The bizarre and salacious nature of “The Vow,” with its intensely detailed look at the Nxivm cult, made the docuseries an understandable sensation, so much so that HBO came back for more. While “The Vow Part Two” gives viewers a front-row seat of the federal trial against founder Keith Raniere, it’s a more fragmented exercise that feels unduly stretched over six parts.
As with the original 2020 production, this one draws upon a treasure trove of audio and video material shot by Nxivm members who fastidiously documented its inner workings, even when the leaders were counseling them not to share information outside the room. Despite Nxivm’s obsession with loyalty, it’s a good reminder that what happens in Vegas seldom stays there.
This second edition also features not only extensive access to those previously interviewed who broke free of Raniere’s influence but other key figures, such as Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, who offers considerable insight into the way Raniere was able to manipulate those involved. That extends to his inner circle, among them “Smallville” co-star Allison Mack, who pressured her “slaves” to have sex with him.
“Allison is a victim who was sent out to do something that she believed was good because she believed Keith was good,” Salzman explains. “And that is how he did it.”
The trial gets covered from all sides, with access to both Raniere’s defense attorney, Marc Agnifilo, and prosecutor Moira Penza, as well as third-party observers like New York Post reporter Emily Saul. When lacking video, director Jehane Noujaim employs animation to help illustrate those segments, which doesn’t feel out of place based on the surreal nature of what transpired.
Understanding the NXIVM case (2019)
There are, again, stunning and chilling moments, including text messages in which Raniere insists that he needs “a vow of absolute obedience.” When a female member expresses reluctance about the practice of branding herself, as many within the group did, he texts back, “Don’t you want to burn for me?”
A sense of queasiness also surrounds the interviews with those members who still profess their fealty to Raniere, conjuring alibis for his actions and Nxivm’s practice of leveraging “collateral” to exert dominance over its adherents. That list includes Nicki Clyne, who co-starred in “Battlestar Galactica,” adding to the story’s already Hollywood-heavy component.
Nevertheless, “The Vow Part Two” would have been better off devoting a couple episodes specifically to the trial and concluding with the verdicts; instead, the later episodes detour into fresh material about Raniere’s manipulation of two families, before a protracted 90-minute finale that, post-trial, shifts to those still supporting their incarcerated leader, unwilling – or unable – to let go of the misguided sense of community Nxivm provided them.
Warts and all, the totality of “The Vow,” including the earlier episodes, makes for fairly intoxicating viewing. Media coverage couldn’t get enough of the “sex cult” angle, as Agnifilo suggests, but that shouldn’t obscure the cautionary tale about how Raniere tapped into insecurities, inspiring the kind of loyalty and complicity from followers that can make criminality difficult to prove.
As a TV show, though, “The Vow Part Two” conveys a narrower lesson, one that Nxivm’s founders would have been well advised to heed as well: Recognizing when to quit before the walls on your hollow facade come tumbling down.
“The Vow Part Two” premieres October 17 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.