Brace yourself. I’m about to recommend a YouTube series that will almost certainly disappoint you. It will do this by being, in no uncertain terms, brilliant, mind-bending and laden with twists and turns… right up until the end. It will have you on the edge of your seat. It will mess with your mind. It will coerce you into a twelve hour binge-watching session by virtue of its sheer brain-melting mystery. And then, at the final, climactic moment… it will let you down. Hugely.
So, you’re likely wondering, why am I doing this? Why spread the disappointment? Perhaps it’s just that I’m a chronic masochist. Perhaps it’s that I never quite got over the hurt inherent in finding out that the team behind Lost were building a house of cards on a foundation of jelly (seasoned with inexplicable polar bears). Or perhaps it’s that I think that the ten hours of joyful watching which comprises The Vault outweighs the letdown of a crappy, nonspecific ending.
The Vault is a show that begins small. A bunch of kids wake up in separate rooms. They’re part of an elaborate gameshow – and at stake is a life-changing amount of cash monies. To win it, all they have to do is solve the riddle of The Vault and let themselves out. Too bad there’s not even the slightest hint of a door. What they have instead is a set of cryptic clues. One young man has access to a headset and a control panel, while another has an exercise bike. A woman finds herself in a room full of goldfish, while another awakens in a space filled with more clocks that you could reasonably shake a stick at.
Soon enough the basic conceit of the show comes into focus. Although isolated from one another, the contestants are dependent on each other to survive (quite apart from anything else, one person has all the food), and must work seamlessly together if they ever hope to win. This, in itself, isn’t too bad a setup. I enjoy watching people play puzzle games, and a show that revolved around nothing but that would be compelling viewing to me regardless. But The Vault has at least a couple of additional tricks up its sleeve. One major surprise comes at the end of the first episode, and another a few episodes in. Just when you think you have your brain wrapped around what’s going on, the goalposts shift, and the rug is whipped gleefully out from beneath your feet.
Its twisty-turny nature is not the only thing that makes The Vault brilliant. It also manages (possibly by accident) to maintain a severely uncanny atmosphere quite unlike anything else I’ve ever watched. There’s a creepy simplicity to everything, from the blank white rooms in which the contestants are imprisoned, to the sometimes-robotic minor characters, to the uniform diet of each and every contestant (flapjack in a can. Yum). The sum result of this is that you’re never quite sure what is real and what’s part of the game. We know our ostensible hero Henry is probably authentic, but the longer you watch, the more suspicious you become that literally everyone else involved is nothing more than a cog in a machine.
You might put this lack of realism down to bad writing, or a limited budget. And that, I’ll concede, is most likely the case. But, I’d offer in contention, it doesn’t actually matter how The Vault ended up being so weird and unsettling. What matters is that it works. Superbly. Watch this episode and tell me you don’t feel a sense of budding unease. I dare you.
With realism sprawled unconscious way at the back of the room, then, we have a thoroughly uncanny, long-form, puzzle-centric narrative without any messy characters or petty dramas to get in the way. Things are kept simple and abstract, leaving you able to focus on the intricate mechanism of the puzzles, and the unfurling structure of the Vault. There’s a real, obsessive pleasure in the way it all stacks together – and if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy, then by about six episodes in you won’t care how flat the characters are or how bare the sets. You’ll care about figuring out The Vault. You’ll buy into its world.
Or you won’t. Who am I to tell you what to do?
So, to recap – a mad, puzzle-filled labyrinth where contestants must work together to escape. Cryptic problems that interlock in complex ways. A lurking hint of weirdness on the periphery at all times. Stripped back enough to give you some of the same pleasure you get from solving puzzles yourself. Check, check, check. Oh, but let’s not forget: a terrible, terrible ending. Check for that too. The Vault well and truly soils itself in its final hour. But, as I alluded to earlier, there’s so much pleasure to be taken from what precedes this misfortune that maybe… maybe it doesn’t matter.
Anyhow, The Vault is free to watch on YouTube. Yes, entirely free. All of it. Brilliant beginning to shoddy end. You have literally nothing to lose from giving at least one episode an experimental watch. So nix that “Three Hour Surprised Cat Compilation” and go to it. You may well regret it. But what’s a life without regrets?