What if we chose to interpret the ending of this show, seven or eight years in the making, differently from what is obviously expected of us? What if the conclusion that it is entirely okay and happy to marry your first high school loves, your bullies and tormentors, the paedophile teachers who spun your love falsely into a tragic love story, was entirely false and a lie, somehow brought to life and sustained by a network lacking the courage to allow this theory to be brought to full fruition? I choose to believe that these two version of Pretty Little Liars, which have coexisted from the beginning, still do so, that there are two entirely different readings of what unfolds here which are both valid, but force the individual reader to emerge from entirely different tunnels if they choose to follow that path.
More than that, I choose to believe that the show encourages this reading of itself. For what other reason would we start this finale with Mona’s glimpse of a snowball, with five girls still trapped in the small town of their birth, with no means of escape, constantly making more decisions that will trap them there? Looking back at these seven seasons, maybe that was the point all along: all those paths that potentially led out of Rosewood, the big-city careers, the lovers who left for other colleges, the fiancés from other countries: at each of these forks in the road, the girls chose a path that led them straight back to Rosewood, as if the world outside didn’t even truly exist as an option. In the end, does it even matter that A bound them there, that the central mystery of their lives brought them back again and again, if that choice itself over time became one that each of them made willingly? Because each of them had options that took them away from Rosewood which bear considering now, at the end of the long road. Emily could have followed Paige where she went, wherever she managed to stay alive. Spencer could have gone anywhere, with her grades. Aria was an editor and could have edited anyone but her high school teacher, who has groomed her into a bride to be. Hanna designed fashion, which could be done so easily from anywhere else but Rosewood. But still, here they are: back in the old haunting grounds, trapped in this place forever.
If we choose to deliberately change or perspective of this entire show, then this is the story of one girl, solving a mystery, getting on top of things, ready to sacrifice anything just to be able to write her own story. What if Pretty Little Liars was only a story with a happy ending if we had to accept Mona’s point of view as the valid one? What if the girl who, in the end, has finally made it out of Rosewood, to Paris, won the game and everything else that was at stake? It’s one thing to marry your high school sweetheart and to raise children together, and another altogether to best the villain for good and manage to trap them in a dollhouse of your own making. These are two entirely separate paths and only one of them leads out of Rosewood, into the world beyond.
The five girls will always exist this way, and there is no way out of it. Maybe the positive way of reading it is that nobody outside their circle will ever understand their suffering, the story of their lives: that nobody but Ali, Toby, Caleb and Ezra will ever comprehend what it means to grow up in this war, with those sacrifices. But the other reading is that only Mona truly won the game, because she truly faced her demons, and came out on top, trapping the thing that had trapped her for so many years in a dollhouse: that only Mona gets to leave, because she won the game in the end. And none of that even mentions the core of the mystery, which in the end, maybe was never the point at all.
The girl was jealous, more than anything, of the closeness, of the affection, of the fact that these four or sometimes five girls were willing to die for each other, for their friendship. She was seething with jealousy. She had been brought to a different continent, but nothing ever made her feel this close, this understood.
And I think nothing will ever make up for the fact that this show, in the end, decided to go down this path – a last minute decision that Spencer would have the twin, not Ali, that the way the books would be paid homage to would be for Spencer, and Troian, to perform in that way. It’s hard to even conceive at what point this decision was made, and how much this show has lost just based on avoiding all the things that the viewers may have predicted. Maybe a better course would have been to think things through from the beginning, but then, perhaps it is interesting that this is where it ended up with. There was never a way out from Ali and Emily, regardless of any kind of objection that someone might have had regarding the complete rewriting of Ali’s character, or the problematic fact that Ali, for many seasons, was written as Emily’s tormentor, someone who ridiculed her for who she was, and more than that, tortured her girlfriend almost to suicide: and that wasn’t even the worst of it, because it doesn’t take into account that Ezra Fitz was forgiven for preying on teenage girls who were also his students, for spying on them, and being fully aware of the reality they faced, yet doing nothing to save them except writing a good story about them. In the end, Ezra has come full circle by marrying the student he preyed on, and becoming the topic of discussion in a high school English class led by Ali DiLaurentis. It’s very hard to find a way back from this, or to somehow salvage seven years of storytelling, a few of which arguably earned the title of best show on television (for a few episodes, for a few, hopeful moments, where Pretty Little Liars didn’t shy away from what it could be).
Spencer’s twin watched, and grew more and more jealous of the intimacy of a close friendships, of sacrifice. And then she chose to intervene, and somehow managed to pass as Spencer herself, because maybe, in the spur of the moment, and maybe that’s the truest story PLL has ever told, the girls were too self-involved to realise that one of their best friends had been transplanted by a stranger. As Troian Bellisario tries to master these strange vowels (and fails, which is the hardest lesson out of this – that wanting to be Tatiana Maslany can be the ruin of an entire show, that acting can measure up, but voice-lessons sometimes don’t), the show descends into its last moments of madness. It’s a good conclusion, in a way, that this whole time, a fake Truman-show version of Rosewood existed that imprisons those who set foot in it, that looks so very much like the real thing, yet isn’t quite there, and is inescapable. It’s a Dollhouse of sorts, for those who never make it out alive. Hanna and Caleb are deeply unhappy in their marriage, because Hanna is still willing to sacrifice all for Mona, and nothing, not even the child, will make up for it. Ali will always have been the girl who tortured not just Emily, but all of Rosewood High. Ezra will never not be a pathetic high school teacher who so eloquently seduced an underage girl that he is now married to her, and basing an entire career on writing about what a special little snowflake he is. Toby recognised Alex Drake as not Spencer not from making love to her, but from the lack of personal marks on Spencer’s favourite collection of poems.
There is nothing much to be said here. Seven or eight years, with the potential of being one of the most eloquent story about the horrors of patriarchy, traded away for whatever travesty this final few seasons chose to be. There are glimpses, still – glimpses that I thoroughly have to believe Marlene King was aware of, when she had Mona play with her dolls, in the end, the only person who truly got what she had always wanted.