This review contains spoilers.
7.10 ‘Til Death Do Us Part
I don’t think I’ve ever loved a perfect show. I find it impossible to connect with ‘prestige’ dramas, and have always gravitated towards messy, flawed shows over The Sopranos and The Wires of the world. Pretty Little Liars is one of those shows, sometimes at its best and worst within the same scene, and a story whose constantly conflicting genres have angered fans and critics time and time again.
But it’s finished now, and I’ve seen as many lists of stupid stuff that went down as I have think-pieces about how it changed television forever without anyone really noticing. I agree with both, and I also have a lot of thoughts of my own that I won’t spend too much time boring you with.
At it’s best, Pretty Little Liars was a Taylor Swift song, a Hitchcock movie, a philosophy lecture and a soap opera all at once. It was somehow about fluid identities, self-actualisation and how the patriarchy is crushing us all at the same time as being about fashion and dating. There was nothing like it on television when the show premiered, and I’d argue there still isn’t.
A quick rundown: Spencer had a secret (evil, British) twin all along, and once she found out about her sister’s comfy Rosewood life she decided to take it for herself. Using Wren, who she met in London and who told her about the Hastings (he has a type), and the memory of her other half-sister Charlotte, Alex Drake concocted a plan to take Spencer’s place as a new Liar. Oh, and everyone ended up together and had babies despite only being in their mid-twenties.
I’ve always thought of Pretty Little Liars as two shows in one – a teen drama and a twisty noir murder show. This finale reminded me it’s actually three. There are the couples that are so popular on Twitter, the mystery, and the bigger picture stuff. Personally, I never cared about the ‘ships or the identity of A/Uber A/A.D. beyond what it meant for the characters. Instead, I was all in on what the show was doing in the background.
‘Til Death Do Us Part is not a good episode of television and, taken on an objective, clinical level, it’s a rather disastrous ending to the show. The cries that the previous Charlotte reveal needed much more time to breathe were interpreted as ‘we need an extra hour to appease the shippers’, and the second hour was spent wrapping up a new phase of the mystery that’s seemed half-baked from the start.
Never has it been more clear to me that Pretty Little Liars was supposed to end after season six, with Charlotte as our final villain – a symbol of the damage both physical and psychological that a society like this can have on young women – especially, it should be said, young transwomen. With her, the show demonstrated how abuse begets abuse, and how we can and should stop the cycle.
Something broke after the Dollhouse. Something that big and bold and weird can’t really be topped, and maybe the beautifully quiet half-season that followed should have been the show’s swan song.
Alex Drake’s motives were almost identical to Charlotte’s, but her circumstances didn’t match up. Really, now that we have the whole picture to sit back and look at, everything following the five-year time jump has simply been the aftershocks of that. Mary Drake, Arthur Dunhill and Alex Drake are all acting in her name, and are – most crucially I think – not from Rosewood.
In an interview with Joseph Dougherty on the Bros Watch PLL Too podcast, the executive producer carefully laid out the microcosm of corruption and abuse of power that is Rosewood and the institutions inside. This, for me, was always what the show was about even when it didn’t know it. Pretty Little Liars was never supposed to be set in the real world – it was a dreamlike representation of all the ugliest parts of our communities rarely shown on screen.
This episode doesn’t really deal with any of that, instead pasting the less interesting part of Charlotte’s excuse onto a character we’ve never met before. There’s even a new, less impressive, less resonant Dollhouse. Thank the gods the show managed to get Julian Morris back for one more episode, just so the fans had something to connect to in those flashbacks.
But there’s plenty of good in this episode too. Mona is absolutely the best thing the show ever did, and it’s fitting that she gets the last laugh. In a lot of ways, she was a thesis statement for the show – a cute mean girl in the school hall who actually turns out to be the Joker, simultaneously loving her victims unconditionally and running them over with her car.
When I look back on this show I won’t remember the mishandled reveals or aborted storylines (*cough* Ezra *cough*) or the Mission Impossible masks, I’ll remember Ezra and Mona sitting outside The Brew discussing the nature of fear, a traumatised post-Dollhouse Hanna curled up in the middle of her gutted bedroom, or Spencer at Radley telling her friends how very scared she is of simply being herself.
I’ll remember the ghost train episode, the perfect film noir homage of Shadow Play, and Mona singing Jailhouse Rock in Aria’s dreams. Oh how it crackled with pure creativity and ambition in those middle years. The show taught me what a silly, low-budget teen show can really do visually and thematically, and this is in my opinion the best ensemble cast since those early days of Buffy.
A Pretty Little Liars that is trying to tie a bow on itself was never going to quite work as a finale in the conventional way, and maybe its mistake was trying to please everyone. A million group hugs and weddings and pregnancies aren’t going to approach how deep this well goes, and how much passion the writers have managed to conjure in a supposedly post-TV generation on social media and beyond.
But now, at the end of all things, I’m rather overwhelmed by my gratitude for the mere existence of Pretty Little Liars, and its ability to regularly set my mind alight with the sheer possibilities of its concept, and with the promise of what it might usher in on television long after it’s dead and buried. That, in short, is immortality my darlings.