The last six months have been a bizarre time for all of us, with limited social interaction, even less traveling, and a disgusting amount of TV. As a society, we’ve moved from one TV obsession to another, because let’s face it, we all have the time. Currently, I can’t stop thinking about The Vow, and judging from what I see on social media (and the fact that both my roommates are also hooked), I’m not alone.
The Vow, a nine-part HBO limited series, is an in-depth look into the NXIVM organization, which was all over the news in the last couple years after several of its founders and high-ranking members were sentenced to prison time for their shady practices. At the time, I didn’t know much about NXIVM—it was a sex cult, that woman from Smallville was involved, there was a creepy main dude named Keith. But in its first six episodes, The Vow has taken us down a terrifying complex path, complete with a shocking number of phone and video recordings, fascinating interview subjects, and a story that’s almost hard to believe.
While the original nine-episode season ended last weekend, HBO confirmed last week that there will be a second season of The Vow. I’ve seen some people complaining that they’re drawing it out too much, but personally, I’m very excited. The finale left off on a total cliffhanger, and there are more than a few topics that I still need some major details on. Here are some of the wildest moments from The Vow, along with things we need in season 2.
Before we even get to the really bad stuff, we need to discuss the late-night volleyball sessions. Basically, NXIVM first got people involved through costly seminars that focused on how you could harness your fears and emotions and be more successful in your life. Pretty standard stuff. But as people got more invested, the program quickly got more intense. For people working their way up, one of the only ways to get face-time with founder Keith Raniere was to show up to late night volleyball. Like, this sh*t started at 1am. There’s literally no one in the world I would wake up in the middle of the night and play volleyball for, so this was a huge red flag for me. In between games (matches? idk), everyone would sit on the sidelines and listen to Keith talk, and presumably try not to laugh at how ridiculous he looked in that headband.
One of the most unsettling moments came when Allison Mack, famous actress and eventual NXIVM ringleader, came to her first volleyball session and sat down to chat with Keith. With a camera right up in her face, Keith basically tells her how acting is a stupid profession, and she starts crying like she’s had some groundbreaking revelation. That man just sh*t all over her career, and she was like “wow, yes, more of this please!” Yikes all around.
2. Keith’s Relationships
As the ringleader of what was exposed as a sex cult, it’s not shocking that Keith was having sex with a lot of his followers, but some of the specifics are especially concerning. Going all the way back to the early 2000s, Keith was dating Barbara Bouchey, a high-level member of NXIVM. At the time, she thought they were in a monogamous relationship, but it turned out Keith was sleeping with several women whom he shared a house with. Barbara was obviously upset, but when she broke up with Keith, she intended to keep the business side of things normal. Keith wasn’t down with that, and he started ignoring Barbara and turned other high-level members against her. When she eventually left the group, she tried to get back a large amount of money she was owed, and NXIVM brought extortion charges against her.
Keith also had a relationship with Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman. Lauren, who was in the top tier of DOS (more on that in a second), was purportedly in love with Keith, and people interviewed in The Vow say that he had promised her a baby for years. This never happened, and while Keith was having a relationship with Lauren, he was also sleeping with many other women in the group. Basically, for nearly two decades he was just having sex with anyone he wanted, without much regard for the women who were literally in love with him.
3. The Master/Slave Relationship
Much of The Vow revolves around DOS, a secret subset of NXIVM specifically for women (still founded by Keith, of course). DOS revolved around a strict dominant/submissive relationship between members, and each new member became their master’s “slave.” Basically, it was like a cult-themed pyramid scheme, with Keith at the very top, and the female members branching off from him. For members of DOS, nearly every aspect of their life was controlled through texts with their master: permission to go to sleep. Permission to text other people. Permission to eat a specific number of calories. The calorie part, which is low-key reminiscent of Teddi Mellencamp’s accountability pr0gram, was designed to keep the women thin—just the way Keith liked them.
Members of DOS took lifetime vows, and were required to provide their masters with “collateral.” This took various forms from personal confessions and secrets to financial commitments to nude photos. New collateral was required frequently, and it was at the master’s discretion whether a piece of collateral was sufficient. Ex-member Sarah Edmondson, who is featured prominently in The Vow, was at one point encouraged by her master to use the deed to her home as collateral. While this collateral was framed as a necessary commitment to the vow the members had taken, in practice it was meant to create a deep vault of information that could be used as blackmail.
There are a lot of cringeworthy details about NXIVM and specifically DOS, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as uncomfortable as I did when Sarah Edmondson described the experience of being branded in Allison Mack’s basement. Members of DOS viewed the branding as a beautiful experience, but it sounds scary as hell. Things only got worse when Edmondson realized that the brand contained both Allison Mack and Keith Raniere’s initials—even though Keith claimed he had nothing to do with DOS. When Keith was confronted by a follower about his initials being on the brand, he responded that “no one would care” if it was the initials of Bill Gates or Abraham Lincoln. To anyone who is reading this, you do NOT have permission to brand me with the initials of Abraham Lincoln.
6. The Mexico Stuff
Earlier in the series, it was noted that NXIVM had a large following in Mexico, made up largely of wealthy, influential people including the son of a former President. This was casually referenced throughout the series, but in episode nine, we finally started to get a deeper look at Keith’s relationship with the Mexican branch of NXIVM. According to the press release about season 2, this will be a major topic moving forward, which is great. Personally, I still feel like I don’t understand exactly how this group of people got involved in NXIVM, and there’s clearly some dark sh*t to unpack there.
7. Trials & Sentencing
By the later half of season 1, it was clear that this story wasn’t going to be finished in nine episodes, and the season basically ended with many of NXIVM’s top people getting arrested. TALK ABOUT A CLIFFHANGER. With Raniere, Nancy Salzman, Allison Mack, the Bronfmans, and more behind bars, I’m eager to see how the legal battle plays out. In season 1, we didn’t get much info about the actual criminal case that was being built against the organization, so a little courtroom drama sounds like a nice change of pace.
Also, in the last couple minutes of season one, they played that chilling audio clip of Keith Raniere, speaking from prison about how we only got one side of the story. I’m really curious to see if Keith is interviewed in season 2, because I have a feeling he would have some choice words for people like Bonnie and Mark. Only time will tell!
Catherine Oxenburg was a main presence throughout the first season, as she worked to get her daughter out of the harmful D.O.S. group. We didn’t really get much closure on what happened with India Oxenburg, which is funny, because she now has her own series on Starz that premiered this week. Who knows if she’ll be involved with season 2 of The Vow, but I hope she is, because tbh I don’t have the energy to watch another NXIVM show right now (or a Starz log-in, for that matter).
We’ll have to wait until next year for more episodes of The Vow, but HBO already released a teaser trailer to make sure that they don’t lose our attention.
Don’t miss out on any pop culture or entertainment news. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
Images: Courtesy of HBO (3); HBO / YouTube
I’ve gone through TV this pandemic like the stages of grief. The first stage was the prestige drama. “It’s the perfect time to finally watch The Wire,” I thought! Turns out, the intricacies of the drug trade in Baltimore were heavy and complicated. Who can handle that in a time like this? Next came the trashy reality TV stage. “Watching people get drunk, naked, and make bad decisions is exactly what I need to get me through this pandemic! Too Hot To Handle will heal me,” I reasoned. Turns out, watching people get closer than six feet apart made me jealous, angry, and a little bit panicky. On to the next! The third stage was comfort TV. “Time to settle in with all my old friends! A little Jess Day-Nick Miller time is what I need.” Turns out, New Girl just made me long for the simpler times when I first discovered it.
So I’ve finally made it to my final stage of TV. The true crime documentary. THIS is exactly what I need. Something that keeps me up at night out of fear that someone will break in and dismember me and not because I’ll never be able to buy a house! And the great thing about true crime is that there’s a little something for everyone. Murder? Good! Scams? Good! Cults? Good! It’s all here. And lately we’ve been blessed with an embarrassment of true crime riches. So which one should you watch? Oh don’t fret, I’ve got you covered and will be breaking it down for you by interest. Because when my therapist says, “maybe you should slow down on the crime so you don’t have to clutch a butter knife all night long” I like to double down instead of taking the suggestion. You’re welcome!
*Friendly warning: There might be some light spoilers in here, so tread carefully if you’re going to be mad that I mentioned something that happened 20 years ago was already splashed all over countless newspapers and magazines!*
If You’re A Late Night Reddit Fiend You Should Watch…
Unsolved Mysteries – Netflix
Me the next few days trying to solve all the crimes. #UnsolvedMysteries pic.twitter.com/fehQDM2WCC
— Cancelled♡ (@Thatsovirgo) July 2, 2020
Unsolved Mysteries dropped on Netflix in July, and it’s a revival of an old show that was on TV way back when The Bachelor was but a twinkle in Mike Fleiss’ eye. There are six new episodes detailing crimes or weird happenings (aliens are real y’all, change my mind) that have never been solved. So if you’re the kind of person that likes to spend all night theorizing to strangers as to why a man would sleep with the ashes of his murdered wife, or if you enjoy combing through letters that were left by a dead man and comparing them to the plot of a movie then this. is. your. show. And hey! If you solve one of these cases, all that time you spent maniacally whispering to yourself, “it wasn’t suicide”, neglecting showers, and subsisting only on Cheetos and then the left over Cheeto dust that collected on your shirt will just be called a “cute phase” instead of a “mental breakdown”.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich – Netflix
Speaking of it not being suicide, it’s obviously time to move on to Jeffrey Epstein. The theories abound about what actually happened to him in that prison cell, but this documentary actually focuses on the girls (now women) he abused and how his money, access, and power allowed it to happen without consequence for years. It’s terrifying. Netflix even calls it a “molestation pyramid scheme” and now I’m actually thankful that all the girls I went to high school with only got involved in makeup pyramid schemes. But in all seriousness, Jeffrey Epstein was very connected to some of the most powerful people in the world and it makes me suspicious that literally every man in charge of anything was involved. My mom always did tell me growing up that everyone’s a perv. This series made me believe it.
Outcry – Hulu
This one is for all of you out there that love Friday Night Lights, but wish it had involved more ruined lives, child molestation, and shoddy detective work. Greg Kelley was a high school football star in Texas when he was accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old that attended daycare in the house where he lived. I know, a tough pill to swallow. But this series follows Greg as he is in prison, and then eventually is exonerated for the crime. Throughout the documentary we see how poorly the case was handled, how important leads were not investigated, and how because of that, this child never got justice. I have my theory of who actually committed this crime but for legal reasons I’ll not publish it here, so maybe this time that anonymous person you see speculating on Reddit is ME.
*Cue Beyoncé* If You’re Into Girl Power You Should Watch…
Love Fraud – Hulu
Friends, Love Fraud brought me so much joy. I mean, not the part where we hear from multiple women that they were conned out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. That brought me rage. I mean the part where these women connect with each other, hire themselves a badass female bounty hunter, and attempt to find this life-sized maggot dressed in a suit and masquerading as a man on their own. I mean, the part where one of the women, Sabrina, says right to the camera, “Scott, you lying sack of sh*t, you f*cked me. And I’m coming after you.” Sabrina is my raison d’être. I mean the part where they’re out for revenge. Ladies, if you’re like me and you need a little joy in your life, it’s time to cue up Love Fraud.
Our bounty hunter, ladies and gentlemen.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – HBO
I can’t say enough good things about this documentary. It started as a book about the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara that transcended the true crime genre. The documentary details the case and features survivors, while also including Michelle’s writing process, her dogged efforts to solve the case, and her tragic death before completing the book. It’s different from any documentary you’ve ever seen (much like the book was) and the best part? They actually caught the son of a b*tch that did it using a genealogical website! And less than two weeks ago, they rolled that old murdering prick who thought for so long that he got away with it into court and sentenced him to life in prison without parole. How often does that happen?! It’s hard to watch and beautiful to watch, and I highly recommend it. And it also teaches you to maybe warn your family members before you spit in a tube and send it off to 23 and Me, because you might find out you aren’t as Italian as your mom said you were, but they might get arrested for murder.
If You Think Everything Is A Scam You Should Watch…
(Un)well – Netflix
This one’s for you, Goopers. Believe it or not (believe it) shoving a jade egg up your vagina is not a good idea. And if you’ve done that, it’s time you check out this series. (Un)well examines the wellness industry and how it takes advantage of unsuspecting folks like you and me to make billions of dollars. Each episode examines a different wellness trend like essential oils or breast milk and shows us both sides of the issue. It might not sound your typical true crime series, but I promise you when you hear a grown man talk about his “mother’s milk smoothie” you’ll certainly be ready to commit murder yourself.
The Vow – HBO
And finally we’ve made it to The Vow, the new HBO series detailing the NXIVM cult. I’ve only watched the first episode so far (the new episodes are still dropping) but I’m obsessed. We haven’t gotten to the part where anything bad happens yet so I’m full-steam ahead invested in this organization. Yes I DO want to find my higher purpose! Yes, they DID cure Tourette’s! Yes, I DO need one of those sashes! Needless to say, I can see how people got roped in. I’ve got to see where this goes quick, before I start writing to Keith Raniere in prison. Help.
I think there’s something for everyone on this list, so I hope you all get everything your true crime seeking heart desires. Did I miss anything? If you know about a crime doc I forgot please hit me up in the comments, lord knows I need more fuel for my constant nightmares.
Images: Netflix; thatsovirgo/Twitter; memetides, grkelley2, pattonoswalt, hbo/Instagram; Giphy (1)