This feature contains spoilers for Pretty Little Liars season 6.
The sixth season finale for Pretty Little Liars aired this week, and with it came fresh reveals about secret twins, ludicrously convincing prosthetics and elaborate kidnapping plots. It was sillier than I remember the show ever being, and this is a series that regularly features dead girls coming back to life, cyber-stalkers stealing rotting corpses and storing them in drinks cabinets, and teenage girls commissioning creepy woodsmen to create multiple masks of their own faces.
I love this show. I’ve written thousands of words about it, meticulously deciphered its mysteries and gotten up at the crack of dawn to watch it just so I wouldn’t be spoiled. But even I have to admit that things have been a little off lately, and that this might be for a very simple reason.
Not every show is meant to last forever. Some burn fast and bright, while others are designed to run until the end of time. Pretty Little Liars fits into that first category, but its enormous success has made it a hit its network simply can’t part with. It has all of the qualities these types of shows have – brilliant actors and actresses, daring writers and an ability to court a variety of demographics all watching for different reasons.
One of those groups of viewers who have loyally stuck with Pretty Little Liars for the last six years are the mystery buffs. Like Lost before it, the show has built up a reputation for not giving its audience enough answers, as if we somehow deserve to know the end of the story before the story is ready to end.
When the season two finale revealed Mona to be the ubiquitous A, it admittedly felt like we’d waited forever. In reality, this was the perfect time for the writers to show their cards, as it had given then ample time to lay the groundwork for an entire town of background mysteries that could be unpicked over the ensuing years.
Who were the NAT club, and how did they connect with A? Who killed Alison if, in fact, she was really dead at all? Could Mona ever be redeemed? What do you have to become to survive, when the worst thing has happened?
It was all connected, like a big messy bowl of linguine. The new A could be anyone, and anyone could be A. Toby got involved, and so did Spencer for a brief moment. Ezra wasn’t the big bad, sure, but he was at least revealed to be a lot more (or less, depending on how you look at it) than he seemed. Those early episodes were good, but for me season three was the golden era for the show.
In the mid-season finale for season six, we learned that Charlotte DiLaurentis had been the one to take over for Mona when she was committed to Radley, and that she had done so to punish the Liars for forgetting about Alison – her sister. This arc wasn’t perfect, the details of the reveal even less so, but I don’t think anyone watches Pretty Little Liars for perfection.
We watch it for those moments of genuine, transcendent brilliance. There are the couplings and the big reveals, but there’s also Spencer composing herself before going to see a PI, or Alison recounting the details of her ‘murder’, or Ezra and Mona casually talking about the nature of fear outside the Brew. All power to the audience who want to know the answers and want to know them now, but I could honestly live without ever knowing the whole story.
Which brings me to Hush Hush Sweet Liars, which ended a half-season in which the Liars had suddenly become adults. They weren’t high schoolers anymore, but real people who could plausibly get married, write novels with their former high school teacher/OTP and apparently get drunk at any and all times of the day. This was a shift that should have energised the show, giving it a boost after a few too many dips in recent years.
Instead, it simply demonstrated how completely Pretty Little Liars had been about the experiences of teenage girls – about the way the world sees them, treats them and dismisses them. By allowing them to grow up, the show lost the subtle subtext that had ever made it more than a silly show about cyberbullying. Suddenly that commentary was gone, and all that was left was an endless deluge of shipping and sleuthing.
It no longer feels like a show with anything important to say, or any agenda other than to maintain ratings for another year. Big A, Uber A or Emoji-A (bleh) is never going to have the power of a Mona or a Charlotte, simply because they’ll only have existed in this portion of the show. It’s the Sara Harvey problem – where a character we barely knew was used as the reveal for things we’d been pondering for years – just enlarged.
The biggest problem is the invention of new suspects and new mysteries. I could buy that Charlotte had been planned for a while, but once the writers exhausted Alison’s past pre-disappearance, things held a lot less weight. Cece was a figure from Alison’s past, and Wilden as the mysterious predator from ‘that summer’ tied in with things we’d known since the pilot.
When Ezra was teased as Big A in season four, fans spent the entire mid-season break pouring over quotes, gifsets and blackboard quotes all proving he was evil. Search “X is A” for any character, and there’s be abject proof that it’s the case. The writers don’t get applauded enough for having laid their mystery out this way – clues had been strewn about the place with such abandon that it was plausible for anyone to be shady.
Things rarely felt invented in the moment, even if they were. But Jessica DiLaurentis having a twin, and Charlotte being Mary Drake’s daughter, rather than Jessica and Ken’s, is something seemingly plucked from nowhere, with almost no groundwork to back it up.
The weird prosthetics, too, feel like a bastardisation of past nuance. Yes, characters wearing crude masks of Alison’s face was objectively silly, but it was used symbolically as much as it was used as a visual ‘wtf’. It fit with the message of the show, with the way people appropriate the image of the ‘dead blonde girl’, and the idea of shifting identity. Rollins pretending to be Wilden? I haven’t a clue what that’s supposed to mean.
Timeline anomalies don’t bother me as much as they do others, but it’s also an issue that can’t really be ignored. None of the dates add up anymore, which just adds to the theory that, even on a half-season by half-season basis, the writers don’t have a long-term plan.
The show this year has had the old references to Vertigo, and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, but nothing’s really gone anywhere. In the past, the references wouldn’t be so overt, simply there as Easter eggs for the superfans, but now it’s the opposite. It’s masquerading as its old self, but the soul is gone.
As much as people want to have the entire picture presented to them, there’s something to be said for one long mystery, and for television writers to be able to decide for themselves when something’s going to end. When Pretty Little Liars hit big, there was pressure to stretch things out way past their natural point and, while that’s led to some magical detours, it also means that the show may have morphed into something unrecognisable.
It’s not even about the Liars anymore, or the simultaneously liberating and hellish experience of being an attractive young women in this world, but about how many secret members of the DiLaurentis family we can fit on a family tree.
There’s still time. Maybe Melissa and Wren have been orchestrating things this whole time, or Bethany Young is going to come back into play. I know deep down what this show is capable of, and how much joy it has given me, and for those reasons I’m unwilling to write it off. But right now it’s simply not the thing it used to be, but a tacked on epilogue to a mystery that had self-completed.
Next season will determine whether it’s an epilogue that can be cut off and wiped from memory, or whether it snaps back into focus and enriches the whole experience. Hush Hush Sweet Liars indicated the former, but then this show has always had a habit of surprising me in the best ways.