“The Fall” is a finale in name only, too aware of an upcoming second season to truly try and figure out what all this means to the people involved — and more importantly who’s truly culpable for it.
This recap of The Vow season 1, episode 9, “The Fall”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
There’s a common problem among Netflix Original shows – they never seem to end. It seems like every week a promising new international drama debuts, delivers a strong season, and then doesn’t conclude in its finale. It’s the television equivalent of leaving half your main course to make room for dessert. The problem is that you paid for a full main whether you finish it or not, so you might as well; audiences similarly buy into a story at the beginning and stick with it in the hopes of seeing how it ends. This is a human impulse, maybe the basest one we have: We have to know what happened.
The Fall doesn’t fit this mold exactly. For one thing, it’s not a Netflix series, but a HBO documentary about a real-life case of intricate multilevel sex-cultism. We also know what happened already. But do we, really? “The Fall”, the final episode of The Vow’s first season, suggests that perhaps we don’t, or at least that we aren’t sure what happened to certain people and how it affected and indeed continues to affect them long-term. It treats culpability as a fluid and indecisive thing; a lank-haired man in handcuffs is simply not enough. With the recent news that The Vow has been granted a second season, it only makes sense that this isn’t the end.
That, though, doesn’t necessarily make for a good finale. We’ve had nine weeks of comprehensive investigation into NXIVM, into the long, creepy grifting history of Keith Raniere, and delved into the personal lives and enduring consequences of membership – and indeed defection. You have to wonder what a second season might even look like. From whose perspective can it be told? There are plenty of potential answers to that question, a lot of them interesting, and when you consider this first season with them in mind, it works better as a whole. This is peeling back the top layer to expose the rot underneath. But where’s the payoff to all our investment?
That payoff isn’t a right – doesn’t the extensive behind-the-scenes footage already captured and presented qualify anyway? – but it is an unspoken expectation. It’s what most viewers are looking for. “The Fall” elects not to provide it. Instead, it goes back over old ground, deploys old tricks, and provides more justification for a conclusion about Mark and many other NXIVM higher-ups that we’d already reached several weeks prior – or, if you’re anything like me, the first time you clapped eyes on Keith. There’s a lot of texting and deliberating. There are lots of accounts that paint Keith in a monstrous light and his organization as a woefully out-of-touch beneficiary of moneyed offspring desperate to find something to belong to. Some of these stories and details are affecting, maybe even powerful, but they’re also the kind of thing The Vow has trafficked in since it began. If The Vow season 1, episode 9 aired in the middle of the season, it wouldn’t necessarily stand out.
In the same way that “The Fall” doesn’t strictly operate as a finale and relies on our knowledge of the entire season and of a forthcoming follow-up for better context and understanding, it also relies on our knowledge of Keith’s nefarious behavior to read everything he does as weird and suspect, even when, if someone else partook in the same behavior, it’d probably seem quite normal. Don’t get me wrong – I’m quite prepared to believe that every second of Keith’s existence was spent trying to manipulate someone, but this isn’t how documentary filmmaking is supposed to work. There is a responsibility to not just intimating the truth but to proving it, and what I noticed here is too much onus on the audience to declare, “Yep, typical Keith bullshit,” without actually bothering to contextualize his latest bullshit as part of a larger scheme or symptom of some specific neurosis. The whole business about his hair being more cult-like when it’s longer is darkly funny and almost certainly true, but The Vow episode 9 never really entertains the prospect that there might be more to it.
This is why Keith’s arrest doesn’t necessarily land with the impact it might have done. We knew it was coming, and every story we’ve heard of him – especially in the last couple of episodes – has reiterated how deserving he is of his fate. Nobody would disagree with this. But nobody would disagree, either, with the idea that the story doesn’t end here, not for Keith or his co-conspirators or his victims, who are presented here as victorious despite having to live with what happened to them, and what they were complicit in, forever. Really, a second season shouldn’t come as any surprise since there’s still so much left to unpack, so many angles from which to observe. “The Fall” itself raises once again something that we’ve discussed in these recaps as Keith’s defense – everyone involved participated voluntarily, as independent, free-thinking adults. The irony of this being NXIVM’s entire mandate as a self-help organization winds through the story; Keith’s savvy manipulation allowed him to create a framework that encouraged his victims to be subservient to him to supposedly better themselves. It was a sophisticated con backed by the fortunes of those who would become most susceptible to it, but what it means for everyone, and who should be made to answer for it all, remains unanswered by The Vow season finale.
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