The first part of this post saga can be found by clicking this elegant, finely crafted link: Regarding Torque: Part 1. Again, as with the first post, this has Sherlock spoilers out the ass, so turn back now if you don’t want any.
So last time, we covered the tig ol’ bwists that worked really well for the first season or so of Sherlock. For this installment, I’ve got two examples of twists that, well… Didn’t.
Now, to be absolutely fair, writing a twist that really delights the audience is damnably difficult. Every writer worth their salt has struggled with it, and it takes an incredible amount of fine tuning to ensure that the twist goes off without a hitch. The reason why I’m picking on Moffat and Gatiss is because they’ve got a history of such excellent execution behind them (as shown in the previous post). So, by all means, they should have known better than to let more than one “twist” flop on the floor and writhe like a dying fish to the delight of literally nobody. But for some reason they didn’t. And for this reason I have to rub their noses in it a little.
Now, for these two examples, I can offer you the exact reason why they failed: there was too little of the aforementioned torque for the twist to function properly. There was little or no sleight of hand, no shiny object to distract the audience while they worked to make the illusion work. In both of these cases I’m about to cite, the audience was, in essence, told a bald-faced lie that, when revealed to be a bald-faced lie, was supposed to be a twist.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t constitute a twist. That’s cheating, in my book.
So, here we go! Two twists from the latter seasons of Sherlock that just didn’t work so good or do other stuff good either.
Charles Augustus Magnussen’s Big Basement of Blackmail
We are introduced to a new villain in series three of Sherlock: the bizarre and petty media mogul Charles Augustus Magnussen who, by all accounts, has enough dirt on the power players in western civilization to make J. Edgar Hoover jealous. We are shown evidence of Magnussen’s vast treasure trove of blackmail material in “The Empty Hearse”, where we see Magnussen watching a flickering projector screen video of some shenanigans he’d set up earlier in the episode. This scene is given context by later episodes and is canonized as the “Appledore vaults” where Magnussen keeps all of the hard copies of his extensive blackmail collection. Quite naturally, the audience accepts this explanation as literally no other evidence is provided to the contrary.
There is just one problem with this: the Appledore vaults do not exist in any physical location. The vast collection of blackmail information is actually contained within Magnussen’s mind palace, which rivals Sherlock’s own.
Now, why does this revelation not have sufficient torque to be a satisfying twist?
Because prior to “The Empty Hearse”, we have never seen a practitioner of the mind palace technique be physically present in the environs of their mind palace. In “The Hounds of Baskerville”, the entire process of utilizing one’s mind palace was abstracted out, with Sherlock accessing information as floating images and words as he worked.
When you change a method of presentation for a previously established device without providing the audience sufficient warning, that’s not a twist. That’s cheating.
The small amount of torque that this “twist” has comes very, very late in series three, after Sherlock is shot by Mary. After being shot, Sherlock escapes into his mind palace and is physically shown there, hunting through rooms in order to determine how best to survive the traumatic event. You’re probably wondering why this doesn’t provide sufficient torque for the twist to be satisfying. It’s because that event clearly would not allow Sherlock to access his mind palace in the conventional fashion, by closing his eyes and batting away the Stark-tech holographs of data that begin to float around his head. So, for dramatic purposes, the story has no other choice but to dramatize the mind palace in another fashion. As a consequence, this is not a hint that Magnussen’s Big Basement of Blackmail is a representation of his mind palace in anything other than retrospect—it’s the adaptation of a previously utilized storytelling device to fit the current narrative.
In addition, Sherlock’s mind palace uses a more genuine form of the method of loci mnemonic technique, where different data is stored in different physical locations. Magnussen’s Big Basement of Blackmail keeps all of his material in a single place: the basement with the shelves of documents and various weird accouterments that seem wildly unnecessary and out-of-place.
All of this comes together to make the revelation that the Appledore vaults are SECRETLY MAGNUSSEN’S MIND PALACE less like a twist and more like an inelegant asspull.
The Girl on the Plane
In the second episode of series four, “The Lying Detective”, we are abruptly and unsettlingly introduced to Eurus Holmes, the missing middle sibling of the Holmes family and the most horrifyingly brilliant of them all. Who will probably be the subject of a different post on down the line all on her own because portraying mental illness in media is hard and boy howdy does Sherlock botch it from hell to breakfast with Eurus, but I’ll keep any digressions on that count to a minimum.
At the beginning of the last episode, “The Final Problem”, the audience is also introduced to a nameless little girl who has found herself aboard an airliner where everyone, including the pilots, are dead asleep and cannot be brought back to consciousness. We have seen this sort of scenario before—it’s a demented echo of Moriarty’s Die Hard with a Vengeance machinations from series two, forcing Sherlock to solve unsolvable micro-mysteries while some poor person has literal dynamite strapped to them.
This only intensifies once Sherlock, Mycroft, and John find themselves playing Chell to Eurus’s GLaDOS, captured and forced to run a gauntlet of torturous experiments to gain scraps of speaking time with the poor girl on the plane. It’s obvious that the girl is the carrot at the end of the stick, drawing the trio deeper and deeper into Eurus’s examination to understand the inner workings of Sherlock’s brain in hopes that the girl can be saved.
Then, at the end of the episode, when Sherlock locates Eurus in her hiding place in the old Sherlock estate, the audience is informed that nothing aboard the plane was real. It was all happening in Eurus’s head, a metaphor developed by her own brain for how her vast intellect has placed her high above the common rabble of the world, alone and careening towards inevitable doom. This means that every time Sherlock spoke to the girl on the plane, every time the girl was shown moving about the plane and interacting with it, the audience was being lied to. There’s no torque here. There was never any suggestion that any other character has ever done this. The only available pseudo-parallel is the mind palace, but the events on the plane have literally nothing to do with the retrieval or storage of information, which means that it doesn’t even come close to providing the torque necessary for this to be a twist.
The revelation that the girl on the plane was purely metaphorical and wholly contained within Eurus’s damaged psyche is just one step removed from “it was all a dream!” And for that reason, it is manifest nonsense that removes a hefty slice of tension from subsequent viewings of the episode.
Once again, there you have it. Two “twists” that didn’t twist jack and/or shit, with the common thread being that there was little or no torque—no setup, no pledge/turn/prestige, no magic. The examples above didn’t play fair, because a good twist never lies to you. A good twist is always set up with absolute honesty on the part of the author, because even if the audience doesn’t trust the characters involved, they must always trust the author.
What do you guys think? Am I spot-on, or am I wildly off base? Leave your thoughts in the comments!