Pretty Little Liars: the case of the missing Alison DiLaurentis

Pretty Little Liars' Alison may finally be regaining her edge and getting back to the character we know and love...

Warning: contains spoilers for Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars has always had a singular obsession with dead or missing blonde girls. It’s iconic, after all โ€“ the all-American white girl from a wealthy family, someone who undoubtedly has secrets of her own, is made the victim of some terrible crime, leaving behind a slew of grieving family and friends eager to rewrite history.

For mystery narratives, it long-ago entered the deconstruction stage, from Gone Girl to Twin Peaks and tons of procedural dramas in-between.

Alison DiLaurentis, the OG missing blonde girl on Pretty Little Liars, played into this idea from the beginning of the show. Missing after the first scene of the pilot, dead by the end and immortalised in the opening credits for five and a half seasons, Alison was the catalyst for everything that touched our protagonists from day one. In those days the show was still finding its feet, and the missing girl was the best way for the writers to do that.

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I remember watching Paper Towns, the vastly inferior John Green adaptation following The Fault in Our Stars, and thinking about this trope. While that film tries to subvert our expectations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the perspective of the boy who loved her from afar, early seasons of PLL dived right into what that character can mean for the survivor girls left behind.

With her, Pretty Little Liars made a statement of intent. This was going to be a show about girls, the guys around them firmly sidelined and secondary, and Alison was going to be a part of that story even from beyond the grave.

There’s a reason the inhabitant of the coffin in the show’s credits is never shown in full. It’s nails and lips and hair โ€“ superficial fragments of a girl who had become more myth than human being. Those that really knew her were left to tell her story to the audience through rose-tinted flashbacks and stolen moments.

It’s the idea that the secret ‘bad girl’, the one hiding behind a pretty face and middle-class upbringing, has to die as a form of punishment. She’d seen the seedy underbelly of Rosewood and, as the show’s theme tune continually attests, two can only keep a secret if one of them is dead.

The issue with a character like Alison is that, when she’s been constructed from disparate parts recalled by all of those who knew her, it’s hard for her to be a real character. That wouldn’t have mattered if, like in Veronica Mars before it, she had just stayed dead. Alison was a spectre that hung over the Liars for four whole seasons and, when we learned she had not died at all, she suddenly had to be a real person again.

Season five struggled, but ultimately did a decent job, of presenting a broken, vulnerable, human girl to us. What might have happened to her in those missing years has always been left half-said, the horrors of which we can only assume aren’t suitable for an ABC Family/Freeform audience.

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This narrative doesn’t ordinarily go so far as to reinsert the dead girl back into her own story, but it could have been one of the smartest things Pretty Little Liars ever did.

Since then her arbitrary role has been repeatedly inhabited by others โ€“ first by Bethany Young, who we discovered had been the real person in Alison’s grave, then by Sara Harvey, then finally by Charlotte DiLaurentis. It’s interesting to note that, though the image of the twenty-something year old Liars (now including Alison) has been updated, the footage of the dead blonde girl being prepared for her funeral hasn’t changed at all.

But all of this has taken its toll on the character, and since the start of season six fans have noticed a significant shift in how Alison is written and portrayed. She instantly became meek, and sensible, and boring. She taddled on her friends, supervised girls’ soccer clubs and married the world’s most boring doctor.

The girl that had once faked her own death and survived for years on her own had essentially become a suburban housewife, and it didn’t feel like natural character progression. It felt like she had been silenced all over again, and it felt like the writers were wasting the opportunity of having resurrected her at all.

Since the five-year time jump, the show has placed Alison very firmly in the victim role. That’s Pretty Little Liars‘ bread and butter, condemning the stealing of young girls’ agency and control, but for it to happen so overtly to Alison felt wrong. She became a prop, her personality bending to where the writers needed her to be.

When we left her after season six, she was strapped to a bed in a shady psychiatric hospital while her new husband pumped her with drugs that made her think she was crazy.

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But this year feels like an apology. She was instrumental in getting Rollins killed and, in the latest episode, despite still reeling from her ordeal, she was suspicious of Mary Drake, on guard around former enemies and friends, and herself disbelieving that she had become so lost in the first place.

There’s a sense now that the show has remembered who Alison was, and what she represented. Not likeable, or even redeemable in the traditional sense, but a strong enough personality to dig out of her own grave rather than be wrongly memoralised by those who had exploited her.

At the end of all this, Alison’s story might make some kind of sense, and I’m glad. I don’t believe the writers knew where they were headed all along, but there’s a crumb of a good idea in making Alison the most settled of the Liars post-A. She’d lost her edge, and maybe her victimisation at the hands of another male in Rosewood can now be the driving force behind the character getting back to being the Alison we know and love.