself to her as being about self-improvement and ethics, and turned into a leading voice in the media describing its actions. Here, she walks us through her experience of being drawn into the cult, a journey that can at times distract viewers. What Edmondson describes, and what we later see, is a process of seminars and lectures about the power of changing one’s mind that are, for lack of a better word, boring — at least to the uninitiated.
It can be productive, both from the perspective of spreading information about NXIVM and of creating an eventually chewy, provocative entertainment, to dwell within that boredom. But early on, there can be a bit of a disconnect within “The Vow,” as it tends to burrow into the banality of Keith Raniere, the group’s ringleader, and his deputies. It’s startling to see Raniere, for instance, finesse Allison Mack, the “Smallville” actor drawn into the NXIVM web, through a conversation whose unremarkably flat repetitiveness is precisely what makes it remarkable. This dullness of affect also makes NXIVM hard to battle against, which another of the documentary’s participants, actor Catherine Oxenberg, learns as she tries to extricate her daughter: The group thrives on its appearance as an anodyne organization simply helping individuals break old, toxic bonds.
But other moments within “The Vow” can inhabit NXIVM’s flatness a little too completely. 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. 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.
Opening Shot: NXIVM co-founder Keith Raniere talks about what makes people heroes to the people that worship them.
The Gist: While Noujaim and Amer use extensive amounts of NXIVM training materials and inspirational videos to paint a picture of Raniere and Salzman, they interview a number of former members, most notably Mark Vicente, the director of the documentary What The Bleep Do We Know? and Sarah Edmondson. Both are reached advanced levels in the organization and were close to both Raniere and Salzman. “It was never my intent to destroy the organization,” Vicente says in a self-made video he made after he left the organization. “It’s just that I saw what was going on. And what I saw fucked with my head.”
In their interviews, as well as with Vicente’s wife Bonnie Piesse, whom he met via the organization, they paint a picture of an organization that was admittedly cult-like — color-coded satin sashes denoted what “level” each person was at in the organization, and members were forced to call Salzman “Prefect” and Raniere “Vanguard”. But they also have very fond memories of their time there, which for Vicente was over 10 years. Vicente’s incentive to enter was the fact that Salzman and the organization’s wealthy benefactors, Sara and Claire Bronfman, could help him make any film he wanted.
For Edmonson and Piesse, both actors, it was the idea of “integrating” your emotions and self-doubts into self-actualization. Raniere, who went to Renssselaer Polytechnic Institute when he was 16 and is considered a genius, was offering a scientific method to this self-actualization, which inevitably leads participants to free themselves from their limiting habits, unlock potential and give them more joy in life. Salzman was the warm and charismatic face of the organization, as we see from a welcome video that looked like it was made around the time of the organization’s 1998 founding, and during sessions that she conducted with members. She had a way of opening people up like they’ve never been opened up before, getting to the heart of why they’re there seeking help.
At one point, NIXVM got so big that a number of actors got involved, including Smallville‘s Kristin Kreuk. Kreuk’s co-star, Allison Mack, was also in NXIVM, and was arrested in 2018 along with Raniere on sex trafficking, racketeering and other charges; she plead guilty to the racketeering charge. She’s briefly introduced in the first episode, but we’ll likely hear more about her as the series goes on.
Our Take: The first hour of The Vow went very quickly, not just because the subject matter was so interesting, but we were wondering the whole time how accomplished and intelligent people like Vicente could get sucked in by Raniere and Salzman. But after the hour, we understood it a little more. Raniere wasn’t particularly charismatic, but he saw the world in a way that most people did not, and his theories and research intrigued people interested in scientific approaches to improving their lives. Salzman was savvy and whip-smart, but had a charm and warmth that balanced out Raniere’s more standoffish personality.
And that’s the part of The Vow that will keep us watching. From the outside, some of the silliness of these NXIVM meetings, like the colored sashes with level stripes on them, the sideways sandwich handshake they give everyone, the extreme emotional commitment the members gave the organization and its leaders, looks like any other story of any other cult we’ve ever seen. Hell, it doesn’t veer all that far off from the depiction of the cult that Yvonne Strahovski’s character is running away from in the Australian series Stateless.
But the fact that Raniere took what could be seen as a calculated, logical, scientific approach to his program fascinates us even more. When you hear him talk, he sounds less like a motivational speaker and more like a college professor or a wonky tech CEO, explaining his theories of “integration” in the same bland way that Mark Zuckerberg talks about a new, completely invasive new feature on Facebook.
How Piesse finds out about what’s going on in the women-focused NXIVM subsidiary where Mack and Rainere were either having sex with underage women or trafficking women out for sex, and even branding them with Mack’s and Rainere’s initials, and how the FBI caught up with Mack and Rainere, will be the most fascinating parts to watch.
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