Tonight the series finale of Pretty Little Liars will air, after seven seasons of twists, tricks, misdirections, reveals, reverse-reveals and really solid friendship. I didn’t start watching until after the fifth season finale had aired, and then I dove in big-time thanks to two great editorials that should convince you to watch even if my own post doesn’t: Siddhant’s tribute here on BMD, and Rachael Nisbet’s Blogspot post comparing Pretty Little Liars to a giallo. No, seriously. It’s right there in the text!
I’ve since watched the show multiple times as it approaches the end of its seventh and final season. Teen girl horror is my tip-top favorite subgenre in any form of fiction, and Pretty Little Liars has been very generous in its horror tropes, even if its use of those tropes is sometimes fairly superficial. Among the messages about bullying, honesty and loyalty, among a six-way friendship that is truly something special, we get black leather gloves and horrifying masks, dolls in dollhouses, increasingly elaborate games and hidden messages and secret passageways, masquerade balls and fashion shows gone terribly awry. We get lairs. Lairs aplenty. We’re up to our armpits in villain lairs on PLL. We even get a Christmas horror episode! And Christmas horror is second only to teen girl horror in my impossibly detailed and immovable ranking of horror subgenres.
Unfortunately, Pretty Little Liars’ freewheeling strategy for throwing shock value at the wall and seeing what sticks hasn’t always been to its credit. In particular, the death or vilifying of early black characters, a series-long teacher-student romance with few consequences and a plotline that’s grown increasingly transphobic throughout the past few seasons stand in stark contrast against a show that has otherwise proven itself to be very progressive in its approach to feminist ideals and gay storylines. For instance: Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) is one of the four main characters, a gay woman of color who in many ways is also the beating heart of the Liars. If only Charlotte (Vanessa Ray), Maya (Bianca Lawson) and Nate (Sterling Sulieman) had been treated with anywhere near that level of sensitivity and respect.
Or, for that matter, Mona (Janel Parrish), an almost-main and fan favorite character who’s suffered her own share of indignities, particularly in the way her arc was seemingly resolved last week. I don’t want to get deep into spoilers in this post, as I’m hoping to convert some new viewers, but Alexis Gunderson wrote a great piece over at Paste about how Mona deserves better. She truly does.
Still and all, every time Pretty Little Liars has driven me to distraction with its mistreatment of characters and even dangerous mishandling of a central trans storyline, something pulls me back. Part of it is indeed that kitchen sink giallo tactic, but there’s more to it than that.
It’s the friendship among Emily, Aria (Lucy Hale), Spencer (Troian Bellisario) and Hanna (Ashley Benson) – and, to a lesser extent, Mona and Alison (Sasha Pieterse). This is a show that over and over again puts its female friendship at the forefront, this unshakable priority that motivates everything that happens in Rosewood. These girls almost always choose each other first, and the times that they don’t become ominous lessons. Lessons reminding them to trust each other, believe each other, listen to each other. A, the shadowy villain of the first six seasons and A.D., the seventh season counterpart, do everything within their seemingly limitless power to pull these girls apart, to force them to deceive and distrust each other. Paranoia is a powerful driving force in Pretty Little Liars, but it never trumps the friendship these girls share.
That’s important to me, and I hope it’s important to the teen girls who are presumably PLL’s target viewership. In high school, there are always a million obstacles to friendship: gossip, jealousy, insecurity, sex, academic competition, parents and teachers who don’t understand just how important a friend can be to you in your formative years. Pretty Little Liars has spent seven seasons reminding its audience that friendship matters, that it stands stronger than any of the disruptions that would like to tear it apart, that it makes us stronger than we are alone.
It’s far from perfect, but in Pretty Little Liars series creator I. Marlene King has made a show that celebrates female friendship as the strongest force in the world - stronger, even, than a shadowy, masked, black-hooded supervillain with unfathomable resources and a lust for revenge. Tonight, we'll find out who A.D. is, but it won't matter: we know the girls will survive, and they'll do it together.