Pretty Little Liars season 6 episode 1 review: Game On, Charles

As Pretty Little Liars opens its penultimate season, it's clear that it's so much more than either a mystery or teen drama...

This review contains spoilers.

6.1 Game On, Charles

The mystery isn’t the point. I feel like that’s an especially important thing to remind ourselves of as we enter this penultimate season of Pretty Little Liars. It doesn’t matter who A ends up being, because A isn’t our protagonist. This show is about it’s titular Liars, whether that’s our core four of Aria, Spencer, Hanna and Emily, or those inducted later like Alison and Mona or even Ezra and Toby.

This show pitches itself as a mystery show, but it also masquerades as a teen drama. It’s neither and both of those things at its core, but I’d argue that the reason it’s been on the air so long and retains so much of its Twitter-friendly popularity is because it’s so willing to bend to those genres while telling its story.

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It’s also a horror show, a romance, a comedy and a psychological drama. It’s a commentary on young women’s place in society, and how they’re perceived. It’s a loving homage to cinema history. It’s both throwaway fluff and a completely subversive, constantly-evolving creation in its own right. There’s so much more to it than the mystery.

But that said, if you are one of those viewers who’s become completely embroiled in discovering the identity of A, or even mildly curious, then I bet you got a serious kick out of Game on ChArles. Even the name of the episode is a battle cry, a statement of intent, and boy this premiere didn’t back out on the promises made over the hiatus. This is our #SummerofAnswers, patient fans, and this time I believe we’ll actually get them.

The episode itself wasn’t quite as inventive as Welcome To The Dollhouse, possibly because of the novelty of a brand new location having worn off, but it was no less twisted and far darker. That this is allowed to air on ABC Family at primetime, with an audience primarily made up of teenage girls, is an absolute marvel.

We start where we finished, with the girls running out of the dollhouse and into the fenced off area. There’s one small difference, though – we’re looking at it from the perspective of a third Ali-doll, later revealed to be Sara Harvey, the Queen Bee from a neighbouring town who Emily met way back in season four.

She’s presumably been down there since Alison went missing years before, and the episode just leaves you with that unsettling thought – one more horrifying detail to go along with the compendium of horrors served to us over the course of an hour.

She’s pretty broken, then, and its a fate that awaits our Liars should they fail to escape. That’s the general structure to this unusually action-packed premiere – the girls have to escape, they have to make sure all five of them escape, and outside the others rally around to prevent Alison from also being taken.

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We see the Liars left outside of the compound for an unclear amount of time (possibly days?), discussing how long human beings can survive without food and water and, when they’re finally allowed back inside, they’re drugged and Mona is taken. They wake up in a makeshift morgue, stripped of their prom dresses and greeted by Mona pretending to be Alison for Charles’ benefit.

Watching them make their way down the hallway to their rooms wearing only white sheets, their hair and make up removed by days in the mud and the rain, their identities as expressed through appearance completely stripped away, following someone pretending to be Alison DiLaurentis while wearing the clothes in which she was supposed to have died, I seriously wondered why Pretty Little Liars isn’t regarded as one of the best shows on television.

They enter their ghost bedrooms for a ‘surprise’ and, when they separate from each other, all we hear are their distant screams before a cut to black and, ‘Three weeks later’.

They emerge as doll-versions of their former selves – Spencer the preppy jock, Emily in her swim clothes, Hanna decked out in the pink and the feminine and Aria the pseudo-goth complete with pink stripes in her hair. They all agree never to talk about what happened to them in those rooms, a statement far more effective than actually seeing what horrors went on behind those doors.

Me? I could do without ever knowing – our imaginations most likely concocting something far more heinous than anything that could be uttered on screen. I expect to find out in the coming weeks, but for now let’s try not to think too hard about it. The implication is far more powerful.

On the outside, we have the dream team of an unshaven Ezra Fitz and equally unkempt Caleb Rivers, aided by an undercover Officer Toby as they attempt to find the girls. We see no parents, no Paige and no Mike Montgomery. It feels disappointing (or like necessary comic relief) for a moment, until we realise that Alison has been heading up the investigation all along, right under Tanner’s nose.

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I’ll admit I got a thrill out of seeing the police actually attempting to deal with A for a portion of the episode, but it also makes perfect sense that those touched by A would just splinter off on their own. Ordinary minds can’t comprehend something like an underground dollhouse with pretend bedrooms and multiple Alisons, and they shouldn’t have to.

They don’t need to think about trackers hidden in shoes and how many copies of that darn yellow top exist in the world – that’s the job of fractured minds trained by A to fear for their lives on a minute-by-minute basis. But now they’ve decided to poke the bear, as Alison puts it, and, even if they’re ultimately unsuccessful at doing anything of note, it’s always fun to see them try.

What is very, very interesting is that Andrew is already Rosewood’s Most Wanted, the top suspect in the disappearance of the girls. While we can be confident that he’s not ChArles (or can we?), it’s a bold move for the show to set him up in this way as soon as we enter the season. If that’s not proof that the writers mean business, I don’t know what is. Also, Radley’s closed? That feels like a longer story.

The girls ultimately escape by themselves, with Spencer correctly identifying ChArles as a DiLaurentis that she’s had some kind of contact with as a child. They proceed to literally burn their captor’s soul and, if I’m being totally honest, I kinda felt bad for him/her/it. That’s what this show does to us – having terrible people as our beloved protagonists removes black and white from the equation.

That wrinkle of sympathy will most likely be useful when everything is revealed.

So here we are, starting a season 40+ hours before the end of the series with an episode that throws out everything we know about Pretty Little Liars and replaces it with something more hideous and ugly than anything its attempted so far. That’s not a criticism, obviously, because this show is at its absolute best when it does away with its soapy, relationship-driven tendencies and doubles-down on its darker elements.

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Yes, it was nice to see the Liars reunited with their significant others (except Mona because, as said, no Mike Montgomery) after their escape, but its with the sense that these girls aren’t the same people they were when they were taken. Trauma and identity are themes that have run throughout the show but, with this, we can except them to be explored more overtly than they ever have been. 

Read Caroline’s review of the season five finale, Welcome To The Dollhouse, here.

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