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Series / The Vow

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How far would you go to unlock your true potential?
The Vow is a documentary series by HBO, premiering on August 23, 2020. The series follows members who joined the self-improvement group NXIVM – whose leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy, among other crimes – and reveals the emotional toll of unfolding events. Former members Sarah Edmondson, Mark Vicente, Bonnie Piesse, Anthony Ames and Barbara Bouchey appear in the series. Catherine Oxenberg appears in the series as she attempts to rescue her daughter India.

On October 16, 2020, HBO renewed the series for a second season.

Not to be confused with the 2012 film of the same name, or the fanfic which also shares the same title.


  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Women recruited into DOS have to provide "collateral" to their recruiter to even be told what DOS is, then more collateral when they join, then more collateral every month. "Collateral" has to be something that would be personally damaging if it were to be made public. Nude pictures and videos were apparently common, but the "collateral" doesn't even need to be true; Sarah states she was videoed making allegations against her husband and family, including that her husband was abusing their son. "Collateral" is the most-often used term to describe this, only when some extra punch is needed do they call it what it is: blackmail.
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  • Brainwashed and Crazy: How the women eventually came to be under the control of Keith. Bonnie describes it as being "mindfucked," and while Keith didn't "mindfuck" everyone in the same way or to the same extent (Bonnie got out well before she might have been brought into DOS, and was seemingly not Keith's "type" anyway), pretty much anyone, female or male, in NXIVM beyond the casual level had experienced enough indoctrination to make breaking free extremely difficult. This manifests as fierce loyalty to the group overall and to Keith personally.
  • Cult: NXIVM is a secular one of these, claiming that its teachings were scientific.
  • Don't Think, Feel: Inverted. Recognizing that one can be in control of one's emotions in all circumstances is one of the important entry-level lessons. It also makes raising objections to the group's secret practices difficult. What we're doing isn't wrong, you are failing to control your emotions, and they're lying to you and telling you to think it's wrong!
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  • Dude, Not Funny!: In episode 8, Mark and Bonnie go to visit Catherine. She recalls visiting their home when they were both still deep in NXIVM, and seeing a large dog bed on the bedroom floor, and being confused since they don't have a dog. She remembers Bonnie explaining that she'd decided her "pennance" for challenging Mark was to sleep on the floor for three days, and Catherine laughs at the memory, noting she knew then she didn't want to join their community. Catherine laughing effectively re-traumatizes Bonnie and pushes Mark into a mini-tirade about how none of this shit is even close to funny yet.
  • Epiphany Therapy: How NXIVM gets its hooks into most people initially, using Raniere's "tech" to help newcomers break out of "limiting beliefs" that are inhibiting them from achieving their dreams. It's apparently both the foundational cornerstone of the group's loyalty — the experience is described as being akin to a high, effectively making the whole organization each other's dealers — and the start of the brainwashing. (See Don't Think, Feel).
  • Dirty Old Man: Their leader, Keith Raniere, toward the end of his reign was substantially older than his partners.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Everything about NXIVM, apparently. ESP is the base entry program, standing for "Executive Success Programs." Others include the all-male group "SOP" standing for "Society of Protectors," "EMP" meaning "EM Practitioner" ("EM" standing for "Exploration of Meaning"). And of course, the secret and sinister "DOS," or "Dominus Obsequious Sororiam."
  • Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: Keith encouraged his partners to have sex with each other but forbid any from having male lovers.
  • Has a Type: Raniere, apparently. One of the (many) restrictions in DOS was heavy calorie-counting, with women loosing frankly unhealthy amounts of weight extremely rapidly because they were essentially on starvation diets. "Jane" notes that while she and Keith kissed and began a physical relationship, they didn't have sex until she'd lost a certain amount of weight. The emphasis on those in DOS seemingly being groomed towards Keith's bed was for very thin and very pretty girls, made even more thin by extremely limited food allowance.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The opening of episode 7, "Blame and Responsibility" consists of a montage of our ex-NXIVM members metaphorically girding for battle against the cult, overlayed with one of NXIVM's own instructional videos talking about shame, how it makes you want to run, but the kind of people the program is building would recognize they have acted against their ethics and seek to fix the damage they've done. This is exactly what the former NXIVM members are intent on doing: cleaning up their mess. Later in the same episode, needing to hand as much evidence to the Attorney General as possible, Sarah hosts a meeting with more former members to each supply whatever information they have, and encourage others to do the same. She notes (with zero irony) "how we got into this is how we get out," each one getting two others on board, those two getting two more, and so on. In short, the very tactics NXIVM taught are being turned against it.
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: The core group fighting NXIVM go to a reporter at the New York Times to expose DOS, reluctantly going on the record to ensure the story will have enough sources to run and be believed. Then the Times sits on the story, considering it "evergreen," i.e. it can run at any time and still be newsworthy, there's no time pressure or imminent danger. This greatly frustrates the group: Sarah and Mark feel personally responsible for the people they brought into NXIVM, including the pretty young actresses who will no doubt soon be recruited into DOS if they haven't been already, where they will be Mind Raped, branded, subjected to more mind rape, and finally actually raped (in the sense that their ability to give informed consent has long since been demolished). Catherine has a daughter "wasting away" as a Sex Slave and actively participating in putting others in the same situation. To these people, there are lives imminently at risk, or at the very least physical and mental health and well-being. The least of these safety concerns is for their own: upon just hearing a story revealing DOS might run, NXIVM has begun taking aggressive legal action against anyone they think might have a hand in it. And given what DOS is and does, what might NXIVM membership do if legal pressure fails to yield results? Then #MeToo blows up, Sarah makes her own MeToo post implicating NXIVM, and suddenly the Times realizes their "evergreen" story is actively bleeding.
  • Insistent Terminology: NXIVM gets a lot of mileage from attaching special definitions to certain words, cloaking the actual intent behind them, or words that are more generally applicable to the subject. "Collateral" is important at all levels of the organization, "collateralizing" something (like your word) to give it value and meaning. "Breach" is when you act against what you know (thanks to NXIVM philosophy) to be correct. "Penance" is a thing you do in attempt to repair a Breach, and train yourself out of the behaviors and thinking that lead to Breaches in the first place. So you place Collateral on an arrangement, and if you Breach the arrangement you must make Penance. Or in plain language, if you don't do what you're told you need to be punished so you learn your lesson.
  • Made a Slave: The whole point of DOS. The person who recruited you is you Master, and you pretty much have to do everything they say and ask permission for everything you want to do, if you mess up you're punished (or expected to punish yourself), and if you screw up badly enough or try to quit your Master (or Grandmaster, or Great-Grandmaster) has your "Collateral" and can disseminate it to ruin you. Oh, but don't worry: just recruit some girls into DOS yourself, and now you're their Master and get to do to them what your Master is doing to you. The top Master of DOS (and only male member) is, naturally, Keith Raniere, holding ultimate control over all the other women in the group, as well as using his Slaves and Grandslaves to insulate himself from any DOS activities should they be discovered.
  • Mama Bear: Catherine Oxenberg does not give up when it comes to trying to get her daughter out of Raniere's clutches. When trying to talk her out doesn't work, she goes to the press. When that doesn't work, she goes to bigger press. When that doesn't work, she takes point on even more press to force the authorities to investigate, followed by accumulating and collating as much evidence as possible. Even if that evidence implicates India.
  • Meaningful Name: DOS, "Dominus Obsequious Sororiam," or "Dominant Submissive Sisterhood"note . If this seems a massive red flag, bear in mind how thoroughly Raniere had mindfucked everyone around him, so that even this seemed another phase in his philosophy of bettering yourself, and then the world around you.
  • Misery Builds Character: Something that apparently becomes more important to NXIVM's philosophy as you go deeper. Overcoming challenges, moving out of your comfort zone, and overcoming adversity makes you a stronger, better, more enlightened person. DOS brings it to full horror: if challenging yourself through discomfort makes you better, than the "Masters" abusing their "Slaves" (by restricting diets, forcing them into insane workloads, making them ask for everything, punishing them or making them punish themselves if they screw up) are doing this for your own good so you can be a better person. And you want to be a better person, right? That's why you're here. In reality, it's all slowly breaking down the "Slaves" into obedient puppets doing anything and everything they're told (and all the "Masters" are "Slaves" themselves, excepting Raniere, the man at the top of the pyramid).
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Both Sarah and Mark have this reaction upon learning about the depths of DOS, realizing that they opened the door for celebrities to start joining the group, including many young, beautiful actresses who have or likely will be recruited into DOS.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity:invoked Zig-Zagged. Initially, Raniere brushes off bad press about NXIVM by saying that the people who will be scared away by spurious stories calling the group a "cult" with little factual basis aren't the ones the group wants anyway. But as negative press mounts, Raniere taps Mark Vicente to make essentially a rebuttal documentary, refuting any cultishness about the group. But the bad press comes so fast and furious the project is abandoned, because either the documentary would be obsolete by the time it was released or would never be finished due to constantly being revised to address new issues.
  • Path of Inspiration: NXIVM is designed purely to bilk investors and members, and provide ample sex to its founder as well as his partners. Its members believed it was about feeling good and happiness, and learning to better themselves and then proceed to change the world for the better.
  • Sadistic Choice: Catherine realizes that, if she hands all the evidence she and others have collected to the Attorney General, she's implicating her daughter in sex trafficking. If she withholds the evidence, NXIVM gets to keep on keeping on.
    Catherine: I'd rather see her in prison if that's what it takes to get her out.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: NXIVM had a lot of people jump ship at various times. In terms of the events of the documentary, Bonnie Piesse is the first to leave as she realizes her insane workload at her current rank is nothing more than a means to break her down into someone who will never question the group, and she comes to this conclusion partly through talking with someone who had jumped ship earlier than she had. Mark stays on for some time after, though he eventually gets wind of enough things that when he confronts Keith, he's able to catch Keith in a lie, which shatters his perception of everything NXIVM had been about ("if he can lie about this, what else has he lied about?"). Mark keeps contact with Sarah as the two had worked closely together for years within the company, but soon realizes she's actually been asked to basically spy on him. After getting into DOS, getting branded, and realizing what the end goal for DOS is and what her role in it is, Sarah leaves and tries to encourage others to do the same, or at least not recruit anyone else into a position where they may be "eligible" for DOS. As Mark and Sarah are putting more and more things together leading up to, during, and after their exit, they realize that young women like Kristen Kruek leaving abruptly after little investment was due to them being scared off by sensing something nefarious.
  • Sequel Hook: The season finale ends with arrests of Keith Raniere, Allison Mack, and several other ranking members, and the defectors celebrating that they finally won, it's finally over. Then closes on a phone call from Keith in prison, claiming there are many ways to make a documentary, but telling only one side is ultimately shallow.
    Raniere: Talk to me.
  • Slave Brand: Not all women in DOS got one, and the ones who did weren't all being prepared to have sex with Keith, but brands happened often. The design is given a bullshit explanation about representing the four elements, but in reality, if looked at right side up it has the initials AM, if rotated ninety degrees to the left has the initials KR. Keith Rainere and Allison Mack.

''We didn't join a cult! Nobody joins a cult! Nobody! They join a good thing, and then they realize they were fucked!
—Mark Vicente