You’d be better off watching the far superior ‘Seduced’ instead of this unnecessary extension of an already misguided docuseries.
Remember Tiger King? It was the show everyone got swept up in for a first season and, rather inexplicably, tried to pull off a second season even as the material clearly didn’t justify it anymore. Even as the subject matter is vastly different and its execution a bit more focused at brief moments, the experience of watching the six-episode The Vow, Part Two is all too familiar in how frequently off-target it feels. While sporadically gesturing at deeper ideas, it never makes a compelling case for its length or much of what it decides to focus on.
As a recap to bring you up to speed, the first season introduced viewers to the now largely disbanded cult NXIVM that was based out of Albany, New York, though had programs that had begun popping up across the world. The group exploited unsuspecting people under the promise of self-improvement in its expensive so-called “Executive Success Program” and would, among many things, brand women with the initials of its founder, Keith Raniere, who also had coercive sexual relationships with many of them. Raniere was since been convicted on charges of federal sex trafficking, racketeering, and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to 120 years in prison and this new season of the docuseries takes us through some of the key moments of the trial as well as exploring other aspects of the organization. It isn’t really worth watching the first season if you haven’t already done so; it was one that ended on a rather bitter note for many and, as time has passed since its release, has seen its flaws become painfully apparent in how it withheld context and key information for the purposes of luring audiences in, under the guise of editing in a manner that obscured the full picture of what was actually playing out in the cult.
Further working against this new season is that there has already been a different docuseries, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, that tackled everything that was withheld in the first season with far more depth and incisiveness. In less than half the runtime, it covered far more by not wasting any time and getting right into the darker truth of its subject. It specifically included outside experts who helped to provide sharp insight and analysis that proved to be infinitely more revealing than just relying on internal sources. While there was similar footage taken from their seminars and internal messaging, Seduced didn’t rely on what were essentially propaganda videos that The Vow essentially repurposed for their own series.
That continues here in the second season, which seeks to gawk at it all rather than deconstruct. While it strives to get into some of what was left out, it does so with the same approach of leaving much of the real horrors for the finale so that viewers will keep tuning in. Every single episode ends on a forced and artificial cliffhanger that eschews substance for a more showy sensibility. Making matters worse? Almost everything that is revealed is what we’ve already known. Both Seduced and the reporting of actual journalists have dug into the organization as well as covering the trial, which renders this docuseries both poorly presented and woefully lacking in new information.
The primary thing that separates The Vow, Part Two from anything that preceded it is that it gets more access to some of the key people that were involved. This becomes a double-edged sword, as many of these parties go largely unchallenged even as they were either complicit or directly involved in the organization. Some of these we already have heard from in the first season, namely Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson, who did become key whistleblowers in exposing NXIVM. Their participation is more understandable, even if it also isn’t presented along with other voices. What starts to feel increasingly off is the inclusion of former NXIVM President Nancy Salzman. The trailer for the series sets her up as being a big get, but this is an ultimately wasted opportunity when she is rarely asked tough questions.
We are taken into her home, where she is under court-ordered confinement awaiting the results of her own sentencing after pleading guilty, and she is granted a whole lot of leeway to explain away much of what happened. While there certainly could be value in hearing from Salzman in response to pushing back on defenses she offered, the series rarely attempts to try to do this. The most we will get is something like a quick yet telling shot of a stack of Ayn Rand books in her home. However, this just recalls yet another superior aspect of Seduced where a cult expert laid out how the organization’s teachings amount to an imitation of various tried and true playbooks to manipulate people. Nowhere in this docuseries do we hear from any outside experts to even lightly push back on those like Salzman, who gets to make one dubious claim after another. Her own daughter will occasionally challenge her, but it still feels like an inadequate half-measure that should have been further explored by the filmmakers.
This reaches a breaking point in episodes like the one that devotes a lot of time to hearing about how those within NXIVM had discovered a cure for Tourette’s. It begins with a lengthy disclaimer that clarifies that “the experiments shown in this episode were not conducted by licensed clinical professionals with expertise in Tourette syndrome, and did not undergo peer review.” While this was important to note, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the series decided to go ahead with the episode and spend so much time leaving those spouting off about how they cured an incurable condition without any other experts weighing in. There is a moment where The Vow eventually complicates the narrative, but it passes just as quickly before retrenching some of the more concerning claims once more. It all ends up feeling like the series is toeing dangerously close to drinking the Kool-Aid being professed by many of those in NXIVM. At the very least, it gives subjects a huge audience, yet doesn’t ever approach robust journalism or incisive documentary filmmaking. It isn’t illuminating or informative, prioritizing superficial entertainment over anything else.
Later, as we reach the conclusion, we also get to hear from members of the cult who have stuck by Raniere. It grants them a platform and allows them to cast doubt on the coverage of NXIVM without providing any real evidence to the contrary. One could generously say this helps to show just how committed these adherents are and the way a cult can consume your life. There just needed to be the next step in hearing from those who can put it in a historical context of some kind, but the series never tries to take that step. There are small flashes where it stumbles into some unintentionally revealing moments, but they are buried under hours of more of the same that compromised the first season. There is some new testimony from the trial that gets brought to life with voice actors and animated recreations of court sketches. While an intriguing approach, it ends up being more of a play-by-play that gets dragged out and once again withholds information until the very end.
None of this is the fault of the former members who bravely came forward. If anything, they deserved far better than how they were used for this docuseries. The only good thing that can be said of The Vow, Part Two is that it is a perfect demonstration of how precisely not to cover an important story like this.