“Class 1 Data” features an extraordinarily bizarre guest appearance from the Dalai Lama, as NXIVM defectors begin to build their case against the organization.
This recap of The Vow season 1, episode 5, “Class 1 Data”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Keith Raniere is obviously an intelligent man, and he’s the kind of guy who thinks things through – you have to be, really, if you’re going to design and operate a multilevel sex cult, inure it against legal reprisal, and keep up appearances as an influential if controversial figure in the world of self-help, empowerment, improvement, and whatever else NXIVM purported to do beyond its obvious function as a longwinded audition process for members of Keith’s harem. You have to imagine a guy like that would be particular about contraception, which is why it’s such a bombshell in “Class 1 Data” when we learn that Kristin Keefe, NXIVM’s so-called legal liaison, had a baby with Keith. At some point between this being revealed and the Dalai Lama turning up, the whole matter is swept aside, since it doesn’t really service the episode’s overarching goal, which is to show how anti-NXIVM – and more specifically anti-Keith – sentiment began being pushed in the media, as well as how Keith tried to defend against it. This is where the Dalai Lama comes up, but we’ll get to him soon.
Until now, the matter of how NXIVM sustained its operational costs has been left a bit nebulous. Enter, then, the Bronfman sisters, heiresses to the Seagram’s fortune, who had hundreds of millions of dollars of investment capital lying around but bought into Keith’s pseudo-scientific windbaggery apparently free of charge. That’s a bad combination since the sisters had bought into the company wholesale, ideologically speaking, and actually had the dough to keep it afloat, as well as bankroll lawsuits and introduce Keith to influential string-pullers. And thus, the Dalai Lama.
The bit in which Keith and NXIVM’s higher-ups meet with the Dalai Lama in “Class 1 Data” is extraordinarily bizarre. It features Keith essentially begging, but also His Holiness making an inexplicable U-turn in light of that and coming around to Keith’s point of view regarding the many lawsuits against him. It’s the most decidedly human I’ve ever seen such a renowned spiritual figure look; it’s almost as if, about halfway through the conversation, someone told him the camera had been turned off and he could say what he really thought.
I suppose what I find difficult to come to terms with in The Vow is the idea that anyone would believe a word that comes out of Keith’s mouth, never mind hundreds of full-time NXVIM members who all apparently revered him as a kind of secular deity. He’s so obviously a deranged narcissist that someone like the Dalai Lama should be laughing him out of the room or refusing to meet with him in the first place rather than jokingly suggesting that he looks honest – he looks like a Pound Shop Jesus, for one thing, but NXIVM’s very public history of aggressive litigation to stave off media attention and dissuade members from defection should be a major red flag to anyone, let alone HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA.
Another unintentionally hilarious aspect of The Vow episode 5 is how it begins to morph into a kind of wacky spy drama without warning. It turns out Mark Vicente, the highest-ranking man to ever leave NXIVM, is the literal son of a spy, which begs all kind of questions that “Class 1 Data” never really answers, but works to justify his sudden and hysterically blasé deployment of tradecraft and espionage logic when he starts to think that NXIVM members are snooping around everywhere (one imagines them sat on a bench, reading a newspaper with eye holes cut in it.) Keefe is weirdly like this as well, using burner phones to stay off the grid while giving the other defectors crucial advice on building a case and working a victim angle to really hit NXIVM where it hurts – their reputation.
What’s remarkably frustrating in this hour is the sheer difficulty of establishing a credible case against NXIVM, despite the sheer wealth of evidence that proves their dodgy practices and obviously suspicious loopholes and protections. Obviously, The Vow has been designed for weekly consumption on HBO, so it has also been designed to keep an audience coming back each week by steadily drip-feeding damning revelations at key points – that overall picture of deep corruption, manipulation, and exploitation is clearer to us that it would have been to Barry Meier, the New York Times reporter who isn’t convinced that there’s a story here. But it’s nonetheless shocking just how few legal protections the defectors have, and just how many hoops they need to jump through in order to seem credible in their accusations. We didn’t exactly need another example of how wealth and influence inures one against justice, but “Class 1 Data” provides it all the same.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.