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Series / The Vow (2020)
aka: 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, which premiered on October 17, 2022.

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


Tropes

  • "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. Any attempt to leave DOS or refuse the orders of your Master is backed by the threat of releasing your collateral. "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.
  • Bondage Is Bad: As DOS grew, plans were discussed to establish a dungeon furnished with BDSM toys, including restraints and cages. For those most dedicated to self-improvement and self-empowerment, obviously. In the series' defense, the emphasis is less on the 'bondage' and more on the 'lack of consent' (consent under coercion isn't consent at all). The lead prosecutor specifically points out that in the BDSM community, consent is key and can be withdrawn at any time, but with DOS and "Collateral," the ability to withdraw consent had been removed.
  • 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.
  • Broken Pedestal: Nancy initially believed Keith was innocent, and planned to stand by him at the trial and help prove that NXIVM was not a cult, but a good company doing good work. Then more and more evidence came out, and Nancy accepted that Keith was a bad man who had done bad things. The more that comes to light, the more Nancy in particular comes to realize that Keith not only wasted years of her life, but of her daughter's life and left deep wounds in her family.
  • The Corrupter: Keith Raniere. His talent for twisting people around and inside-out to suit his own ends is astonishing, and he was able to get early supporters like Nancy Salzman to help him become even better at it, turning and twisting them and getting them to turn and twist others on his behalf without even fully realizing what they were transforming themselves and others into. People implicated as co-conspirators and fellow abusers at Keith's trial are also his victims, having been so warped by his manipulation.
  • Cult: NXIVM is a secular one of these, claiming that its teachings were scientific.
  • Demoted to Extra: Mark, Bonnie, Catherine, and Sarah have much less screen time in Season 2, as the show brings in Nancy Salzman, Raniere supporters Emiliano Salinas, Nicki Clyne, Marc Elliot, and others as Keith's trial gets underway.
  • 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!
  • Double Standard: In Season 2, many try to invoke this to defend the DOS brands, claiming that men who choose to get brands, scars, or tattoos are badasses and warriors and powerful, but these women are somehow victims instead. These arguments ignore the fact that the DOS women could not consent on multiple levels. First, there's the general brainwashing and mindfuckery present at all levels of NXIVM, second, there's the prevalence of "collateral" in DOS which is explicitly a tool to compel obedience, and third there's the fact the real meaning of the brand was not explained: a bullshit story was spun about it representing the four elements, but it's really the initials of Keith Raniere and Allison Mack. Informed consent does not exist when one is being lied to.
    • Perhaps the most disturbing incidence of this is Nicki Clyne stating that if a man came forward claiming to have been forced to be branded and his life ruined, no one would care. Invoking one double standard to condemn another, and denying either that men can be abused and assaulted or that they deserve justice if they are.
  • Dirty Old Man: Their leader, Keith Raniere, toward the end of his reign was substantially older than his partners. As more evidence comes to light, it becomes clear that Keith was consistently trading in older women for younger ones.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: One of Keith's partners was a young a woman named Daniela. At some point after their physical relationship, she found herself attracted to and making out with another young man. When she told Keith, he reacted with intense rage, came close to physically assaulting her, ostracized her from the rest of the inner circle, and finally coerced her into two years of solitary confinement which ended not because she finally did whatever Keith figured would earn his forgiveness, but simply left because she couldn't take it anymore.
  • Driven to Suicide: Not quite, but close:
    • In season two, Vero talks about being in DOS, having given "collateral" and feeling more and more and more uncomfortable both with the collateral that she had given, that she was being asked to continue to give more, and what she was being asked to do under threat of having her collateral released. As she says, she saw three options: leave and have her collateral released and her life ruined, stay and be blackmailed for the rest of her life, or end her life. She chose the first option, and while her collateral has not been released, she believes someone somewhere still has it and could release it at any time, and lives in fear of that happening.
    • Daniela's testimony about her being put in "the room" includes her mentioning that she was acquiring small amounts of cleaning supplies, with the plan that when she had accumulated enough she'd drink it all and kill herself. Fortunately, she decided to simply leave her imprisonment and NXIVM instead.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In season 1 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).
  • 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.
  • Graying Morality: Season 2 gets into this as it focuses more on Raniere's closest supporters. In Season 1, NXIVM is presented as this monolithic evil, with Keith as the Big Bad, Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman as Co-Dragons, and Nancy Salzman as The Evil Genius. Nancy speaks at length in Season 2, and we see how fervently she believed that there was good in the organization, how desperately she wanted to help people, and how efficiently Keith twisted her life's work to his manipulative ends to further his agenda. Lauren's testimony at Keith's trial has her admit how awful she now feels about the things she did in support of Raniere and DOS, and while Allison Mack is not heard from, the implication is heavy that, even as she was a key co-conspirator with Keith, she was as manipulated and mindfucked as anyone else into doing his bidding. Even Raniere's character is called into question, on if subjugating and abusing women was always his primary goal or if he found himself with power and opportunity and allowed that to corrupt him and feed his darkest urges. While Keith Raniere remains the definitive corrupter in the center of a dark web, many who helped build that web were as entangled in it as his other victims.
  • 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 thinner by an 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, overlaid 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.
  • Idiot Ball: Nicki Clyne is still completely supportive of Keith Raniere, believes he did nothing wrong and the trial was an unfair sham. She and others work hard to "bring the injustice to light," despite Clyne stating that her lawyer is advising her to keep her head down and not get involved, as she may be open to prosecution herself. After Raniere is found guilty on all counts and Clyne and others start their campaign, she is saddened and shocked when her lawyer tells her he can no longer represent her, because she has ignored his legal advice. Yeah, if you're actively undermining your attorney's attempts to build a defense against potential prosecution, that attorney can absolutely bail.
  • 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 their 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.
  • Improvised Imprisonment: Daniela and "the room." She was confined in one room of one of NXIVM's houses, containing only a bathroom, a blacked-out window, and small mattress. Food was delivered by her family members who left meals outside the door so as not to interact with her, her only human contact was with Lauren Salzman, and her only means of occupying herself was writing apology letters to Keith to attempt to "repair her breach." There was no physical lock keeping her confined, she could open the door and walk out at any time, but she was a Mexican citizen in the United States illegally and NXIVM had all her papers and identification, so she felt there was nowhere else she could go, no other support she could rely on. She was in the room for over two years before finally deciding to leave.
  • 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.
  • The Jailbait Wait: Keith made Daniela wait until after her 18th birthday before having sex with her, even as he'd been working on seducing her since she was 17. Averted with Daniela's younger sister Camila, who Keith began a sexual relationship when she was apparently about 15.
  • Made a Slave: The whole point of DOS. The person who recruited you is your 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?: Everyone who breaks free of Keith's mindfuckery undergoes a backlash wave of horror at what they have unknowingly perpetrated.
    • 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.
    • Nancy has this reaction in season 2, when she comes to the realization her primary role in the group wasn't to serve as Keith's co-leader, but as a cover for his behavior, and her life's work has led to the lives of dozens if not hundreds of people being ruined, including her own daughter's.
  • 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 Kristin Kreuk leaving abruptly after little investment was due to them being scared off by sensing something nefarious. In a more literal case, Daniela, after spending two years confined in a room, decided she'd had enough of trying to "heal her ethical breach" with Keith and walked away.
  • 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.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: Keith had a sexual relationship with three sisters: Daniela, Marianna, and their youngest sister Camila. At one point, he tried initiating a threesome with Daniela and Marianna, but they both were too weirded out to permit it. That wasn't even the only family Keith worked his way through; he had a brief sexual relationship with Nancy Salzman before eventually targeting both her daughters, though only Lauren entered a relationship with him.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The series ends with this. Keith is serving his 120-year prison sentence at Tucson USP, Sarah and Nippy host a podcast on cults, Mark has returned to filmmaking, Bonnie has returned to acting, Keith's allies are continuing to file appeals on his behalf, Lauren was given 5 years probation thanks to Sarah and others writing letters asking for leniency, Clare was sentenced to seven years in prison and maintains that Keith and NXVIM was the best thing that ever happened to her, Allison got into therapy, renounced Raniere and his teachings, and was sentenced to three years in prison, and Nancy is serving her three-and-a-half year sentence at Hazelton FCI in West Virginia.

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

Alternative Title(s): The Vow

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