‘The Vow’ Season 2 Review: HBO’s NXIVM Docuseries Follow-Up Is a Deeper Look Into the Cult

These new episodes feel like the more vital, less salacious and more balanced piece of the story


When “The Vow” aired what turned out to be a season finale (not series finale) in October 2020, it didn’t necessarily feel like we needed more. The series ended with Keith Raniere under arrest, alongside all of the other major players in the NXIVM scandal – his right hand woman Nancy Salzman, “Smallville” actress and alleged sex slave master Allison Mack, financial backer Clare Bronfman, and more, while the former members who had been fighting for this could finally breathe a sigh of relief. In real life, we saw the rest play out, with Raniere sentenced to 120 years in prison.

That could have been the end of the story, but as we now know, it most certainly wasn’t. Raniere’s final words of that finale foreshadowed what was to come, though maybe not in the way he intended: “There are many ways of presenting a documentary. 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.” 

“The Vow” Season 2 (or “The Vow Part 2” as it’s titled) almost takes that as a challenge, and actually does present the side that Raniere probably wanted presented. Several of his continued supporters appear throughout the season and offer some really reasonable explanations as to why Raniere’s teachings appealed to them, and continue to appeal to them. One man fully believes Salzman and Raniere cured his Tourrette’s, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that they did. These people say their lives changed when they began taking classes with ESP and NXIVM, and they have never been happier. They believe Raniere was only having consensual sex, and that the women who got branded as members of the secret sub-society DOS all willingly got those brands. They think that the good done by NXIVM outweighs the bad, and they will continue to fight for Raniere’s release.

And then just as some of these people might have you convinced that there could be doubts here, a new horror is revealed. A woman was imprisoned for liking another guy besides Raniere. Raniere had sex with a teenager. He terrorized an entire immigrant family. Maybe some of his ramblings were made into legitimately helpful teachings by Salzman, but he was also a monster. Both things can be true. 

Speaking of Salzman, she is the star of this entire season. We essentially watch her have a breakdown on camera as she contends with what she knew, what she didn’t know and what she never understood about her years working with Raniere. She feels brutally honest, and she’s a far cry from the star of those cheesy educational ESP videos that are still peppered throughout the series. She’s a broken woman, who was not only manipulated by Raniere herself, but also discovered that he had sexually manipulated her daughter Lauren, along with a large handful of other women. He apparently promised them all children, but only after they lost weight or became the best versions of themselves, or satisfied him in some other arbitrary way. When a judge tells Salzman that she is responsible for what happened to her daughters as part of NXIVM, she breaks down in tears.

Salzman actually solves a lot of the mystery here. Raniere isn’t always appealing, but Salzman is. She’s warm and funny and cheerful, and she appears to just want to help, even when she’s spouting Raniere’s nonsense. She feels trustworthy, and you can see why her presence would make young, beautiful women feel more trusting of Raniere. You can also see how she feels bamboozled and deeply regretful, and also very lost. ESP was her entire life, and now she has to build an entirely new one in the face of a prison sentence.

While Salzman almost could have had her own documentary, there’s more to uncover here beyond her involvement. While NXIVM’s curriculum seemed to help a lot of people on the surface, it was inherently flawed because it told people that everything they did or everything that happened to them was a choice. Coughing while sick was a choice. Tics were a choice for people with Tourrette’s. Fear was a choice. Bad things only happened to people because they allowed them to. To some extent, it worked. But on another level, it took away all choice, and led to the creation of a group that structured itself as masters and slaves. You can only achieve your goals if you have no choice but to achieve them, is the theory. 

Salzman and the few remaining fans of NXIVM hate the fact that the program is now known as a sex cult, which is fair. The series does a good job of making that clear and laying out all the ways that it is not, in fact, just a sex cult. But the series also spends enough time on the stories of Raniere’s victims to remind you that even though there were positives to the program, nothing good could really come of giving one man so much power over people’s entire lives. As multiple people say throughout the series, it wasn’t necessarily about sex; it was all about control. And in a way, this second season became about controlling the narrative of NXIVM. It was a more complicated situation than is easily explained in one nine-hour season.

Season 1 put the spotlight on the people who got out before the downfall, and Season 2 explores what happened to the people who got caught up in it. While the first season is necessary viewing to really understand the second, the second feels like the more vital piece of the story — less salacious, more balanced, but still sad and horrifying all the same. 

“The Vow Part Two” debuts on HBO and HBO Max on Oct. 17 with new episodes Mondays.