Trying to explain Pretty Little Liars is like trying to summarize Lost, except harder. When Rembert Browne started writing PLL recaps for Grantland, beginning with season three, he didn’t expect non-viewers to really know what he was talking about either. He did, however, give them a tweet-sized summary:
Four girls all hot fifth dead who killed? Creeper texts girls, boys involved all suspects. Murder arson girls now hotter: MOMS. Secrets Lies.
So true, Rembert. So true.
The Halloween special, “This Is A Dark Place,” aired last Wednesday — after a two month hiatus, which will be followed by another two months of silent suspense (the second half of season three will start up again in January). Pretty Little Liars is a teen-drama thriller (something of a mix between The Killing, Veronica Mars, Twin Peaks, and Gossip Girl), but it’s also a classic, almost campy, form of horror storytelling. When the show got renewed for a second season, the writers knew to capitalize on its gruesome and ghoulish aspects: season two featured a standalone Halloween special on October 19, 2011. That special, also isolated with a two-month buffering silence, brought in 2.5 million viewers. Last week, 2.85 million tuned in. These are impressive ratings for standalone episodes, but given that they’re airing on ABC Family, they’re even more so. Once known as The Family Channel, ABC Family has been picking up in the 15-30 demography these past five years especially – its decision to go more soapy (less sitcomy) with shows such as Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and Switched at Birth cannot be underestimated. Pretty Little Liars isn’t quite reaching the numbers of a show like ABC’s basic cable drama Revenge (with its firm 8-million-something viewers per week), but Pretty Little Liars is certainly holding its own. Even other relatively popular ABC Family shows such as Switched at Birth and Bunheads usually hit below the 1.5 million ballpark. It’s a testament to Pretty Little Liar’s ability to hook viewers despite, or because, of ever complex narratives. The Halloween special, by emphasizing the show’s use of the horror genre, offers some of the most vigorous ground for enlarging on the Pretty Little Liar’s twisting plot lines.
Since Rembert’s tweet, not much has changed. The central cast remains the same four girls (Spencer Hastings, Hanna Marin, Aria Montgomery, Emily Fields) who are on the hunt to solve the murder of their fifth friend (Alison DiLaurentis), which took place three years ago. As per the show’s title, the girls are all gorgeous. But the pretty girl (as so often dictated by horror) doesn’t always die as punishment for her beauty. In PLL, the pretty girl might also be the Final Girl — the one who escapes and survives. We’re not at the show’s end, however, and though our four pretty liars evade death again and again, they’re still receiving threatening texts and emails from the anonymous “A.” Theories about the identity of “A” abound, but thus far we only know that there exists an “A team,” including one Mona Vanderwall (now locked away in asylum, but y’know, able to escape such as on the most recent Halloween). Secrets Lies.
What we want to focus on here, though, is on how “boys involved all suspects.” While the girls get hotter, the men grow more insidious. You didn’t think the men could get any more treacherous, what with them casually wanting to murder one liar or another, but even the liars’ romantic others to come armed with meaningful and suspicious side-glances. It’s horrifying.
This year’s Halloween special takes place at a party, which is hosted by the “Rear Window Café” and takes place almost entirely on a train. The debt to Hitchcock is obvious, so will someone please explain why we got costumes such as Marilyn Monroe and one questionably ambiguous Lauren Bacall, but no Eva Saint Marie?
Emily and her lesbian partner Paige getting it on in their own private cabin was a nice nod to Guy and Bruno from Strangers on a Train, except that Emily and Paige aren’t out to murder women because they are women. That continues to be the logic of Pretty Little Liars: men murder with a sweep of their hoodies. It might be the most misandrist network television show out there.
As an enclosed and claustrophobic space, the train is one of the most perfect settings for unfolding drama. Our girls are cornered into locked rooms, storage spaces, even the coupling between train cars. You can run, as they say, but you just can’t hide forever on a train. The vehicle is as determinedly closed-off as a coffin, and this is nowhere more literalized than when Aria gets trapped in a wooden box — ready to be tipped off the train, right before her three girl friends save her. In “This Is A Dark Place,” people keep showing up and disappearing, these acts made more confusing with the added costumes and Adam Lambert’s distracting singing. Obviously. Especially since her boyfriend last-minute cancelled on coming to the train party, plus he’s a dude, so we don’t really expect him to be in it for the long haul except eventually to kill her. I’m not even a little kidding.
The more I watch this show, the more I try to unravel the points of association between the male characters. Pretty Little Liars is at its core about four teenage girls who are best friends, no matter how much their other relationships get in the way. For us as viewers, all character interiority belongs to these girls, as does our attendant empathy. The men are in many ways marginal characters — appendages to the female networking at the heart of this mystery. The men rarely interact. Or, at least, we rarely see them interact. That’s what makes them so inhumane, so horrifying. Each time a liar tells her boyfriend a secret, it’s akin to seeing a girl strip a layer of clothing in any classic horror film. You want to reach through the screen and tell her to stop — that she’s showing too much skin. This vulnerability will not pay off, you want to say. But the fact about Pretty Little Liars is that vulnerability — innocence and sheer prettiness — becomes a form of seduction, not just for male characters, but for viewers as well. Don’t underestimate what a little bit of make-up can do, or hide. —Jane Hu
Ezra Fitz and Byron Montgomery
Neither as nervous as Emily and Spencer nor as insecure as Hanna, Aria (played by Lucy Hale) appears to be the most stable and least vulnerable of the Pretty Little Liars. Aria’s problems don’t stem from internal conflicts; everything that’s ruining her life (aside from the ongoing “A” saga, of course) is there on the surface. Her dad, Byron, cheats on her mom, and eventually his infidelity destroys their family. But that same father is suddenly a model of moral uprightness when he hears about his daughter’s relationship with former high school English teacher, Ezra – who, in turn, has an ex bent on sabotaging Aria. Then there’s Mike, Aria’s mentally disturbed little brother who breaks into houses. See? Pretty stable.
Part of the reason that Aria’s problems seem to be predominantly external is that we don’t get into her head as often as we get into the other three Liars’. Painted as a precocious miniature adult who’s actually equipped to handle a relationship with a man in his mid-twenties, she’s calmer and more self-contained than her friends. Being a writer, she’s also a natural observer. But everything that’s happens around her offers valuable clues about what might be tormenting Aria.
In her love of language, she shares something with the two men in her life, Byron and Ezra. Yet, on this Freudian-by-way-of-Hitchcock show, these men have more in common with each other than with Aria. Both are teachers, making each an authority figure in her life. This also means they’re performers. If Byron and Ezra are trying to get away with something — be it an extramarital affair or a romance with an underage girl — they’ve got practice winning over tough crowds. What’s most worrisome about this is that it also means both are comfortable living double lives.
With betrayers like Spencer’s boyfriend, Toby, and psycho-killers like Lyndon James torturing Emily — not to mention widespread suspicion from how little we know about Hanna’s boyfriend, Caleb — the men in Aria’s life seemed relatively innocuous. When you’re surrounded by potential murderers, a little bit of infidelity doesn’t seem quite so dangerous. But in this week’s Halloween special, we received one damning piece of information leading right to Aria: Byron spoke to Alison on the night of her murder. In fact, Byron spoke to her right after Garrett pretended to kill Ali for Jenna’s benefit. Her words to him come off as threats: “I’m not the one that makes people do these things. If you don’t pay for your mistakes, how can you become a better person?” And, finally: “You know what I’m capable of.” Is this just about his affair with Meredith, which Alison witnessed alongside Aria, or is there something more? As ever on Pretty Little Liars, the interactions between teenage girls and grown men are fraught with deception, mistrust, and dark sexual tension. Reversing or obliterating the roles of child and adult, these relationships force the Liars to assume uncomfortably grown-up roles.
Although Ezra is less than a decade older than Aria, the two are not exempt from this pattern. While he casually covers up his past mistakes and hides from his family, Aria is his conscience, coaxing him to take responsibility. Is it possible to truly keep him honest, though? He spent the Halloween special twitchy and uncertain, his meaningful frowns registering as more than the usual twee, literary awkwardness. After that emphatic side eye, there’s no way Ezra simply went to a meeting in Philadelphia about ghostwriting a book. If only viewers knew whether his story is setting off alarm bells for her, too. Will Aria ever let us into her head? Or, like her Halloween costume as Daisy Buchanan, will she remain the sum total of what two men — and we, the viewers — project on her? —Judy Berman
The N.A.T. Club
The creeps that make up the N.A.T. Club, which our resident Latin nerd Spencer Hastings identifies as standing for nos animadverto totus, which she roughly translates as “we see all,” are occupied by the driving activity of Pretty Little Liars: secretly video-taping or photographing the residents of Rosewood, particularly its teenage girls, for unspecified nefarious ends. Taking photographs of any kind is pretty much the most sinister thing you can do in Rosewood, and it also appears to be, along with amateur cell phone repair, the town’s most popular hobby.
The club seems to have been mostly active when its members (Ian Thomas, Garrett Reynolds, Jason DiLaurentis, and possibly others) were in high school, around five years before the show takes place. They secretly used to record the four girls at their school, sometimes in compromising position, like in the tape we see of blind-not-blind Jenna Marshall seducing her stepbrother. All of the N.A.T. members were also in Alison’s room on the night of her murder; we’re still not totally sure why. Alison may have discovered their spying and threatened to take their secret public, which resulted in her murder. Maybe. Who ever really knows with this show.
Like all men on Pretty Little Liars, the members of N.A.T. find sixteen-year-old girls irresistible. Ian, who seems to be the most outright bad of the club, shares a clandestine kiss with his age-appropriate girlfriend Melissa Hastings’s little sister Spencer while coaching her on her field hockey form. It’s later revealed that he was having an affair with Alison at the time of her death, which convinces our little liars that he murdered her, believing she was blackmailing him by threatening to go public with their romance. Alison might be sixteen, but blackmailing has always been kind of her thing.
Ian corners Spencer terrifyingly in a church’s bell tower on the season one finale, where he may or may not have fallen to his death (again, who really knows?), strangled by bell ropes. He’s later found dead in a barn with a suicide note that was faked by “A.” (Seriously this show is crazy.) In contrast to creepy creep Ian, probably the most sympathetic member of the N.A.T. Club is Alison’s brother Jason, who has a bizarre back story about being a high school punk with a drug problem who later got clean (read: preppy) and went to Yale. In season two, Jason returns to Rosewood and improbably buys his family’s old house. (He is simultaneously a more suspicious and more likeable character, as they replaced the actor playing him with a considerably cuter actor.)
Jason’s life is fraught, and his dead sister is the least of his problems. We learn that he is the illegitimate son of Spencer and Melissa’s father, a fact even more disturbing since he once dated Melissa. He was also black-out drunk on the night of Alison’s murder, and Jenna and Garrett left him a note making him believe he had killed his own sister. In these ways Jason is eerily reminiscent of Veronica Mars’ Duncan Kane, what with accidentally making out with someone who may be half-sister and fearing that he killed his sister in a blind rage.
Jason isn’t all angst, though. He still might be legit evil. He always had a thing for Aria, and the girls break into his shed to find it plastered with pictures of her. He claims that the pictures of Aria were on a roll of film that was with Alison’s things, but like I’m ever going to believe anything anyone in Rosewood says. He is the N.A.T. member who has so far been the least implicated in Alison’s death, so it might soon be his turn.
Then there’s Garrett Reynolds, who got a job as a police officer in order to cover N.A.T’s tracks. Let’s just say the Rosewood P.D. is not exactly Scotland Yard. Garrett had a long affair with Jenna (who is of course underage) and it’s she who eventually turns him in for murdering Alison. Apparently Garrett made then-blind Jenna think he murdered Alison (Why did he do this? Why???), but his name is later cleared somehow by an anklet Spencer finds at an antique store. In season three, Garrett appears to be dating Melissa, and there is even some suspicion that he was the father of her (possibly fake?) baby. (LIKE I SAID THIS SHOW IS CRAZY.) In the Halloween episode, he spills some secrets to the liars about the night Alison was killed and ends up immediately dead, so we might conclude that there is some lunatic out there picking off members of the club one by one.
This new theory — that the N.A.T. Club are not targeting the liars, but rather they are targets themselves — turns some of the show’s misandry on its head. All three of the club members have a romantic connection to Melissa, and Jenna has the most legitimate beef with Alison and the liars, seeing as they did blind her. It is plausible that the ultimate villain, and the one who is murdering the N.A.T. Club, could be one of them. The men on the Pretty Little Liars are immoral, but not ultimately as dangerous as one single woman — let’s not forget that the most psychopathic character on the show is Alison herself. It becomes more and more clear that the leagues of dark, flawed men who populate Rosewood are just pawns. Pretty Little Liars is a girls’ game. —Alice Bolin