“Wait, YOU watch Pretty Little Liars?”
That’s been the response I’ve gotten on several occasions, mostly from friends who haven’t seen the show but are aware that I’m not the target audience. And it’s true, at least on paper. Neither the show, nor the young adult series it’s based on, seem like they would cater to anyone but their main characters: a quartet of high school girls who never repeat outfits and bicker over boys, and the show’s pilot episode feels like exactly the kind of ridiculous ‘tweeny’ nonsense we’re so used to dismissing. Who cares what teen girls are wearing, and who they’re texting, and what secrets they’re keeping from their parents? No one, that’s who! Well, no one except teen girls…. and a seemingly omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent cyber-stalker looking to blackmail and torment them.
The show opens with Emily Fields, Spencer Hastings, Aria Montgomery and Hanna Marin (pictured above) waking up from their sleepover at the Hastings’ family barn to discover their group’s fifth member and ring-leader, Alison DiLaurentis, has disappeared without a trace. A year goes by, the town of Rosewood, PA, unwittingly moves on from the tragedy, and Aria returns from her time abroad in Iceland during her father’s sabbatical. What gifts does the pilot episode bring? Emily is confused about her sexuality, and kisses the girl who moves in next door (Oops!), Spencer is under constant pressure to live up to her family’s academic expectations and ends up kissing her sister’s boyfriend (Double oops!), Aria hooks up with a dashing young lad the day before school begins only to find out he’s her new English teacher (Triple oops!), and former chubby-girl Hanna is dealing with her new status as Queen Bee alongside former social outcast Mona Vanderwaal, as the two go on a shop-lifting spree (Wow, so many oopsies!). Oh, you know how silly those silly teen girls are! You know who else knows how silly those silly teen girls are, though? The person who, during the course of the pilot, begins sending them increasingly suspicious text messages about their various secret situations, containing information that only somebody close to them could know. This person goes only by A, and signs off with “I’m still here, bitches!”
I’m going to have to get into spoiler territory to talk about the show in more detail, but if you’re following along, you’ve probably figured out (as the girls do early on), that these anonymous messages seem to be coming from their missing friend Alison. Of course they are! After all, who else would know all these things about the girls but one of their own? It’s pretty obvious. Almost… too obvious. So obvious that the most likely answer to this weird question is dispelled rather early on, when the police discover Alison’s body, buried in her own backyard, a few dozen feet from where the girls were supposedly fast asleep.
From that point on, anything goes.
Pretty Little Liars is a show that, quite simply, messes with your expectations. Sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in ways that break its established rules and sometimes simply by sticking to the rules once you expect them to cheat. It’s a show that doesn’t have any singular narrative perspective, and if you think that sounds frustrating, well, you wouldn’t be wrong.
While doing an interview for Inception in 2010, Christopher Nolan said something interesting about how he approaches his characters:
Think of film noir and if you picture the story as a maze, you don't want to be hanging above the maze watching the characters make the wrong choices because it's frustrating. You actually want to be in the maze with them, making the turns at their side. That keeps it more exciting.
Having a fixed narrative POV works depending on what story you’re trying to tell, and aligning it with that of your characters brings your audience closer to their experience. However, it’s not an absolute. Not if you want your audience to be frustrated. Not if you want to be able to make them look down at the maze from above. Conversely, if you look at Hitchcock’s "bomb under the table" analogy, withholding information from the characters can create suspense if the audience is privy:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode… In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters! There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!
There’s no one way to approach storytelling, I love watching films by both directors, but barring its initial episodes, Pretty Little Liars mostly belongs to the Hitchcock school of thought, hinting at its own little bombs at every given opportunity. The show also employs a very base understanding of Hitchcock, filling itself to the brim with references to his style. It pays constant homage to him by appropriating shots and scenes from his better-known works (Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds primarily, with plenty of mistaken identity to go around à la North By Northwest) and it shows its affinity for classic black & white Hollywood cinema in an equally simplistic way: by having its characters simply watch old films and then mention them by name. It brings me back to my own days as a student filmmaker, when my early shorts copied my influences in superficial ways and showing my peers how many movies I watched was important to me for some reason, but the show is acutely aware of this strange approach to being "cinema-savvy." After all, it’s not a show being made by kids in their late teens, it’s a show being made FOR kids in their late teens. Kids who are just about discovering that there’s more to cinema beyond the multiplex, and that discussions about things like the "rules of slasher movies" can be a gateway to understanding where those narrative impulses come from. As for the show itself, it’s quite content in keeping its references on the surfaces and letting you notice them, chuckle and move on without much thought.
That the show never makes an effort beyond those gateways can be seen as equal parts pro and con, but either way, it’s a show that understands who its audience is, as well as how they interact and engage with the material in the age of social media. The modern teen hasn’t enough time in a day nor characters in a tweet to deconstruct complicated themes, but if they did, would they really want to dig that deep? Some perhaps, but PLL isn’t the show for them. For instance, one of the most beloved and discussed episodes is season 4’s "Shadow Play," which does absolutely nothing in terms of progressing the plot. It’s a one-off special that plays out like '50s film noir. It’s almost like alternate universe fan-fiction (I told myself I’d go this whole essay without referencing Tumblr, but here we are), and it introduced a lot of the show’s fans to the film noir genre. It doesn’t go much deeper than the lighting and production design, but it takes the established characters and puts them in a new setting, which is what a good chunk of modern fan-fiction is. It’s a fun episode, brilliantly scored & photographed too, but it doesn’t really impact the overall story. However, the one way it starts to become important despite its lack of narrative propulsion is when you consider the broader context of the season. Despite seeming like a fun escape, the whole episode takes place inside Spencer’s head while she’s watching an old movie under the influence of amphetamines.
Understanding why the Hitchcock-like approach to information works for Pretty Little Liars (and why its blatant misuse works even better) would require understanding two key things: the main characters, and the nature of their tormentor. The show’s leads are its four pillars. Their dynamic and interplay imbibe even the most mundane scenes with a sense of familiar, childish fun, and the entire premise would simply fall apart if they didn’t function as troubled individuals as well as a mischievous unit.
1) Emily Fields
Emily’s the athlete of the group, and perhaps the most mature and level-headed one. Her arc for the majority of the show tends to deal with her sexuality, and while that isn’t what defines her, it’s what usually makes her a target. She’s from a mixed-race military family, which makes coming out all the more cumbersome (to put it mildly) and she’s at constant risk of being exposed by A. Coming out isn’t a one-time deal, it’s a repetitive process that involves constant fear of reprisal, especially in a small town like Rosewood where news travels fast. She also experiences major, soap opera-esque betrayal at least once a season, which makes not being able to come out on her own terms that much more difficult to deal with.
2) Hanna Marin
Hanna’s the not-so-smart one, but she’s also the most loyal. Having dealt with both eating disorders and paternal abandonment, she looks out for people’s physical and emotion well-being any way she can, even if it means being blackmailed into falling back on her old binge-eating habits to keep people’s secrets from leaking out. Despite having made positive changes to her life, she’s continuously tortured with reminders of her past, of having been put down, and of having been the butt of her friends’ jokes for years on end. She does however, end up with a pretty great guy, though by Rosewood’s standards, "great guy" is just someone who hasn’t revealed themselves to be a horrible, manipulative human being just yet, so maybe I’m overstating things. Come to think of it, said great guy did star in a short-lived spinoff where he was revealed to be a ghost or something. I’m not quite sure. We try to forget it happened.
3) Spencer Hastings
The driven book-worm! Every group needs one of those to make them feel inadequate, which is somewhat ironic since Spencer comes from a family of successful lawyers who expect the very best of her, and her biggest goal is to follow in their footsteps by getting into UPenn no matter the cost. She’s under constant pressure to achieve academic success, most of which she places on herself, but being targeted by master manipulator A means having the cards stacked against her, and she eventually has to forego her own morals to get what she wants. She too is forced to fall back on old habits, getting increasingly hooked on pills so she can study later into the night, which also jabs at her already heightened paranoia, making her the first to point fingers. The group tends to display varying levels of composure under pressure, but Spencer is usually the first to crack, and it really doesn’t help that everyone in her family has some sort of big secret tied to Alison’s disappearance.
4) Aria Montgomery
There’s not all that much to Aria beyond her interests. Her poetic side is what gets her involved with her English teacher (the one issue the show actually doesn’t handle so well), her love of old films is what seems to be the catalyst for the show’s cinematic ‘references’ and she’s often defined by those around her, but that’s more so by intent than by accident. If anything, she’s the one who ends up carrying everyone else’s secrets, and all she’s really looking for despite the increasingly turbulent waters is a smile and a sense of normalcy. That’s part of what make’s her A’s most vulnerable target, the idea that any shift in status quo (be it for her, for her friends, or her family) ends up rocking her boat, almost capsizing it.
And finally, the mysterious tormentor who keeps texting the girls…
Oh wait, did I not mention that A’s modus operandi only starts out as texting, but grows increasingly violent? In both a physical and emotional sense, A wants to harm the girls any way they can. They start out with mean-spirited pranks before graduating to forcing the girls into tights spots with their parents, then to turning them against one another, until eventually our little liars end up risking their necks on a weekly basis. A’s playing field is a chess board, and the girls are always one step behind.
A hates these young women with a passion, and seems to want to bury everything that makes them who they are. Emily’s sexuality. Spencer’s drive for success. Hanna’s self-image. Aria’s positivity. It’s almost as if this angsty, self-loathing person hates the very idea of women being able to love each other, and themselves. Gender politics aside though, the methods employed fall strictly in line with cyberbullying, i.e. persistent anonymous harassment through social media. When it’s someone known to the victim, the messages start out personal and focused, but as soon as they aren’t enough to break someone, the area of attack grows wider, expanding to friends & family, before moving on to jobs and academic institutions. Even if that doesn’t work, the psychological effects are still fairly adverse. The sheer volume of messages and aggressive acts often makes victims question why they’re being targeted to such a degree. “Maybe it really was something I did? Maybe I deserve this?”
After severe introspection, when there’s still no answer, the questions start to move outward. “Who are all the people in my life that could be doing this? What could I have possibly done to hurt or offend people in passing?” It begins to shake one’s trust in strangers, and even in friends and family. Soon, everyone looks like they’re wearing a mask (much like the bizarre scene in season 5 where the girls are surrounded by dozens of masked figures claiming to be A), and the victim starts to read far too much in to the little details of every day interactions in order to figure out their identity, from tone of voice, to body language, to writing style, and that’s where a huge amount of time and energy ends up being spent.
The paranoia and lack of trust felt by teen victims of cyberbullying is mirrored all too well by the Rosewood girls, whose friendship dynamics are put to the test, as they point fingers in every possible direction. The show starts out on their side in terms of allowing you to feel the same doubts and suspect the same people as them, but as it wears on, that perspective starts to shift. Soon the camera leers at them through a bedroom window like some kind of stalker (or like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window), as they discuss who they think A is for the umpteenth time while completely unaware they’re being watched. By this point we know how wrong they are, as we’re often let in on A’s misdirection, but we can’t reach out and tell the girls. Doing so wouldn’t just require us breaking their fourth wall, it would mean breaking through the bedroom window we’re staring through and spoiling all the fun. Who wants to go through all that trouble when we can watch them get caught up in crazy shenanigans all over again? Besides, you shouldn’t want to break in to a teen girl’s bedroom. It’s creepy.
In a weird way, the show makes us the bully, being entertained by their misery. The stalker, following them at every turn. The harasser, invading their private space. For a time, it allows us to see the strings and how they’re being pulled. Sometimes almost literally, like in the show’s fifth season when A goes full-on Saw and locks the girls up in a giant doll-house. The show keeps finding new ways to go over the top, and it manages to portray the escalating nature of anonymous attacks with precision. And, by letting us hover over the maze as the girls run helter skelter, it puts us in the driver’s seat before eventually pulling back the curtain.
The season 5 finale aired a few weeks ago, and we were finally (FINALLY!) let in on some details about who A is and how they’re connected to the girls. What that connection is isn’t particularly clear right now (like I said, the show can be frustrating!) but we now know for sure that there IS a personal connection, and it’s the first legitimate clue as to what drives A’s actions. To give away the few details we’ve been made privy to would be spoiling, but it also wouldn’t make much sense without 120 hours of context. Hell, it barely makes sense WITH context. It probably won’t for a while (the show has been renewed for two more seasons and they love to stretch things out), but A‘s identity has started to become clear in at least an abstract sense. What is it that makes them the walking equivalent of an Internet troll, causing a problem at every turn and threatening death like it’s a game? By the look of it, they’re driven by hatred and jealousy, which seem to stem from years of ostracization, as well as lack of maternal affection.
While there’s certainly some sympathy on the narrative horizon, A still remains a mish-mash of some of America’s biggest collective fears. Their early methods rely on technological paranoia, and the idea that Big Brother is constantly watching, sifting through your mail and listening to your phone calls (the show began three years before Edward Snowden proved this was actually a big deal). The first step of A’s evolution involves going from threatening messages, to confrontations at gunpoint akin to urban muggings. This eventually gives way to planting explosives and setting fires to either harm or to scare, so for all intents and purposes, A is essentially a domestic terrorist. Despite all of A’s antics relying on more modern ideas, their collective exploitation is re-contextualized in a suburban setting. America’s unique brand of horror, reminiscent of its own past atrocities, coming back to haunt you where you expect to feel most comfortable.
When it comes to upsetting the balance of comfort, perhaps it’s A’s own fears that require as much analysis. Once again, the specifics haven’t been brought to light, but for the longest time it was believed that A was a teen girl just like the four leads. After all, it would seem to fit the show’s female-centricity, as well as the vernacular used in all those texts. As it turns out, A’s name is actually Charles. That’s almost all we know, though I still hesitate to use male pronouns because of fan speculation surrounding their isolation (they might be transgender, since they were revealed to be female in the books), but either way, it was a reveal that put all of their actions in a new light. After all, the identity concocted by A is very intentionally reminiscent of teenage girls, turning them into a symbol (like if Batman was afraid of Hannah Montana instead of bats), which gives way to the idea that A, having been raised as a boy regardless of their current identity, sees femininity as a threat. More specifically, female autonomy and independence, which is what this cyber-terrorist seems to want to repress the most. Failing to do so would mean the girls are happy, and A can’t seem to stand the thought of it. Which, to be honest, isn’t too far off from how women are treated by anonymous strangers on the Internet.
The show has the ability to get awfully dour, especially during the back half of season five (up until its ridiculous doll-house reveal), and by allowing A to harass the girls for their specific traits, it manages to take a very direct look at how and why issues of sexuality, eating disorders, anxiety and peer pressure make teen girls easy targets for harassers who prey on them from the shadows. It’s also extremely silly, and melodramatic in ways that only a show about teenagers can be, It’s frustrating, but sometimes it’s the right kind of frustrating. How many things are they going to be wrong about THIS week? The show wants you to be annoyed at these kids and their dumb decisions, but it wants you to understand that they’re making these dumb decisions together. You never know, you might just end up loving them too. I know I did, or else I wouldn’t have powered through 105 episodes in two weeks last summer.
“Wait, YOU watch Pretty Little Liars?”
In my defense, it’s actually a lot of fun.