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HBO's 'The Vow' finale promised a second season and a real look at Keith Raniere. Finally.

It's hard to understand why so many people followed a cult leader if all a docuseries gives you to go on are a few volleyball clips and some gossip.
Image: Sashes denoting rank in NXIVM.
Sashes denoting rank in NXIVMWarner Media/HBO

It’s a strange thing to consider that a cult could not only operate in modern times and under our collective noses, but that it could and would flourish. With the explosion of access to various resources and technology, all at our fingertips, to both find information and determine fact from fiction, willingly entering into a cult — let alone staying in one — seems somewhat far-fetched to the average person.

And yet HBO Max’s docuseries “The Vow” detailed the history of NXIVM, from its formation in 1998 — the dawn of the internet age — to the eventual conviction of founder Keith Raniere on sex trafficking, racketeering and forced labor charges last year.

Yet, while the series was engaging in its portrayal of several of Raniere’s real-life victims and had a couple gripping cliffhangers — in a jailhouse phone call to the documentarians, Raniere offered them an interview, which will seemingly provide some of the fodder for the series’ newly announced second season — it doesn’t ever quite dive fully into who Raniere was or exactly how everyone involved could afford the constant pyramid scheme-style courses he offered.

During NXIVM’s rise in popularity during the 2000s, it was run like a multi-level marketing business crossed with a self-help karate studio, at least for new members: They joined and paid for classes with the hopes of improving their lives or entrepreneurship skills, listening to both Raniere and co-founder Nancy Salzman spill empty platitudes and signing others up. The more people bought in — both financially and spiritually — the more they would “level up” and receive colored sashes to symbolize such.

NXIVM, though, had two several smaller subsections that certain participants could eventually be invited to “join”: Men had the SOP (Society of Protectors); and some women were bought into the all-female (except for Raniere) DOS. That secretly stood for Dominus Obsequiosus Sororium, said to be Latin for “Master Over Obedient Sisters,” in which female “masters” recruited sexual “slaves” under their control for Raniere. Even the acronyms speak to the gendered divides in the organization and Raniere’s inner beliefs around which he had built the entire organization.

Throughout the series, Raniere is portrayed as the cult’s mastermind who used exaggerations about his intellect, fear and intimidation to recruit and keep members — particularly women who, to be allowed into DOS, were required to provide him with blackmail materials. Yet, the closest that “The Vow” gets to the core of who Raniere actually was, or how he could’ve come to exert that kind of control over people, was a bunch of almost-comedic volleyball scenes and a few details about Raniere’s first attempt at a multi-level marketing business. There is no complete villain origin story, just information about Raniere’s business ventures, his concern about his looks and his non-cult dating life.

When the whole idea of NXIVM revolves around “women’s empowerment,” there’s no way to understand the disconnect between the stated goals and members' acceptance of Raniere’s misogyny.

The lack of understanding about Ranieire is a major flaw that could be rectified in the second season, if the cliffhangers are telling. But without more about him, it is hard for viewers to truly empathize with the victims and see how they got and stayed involved with NXIVM, since so much of that involvement hinged on a man who doesn’t seem that smart, that charismatic or that interesting to viewers.

For instance, as the series progresses, cracks develop in the inner circle of the organization and issues with Raniere’s psyche emerge: A group of women sit around him in one later episode, eagerly taking notes, as Raniere spit out misogynistic beliefs that border on incel culture under the guise of “sharing the traditional men’s perspective.” But when the whole idea of the DOS and NXIVM revolves around “women’s empowerment,” there’s no way to understand the disconnect between the stated goals and their acceptance of Raniere’s misogyny without understanding more about Raniere and his hold on people.

The majority of the season finale on Sunday did finally center around Raniere, his move to Mexico, the large role NXIVM centers played outside the United States and his arrest. Only the last ten minutes of that finale focused on the early stages of the leaders’ trials in 2019 as well as the cliffhangers, from Raniere’s interview offer — “Your side is only the very top layer, and depending on what you’re willing to present as the truth, it can go very deep,” he said — to hints that it might contain footage of his co-founder Nancy Salzman breaking with him and the organization. All of that may portend a potentially more Raniere-heavy, and thus more explanatory, second season.

Sure, the first season of “The Vow” docuseries did manage to make the average person see that, even in the 21st century, we are susceptible to people like Raniere and Salzman. With another season on the way, if HBO can draw more out of the story while still keeping the narrative intact, perhaps they can also show how people like Raniere and Salzman take advantage of our susceptibility.