Final Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars”

So, I’ve finished the last two seasons of “Pretty Little Liars” and am going to comment both on the last two seasons and on the series overall. This is likely to be long and is likely to be full of spoilers, but I don’t really expect most of the people who are regular readers of my blog to be anxious to seek it out anyway. But if you think you might want to, my summary of the series is this: I liked it and would watch it again, and you probably should go watch it before reading the rest because the show is based around mysteries. That being said, the mysteries in the last couple of seasons are pretty pathetic so it might be better if you knew about them beforehand.

The rest is below the fold:

Seasons 6 and 7 were pretty disappointing overall. It all started with the fact that while in may last comments I noted that the direct actions taken by A made for a potentially interesting change, they resolved that plotline in about an episode or two and then returned to the standard A plot. And it’s not like there weren’t interesting things to follow in that, as the protagonists are held there for three weeks and lots of bad things happen to them, and the effects carry on through pretty much the rest of the series. But we just don’t get to see any of that. That’s not a bad thing per se, but after 5 full seasons of the mystery plot it might have been a nice way to change things up and keep it fresh, and it really seems like a waste of a good idea for what they actually did with it, because even though the effects were brought up again and again later in the series, there wasn’t anything really monumental that came out of it, either in terms of character or plot.

And then they tried to resolve the A mystery at what would be the mid-season break. The problem is that this didn’t give them enough time to let the protagonists figure out all the details until the very end, so they end with an episode-long exposition to explain all the details, what happened, and why it happened. I think the exposition would have worked better if it had been the characters outlining it or another character had figured it out, but instead it was A basically filling them in on her plan and monologuing like a supervillain. That makes it less interesting, especially since as the protagonists didn’t figure it out we have to wonder if anyone could have figured out the details, and so it’s the show simply — at least to me – telling us what happened not to show what we missed or even to show how clever they are, but instead merely to wrap it up so that we can move on.

After that, the show jumps five years into the future and the whole thing gets started over with the A from the first half of the season — Charlotte, Ali’s sex-changed unknown brother — getting let out of the insane asylum and promptly being murdered. This gave it an air of “here we go again”, especially when A.D. comes onto the scene demanding that the protagonists figure out who killed Charlotte or else face the typical A-style torture. The big problem here is that despite the fact that they try to shill A.D. — numerous characters comment on how smart A.D. is and opine that A.D. is smarter than A was — none of that actually comes through. A.D. is not aware of how little they know about things despite the fact that A seemed to be aware of that most of the time, and they even manage to put things over on A.D. on occasion (like snookering A.D. into loading a virus onto their computer with a sabotaged and faked hard drive). A.D.’s plans are not creative and don’t actually seem to progress them toward their goal of figuring out who killed Charlotte most of the time. And since the protagonists weren’t involved in Charlotte’s death what A.D. essentially does is recruit them to try to solve a murder when none of them, separately or together, are at all capable of doing so. Surely an intelligent agent could have found better contacts and allies than them especially once it became clear that they weren’t hiding information that would lead to the killer. Really, all A.D. could want from them was information that they didn’t have and couldn’t get.

And this plotline is also where them just being honest with the police would have solved all these problems. The big secret at the start is that Aria and Ezra were together where Charlotte was killed the night of the murder, and saw her. This is something that they for some reason decide that they need to keep from the police, despite the fact that just confessing it to the police would have worked out so much better for them. Coming forward once Charlotte’s body was discovered might have added them to the suspect list, but also would have put them in the “brilliant or innocent” category, as either they were brilliantly doing something that no intelligent person would do — voluntarily let the police know that they were in the area and so had the means to kill Charlotte when they had committed the crime — or else were innocent and felt that they should come forward before someone else reported it, which is also sensible given how in the past someone always had known about it and ended up reporting it or letting the information get out. And Toby was still on the police force and would ensure they’d get a fair shake, and with the fact that five years ago they’d faced a lot of suspicion from the police when they were innocent they could have used that against the police if they pushed too hard as well.

Ironically, the one person who, at the start, has a reason to want to keep things quiet is Spencer, as she has a tangential relation to the murder in that it matches an obscure and odd murder case she wrote a paper on a while back, and since her mother is running for office even the hint that Spencer was involved would hurt her campaign. And yet, Spencer does the smart thing by telling her mother about it, which lets her mother get her campaign team on it to get ahead of it if necessary. So the person with the best reasons to simply try to keep it quiet … comes forward. Huh.

Anyway, if Aria and Ezra had just come forward, Hanna wouldn’t have been asked to delete the footage and a lot of the other problems would never have gotten started, and that was a case where coming forward was clearly the better option, even if Ezra had been guilty.

What I did like was the board game idea at the end of the last season. I actually liked the hinted at — but not really used — motivation of someone simply wanting to play a game with them. It tied neatly into at least part of Mona’s motivation and would have fit the comment I made in the last post of keeping them involved by threatening to reveal their secrets if they failed or didn’t play and hiding their secrets and helping them if they worked. Given how A.D. had the clearest motive for being involved — wanting to find out who killed Charlotte — and was the weakest of the various characters that were messing with them, I would have much rathered see that as the motive for A in the first seasons. Start from A wanting to find out who killed Ali and thinking that the protagonists knew something, and using their secrets against them to try to find it out. This then could have had a less competent A being someone that the protagonists both could outplay on occasion but also one that they didn’t see as a huge threat (other than revealing their secrets). Then there could be another A who was the murderer trying to muddle the waters and avoid being revealed, masquerading as the original A. And then later another one could be added who just wanted to play games with them. Narratively, this structure would allow for the writers to hide inconsistencies by introducing multiple As and simply having any inconsistencies be assigned to the A that it made the most sense to assign it to. I also like this because it would have driven Spencer and Hanna crazy, as Hanna is easily confused and impatient, and the inconsistencies would have foiled Spencer’s attempt to find a rational pattern. And it would have allowed the motivation of just playing with them to be actually used, which is one that I would have liked to see explored more, especially in line with the very end of the series.

So, let me turn to the finale, and the controversial return of A and the reveal that it was an unknown twin sister of Spencer who had left town but then returned to take over Spencer’s life for … some reason. This comes out of nowhere — there’s one scene at the airport that I, knowing the twist already, identified as being part of it — and for the most part isn’t particularly relevant or interesting. It also requires them to spend about half the finale with Alex Drake explaining all of this to the audience, in an unwelcome callback to the mid-season 6 revelation. If you have to spend a lot of time having the villain explain what was happening not only to the audience but to the characters themselves, you might have dropped the ball on the plot. It really needed to be better developed. In fact, after watching it I really think it would have been better to have dropped that entirely and simply ended it with A.D. driving away with the dolls. People who read my comments on “Twin Peaks” might protest that there I commented that it was a good idea to resolve the murder of Laura Palmer — which was the central mystery of that plot, at least early on — but am actually advocating not resolving the central mystery of the last season and a half here. The reason is that the A.D. plot was never really interesting enough to count as a strong central mystery, and it actually had a good resolution: A.D. wanted to know who killed Charlotte, they found out who killed Charlotte, and now is going to leave them alone. As long as they lampshaded it — saying that they never did find out who A.D. was but as long as A.D. leaves them alone they’re happy — it would have worked, especially since that last scene was actually a pretty good one. Also, it’s better to have no resolution than a bad one, and what they did with the twin was a bad and illogical resolution. And it would have allowed them to simply focus on tying up the loose relationship ends, which they didn’t have that much time to do. For example, the parents get very little time despite there being major conflicts that it would have been nice to resolve. As written, the resolution to the A.D. plot was illogical and uninteresting and required and took up too much time to get other interesting resolutions in. They should have just dropped it.

Also, the very ending is nonsensical. The season had dropped hints of a new clique like Ali’s led by Addison containing suspiciously similar friends (and I suspect that the hair colours of the girls were chosen to match the ones in the books, as the hair colours and even races had been changed for a number of the protagonists, like Spencer, Ali and Hanna). At the very end, there’s a scene with them that echos the beginning: Addison is missing from a sleepover and the Spencer analogue says that she heard a scream. The problem is that this really is an echo, or perhaps it’s better to call it a recreation: it’s identical except for the girls involved. But the series had never given any reason for us to think that something precisely like that could happen again. The scene is too identical for it to merely be a comment on how treating people poorly and keeping secrets can lead to disaster, so there’d have to be more too it. With the short-lived “Ravenswood” series, they could have aimed for something more supernatural — some kind of curse leading to repetitive events — but there’s no hint of any kind of force like that nor of there being any similar events prior to the events of this series. If they had even hinted that this seemed a lot like what had happened before, it would make more sense. But as it is, the plot of this series and even the disappearance/murder depends on a lot of unique situations that it would be a contrivance to try to reproduce, requiring some kind of intervention. If they didn’t want to go the supernatural route — which was probably a good idea — then my idea of the game player would have worked out well here. Establish that A.D.’s motive was playing with them, have A.D. leave, leave them out of the episode entirely, and then the end could suggest that A.D. was bored and wanted to play the game again, and so was setting up the board again from the beginning. As it was, though, it was just strange and illogical and confusing and not really a good way to end the series.

In line with shilling A.D., the show also continued to shill Mona. Again, Mona is nowhere near as smart as the show claims about her, and the ending where she seemingly has Mary and Alex Drake in her dollhouse in France is wildly implausible. I’ve chosen to interpret that as Mona living that out in her mind — we’d already seen a medication-induced hallucination like that at the beginning — especially with Alex’s comment that she can keep them there forever just because she’s Mona. I also dislike it because Mary Drake would be given a fate she didn’t deserve. Yes, she did bad things but she also turned herself in — when she didn’t do it — to save Spencer and her friends and didn’t want to help Alex kidnap Spencer, so she wouldn’t have deserved what happened to her. And, again, Mona’s not actually smart enough to set all that up and would have had to be sent back to the asylum anyway.

Another issue with Seasons 6 and 7 for me is that Ali was back and in focus, and Ali is neither an interesting nor terribly sympathetic character. At times, multiple characters note that Ali might simply be manipulating Emily’s feelings for her to get what she wants, and the problem is that based on Ali’s behaviour they have a good case for that. Ali seems to be manipulating everyone even when she nominally aligns with the protagonists, and is actually usually quick to resort to such tactics … even with Addison, who is a student competing with a teacher. If the show had shown that Ali tended towards such actions but was recognizing it herself and trying to change, that could have been an interesting character arc, but they didn’t, leaving her as a mostly uninteresting character … and then adding the also uninteresting Emily to the mix didn’t help her plots. I really wanted to skip their scenes. Some people might have liked them, but not me, especially since they didn’t manage to get Emily an interesting subplot in the final seasons either.

I didn’t know who Ashley Benson was before watching this series, but I think she did a wonderful job with her character. She just had the perfect facial expressions and body language to show how vulnerable Hanna was while being able to pull off the It-Girl facade. It just shows how much that can add to a performance. While Lucy Hale and Troian Bellisario do a credible but not noteworthy job of that, Shay Mitchell as Emily is expressive … but often too much so, as it’s distracting. Still, they all give credible performances and my lack of interest in Emily has nothing to do with the acting and all to do with the fact that the character wasn’t really given anything interesting to do, and her role in the group overlapped with Aria’s too much, and Aria’s side issues were just more often directly related to the plot than Emily’s.

Overall, I liked the series and would watch it again. The focus on the mystery saves it from being a standard teen drama, but for me what really drives it are the characters, especially — for me — Hanna and Spencer. And the performances and character lines did drive the emotions well, as there were a lot of scenes where I literally commented, out loud, “Poor [character]” (again, mostly towards Hanna and Spencer). I, at least, can forgive a lot of character stupidity and inconsistent plotting if I like seeing the characters react to it and want to see how it turns out for them, especially if those things are at least nominally in line with their characters. I kinda binged on it because I wanted to get it finished before hockey restarted (and I achieved my goal) but unlike some other shows I wasn’t just rushing to get through it because I wanted to be done with it.

And I’m not done with the universe yet, because I bought all the books and am working my way through them right now. Expect commentaries on them over the next few weeks.

7 Responses to “Final Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars””

  1. They’re Back | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] had pushed to finish “Pretty Little Liars” before the NHL qualifying round started in earnest because they were going to have a lot of games […]

  2. Thoughts on the “Pretty Little Liars” Novels (Up to “Wanted”). | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] of the first (or second, I suppose) main A arc. Where I am would roughly align with mid-season 6 in the TV series: They’ve resolved where Ali is, who was in the hole, and who killed who (who killed you?). […]

  3. Thoughts on “The Possession of Hannah Grace” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I hadn’t started watching “Pretty Little Liars” when I bought this movie, so when I looked at it while browsing I had no idea that Shay Mitchell, who played Emily, was the star of this movie. Or, rather, I guess I kinda knew that she was the star but that didn’t mean anything to me. So, for me, the main draw was that it might be a bit like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, although not as philosophical. So, given that, you’d expect that Shay Mitchell would be playing Hannah Grace, a young woman who ends up being possessed by a demon and her struggles with that. […]

  4. Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Murder House” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Anyway, at the point of writing this I’ve just finished Season 4 (Freakshow) and am about to start Season 5 (Hotel).  I’m planning on writing about all of these seasons in a short period of time and scheduling them ahead, because I want to talk about at least Season 3 and 4 before they fade in my memory (this is usually not a good sign, as the only series that I liked that I wished I hadn’t left for a while before writing about it was “Nightmare on Elm Street”), and I should be finished watching the next two seasons in the next week or so, so what you’re going to get is six weeks of that in this slot.  I’m lumping this series in with my horror examinations in categories and tags because it is horror, but it fits into the “Things I’m Watching” slot that is normally in the “Not-So-Casual Commentary” category because I’m not watching it because it’s a cheap horror series, but because it’s something that I wanted to watch in the vein of “Pretty Little Liars”. […]

  5. Thoughts on “Fantasy Island” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] that one as well as in “Fantasy Island”, and as you all know she was also prominent in “Pretty Little Liars”.  It was these connections that made me decide that it might be worth giving this movie a try when […]

  6. Summary of “American Horror Story” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a little bit of fanservice isn’t offensive to me (I mean, I did watch the entire run of “Pretty Little Liars”, which had tamer scenes but still had some).  I’ve heard that “Game of Thrones” […]

  7. Thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] from the slings and arrows of those who would slight Elinor.  In a sense, she’s a bit like Hanna from “Pretty Little Liars” except that she’s a bit nicer and so, again, more […]

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