The Vow Final Season Recap, Episode 9: “Full Circle”
A strange thing happened while I was writing my recap of episode eight. My brain miscalculated and I assumed it was The wishthe final of. My original draft wondered how the hell the creators of the series could leave so much going on. Keith hadn’t even been arrested! The FBI investigation had just started! Thanks to my astute editor, I learned that there was a whole other episode that I hadn’t watched yet – this one. I edited the songs where I complained about it like a terrible finale. And then I watched episode nine, “The Fall”, believing that was the end of the line.
Now with the news that The wish got a second season, things are in motion again. How can this series continue, with so much of NXIVM and Keith’s story already covered, with nine hours of analysis completed? The last minutes of this episode – “There are many ways to present a documentary. Your side is just the top layer. And depending on what you’re willing to present as the truth, it can go a long way. So talk to me ”- are clearly included in the cliffhangers. Will season two revolve around Keith’s version of the story, told from prison? Will we see Keith’s trial? Nancy’s? Lauren Salzman’s? More Allison Mack? (It’s safe to assume that India Oxenberg’s story will always take center stage, because as of “The Fall,” she’s still in the grip of NXIVM.)
These questions put this first season in a better perspective. For an investigative documentary, The wish does relatively few surveys. How lucky to receive a wealth of films from Mark, a seasoned filmmaker, who captured every speech, every session, every volleyball game. To have such enthusiastic and willing participants speak directly to the camera and sprint dramatically through desert landscapes for your B-roll. Keith’s voice from that jail line didn’t necessarily make me care about his perspective – crooks will swindle, even on a mic at HBO – but to think how myopic The wish cared about the voices of defectors, with very little emphasis on the FBI, those reams of trial documents from the 1990s, the records of past investigations. The wish will watch Toni, Barbara and Susan roam their files and hard drives for information on Keith & Co., but from what we can see, they are not digging themselves.
Which leaves this season finale very, very flat. There’s a man on the run, for shouting out loud, but the producers spend more time watching Sarah, Mark and Catherine text each other than investigating the story of exactly how Keith is. fled to Mexico in his last days as a free man. These images of him being taken in handcuffs, surrounded by palm trees and birds of paradise on what looks like a lush Mexican estate, are extraordinary – they clearly come from one of his followers’ phone – but that’s the whole highlight.
By saving the merchandise for a second season, The wish turns that finale into a rehash of a bunch of things we already know or suspect about Keith, just more stories of rich kids mopping up their successful parents and Mark throwing weird propaganda videos for NXIVM. The Mexican branch of ESP was well paid and very enthusiastic and also horribly disconnected, hosting speeches on the streets where a millionaire’s kid stands up and proclaims that if everyone works together – *wipe away a tear * – even the poor will have something to celebrate. (Oh no, no one gives the money, time or energy to end corruption or lift people out of poverty, just a lot of words!) And while I certainly sympathize with Toni’s story, who had both ears cut off by a vicious kidnapper, I’m not sure what the story of another defector adds to the mix here.
The same goes for the documentary that Mark and Keith shot together for seven years. (Which might or not be the same movie that Keith plays a mentor who’s also a psychopath? It got a bit hazy in there. So many movies!) The point seemed to be Keith’s cunning, that ‘he would spend years on a movie to remake it entirely because his long hair validates the idea that he is a cult leader. There is some credibility to it (Charles Manson, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara), but there is nothing inherently bad about reshooting. Are we supposed to believe that The wishdid the producers get it all the first time? That they never asked the participants to rephrase something or to reconstruct a moment? Like wildlife watchers, documentary filmmakers must intervene to some extent to testify.
That said – Keith, I agree you looked very cult with the longer hair!
Bonnie and Mark happen to be visiting their old playground – their home in Albany, the ESP offices, the retreat where they hosted V Week – when news arrives that Keith has been arrested and heads to Texas then New York. More retrospective accounts of Keith’s abuse (telling Bonnie to lick a puddle) make it clear that when she and Mark left for LA, they really fled. How fortunate they are back in Albany when Keith is transported across the border by the US Marshals. Or, maybe, what a great framing and installation by The wishthe creators of. (A fun little detail: Bonnie, formerly Beru in the Star wars prequels, shouting “I want to go warn the rebels!” when she hears about Keith’s indictment.)
Scenes of the two outside the courthouse, with Sarah (who is strangely abandoned in this latest episode) watching TV from her home, are designed to portray the defectors as victorious, though they are still bewildered by the damage they have done to their lives. (See: Mark reading Take back your life, Janja Lalich and Madeleine Landau Tobias’ self-help book for former cult members.) And yes, they are the victors in a certain sense – their persistence paid off, and Keith could go to jail for the rest of. his life. But how arbitrary is the line between those who are now the victims of NXIVM and those who stayed with Keith until the end, and who could end up in jail themselves?
Keith’s lawyers argue that everyone involved was adults, that manipulation is not a crime, which ESP members voluntarily joined. But the notion of guilt is so slippery here. How much blame should Allison Mack bear if she too was brainwashed? Do Mark and Nippy deserve a date because they “saw the light” before Keith’s plan fell apart? Is it possible that the greatest victims of all were those who chased the car carrying a handcuffed Keith, still convinced he was their personal savior?
Yes The wish’his biggest success is simmering in that darkness and avoiding easy answers, his biggest failing is that, by the final episode of his first season, he’s always only given us a brief glimpse of what it’s like. really the guilt. And then there’s always next season.