The show returned for its sixth season with no time wasted, picking up right where we last left our favorite Liars as they were trying to break out of the freshly named Charles and his dollhouse.
In fact, the show picks up moments before where we last left the ladies, with a kinetic pace not dissimilar to a season finale of Lost. Instead of the Dharma Initiative and Henry Ian Cusick's Desmond and Mama Cass, we get Sara Harvey for the first time (played by Dre Davis on the show, but previously shown as a stock photograph model), and the return of "Don't Fence Me In" and Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight."
The Liars escape out of the dollhouse, but are stranded just beyond its bunker door, trapped by the threat of 10,000 volts that are waiting for them should they try to breach the fence there. After suffering for a time in the heat and the cold, with no food and no water, there's some dialogue that is so wonderfully silly and gruesome from Hanna and Emily about which bodily fluids they'd be willing to consume just to survive. For Hanna, it's a pee ice cube, and for Emily, the sweat from a jockstrap. And as they said that, there I was giggling as I flashed back in my mind to Aria screaming to Emily about the accident she had in her pants when A kidnapped them from their prison transport van at the end of last season.
But then Charles reopens the gates to his personal underworld and the Liars eventually decide to take the chance on enduring that psychological torture again rather than die outside — much like us viewers. Not long after the Liars descend back into this fresh, nostalgic hell, they end up waking up from the dead. Literally, they find themselves naked, under sheets, on metal slabs in what appears to be Charles' makeshift morgue in the dollhouse because, of course.
There's not much time to enjoy their metaphorical rebirth because they're greeted by Mona, forced to play Ali again, complete with Ali's candy-striper outfit from Season 1. You have to love how much fun the show is having celebrating its own mythology here, digging under its own skin and bringing things back, twisted and remixed. Mona tries to tap into some of the Liars' unified strength and gets defiant with A, even after she's warned the others that that kind of rebellion gets you thrown in "the hole." And sure enough, that's where Mona ends up, in a Silence of the Lambs-like pit in a bunker under the ground.
The Liars are then consigned to their own pits, their faux rooms there in the dollhouse. We don't know what horrors lie beyond those doors for each of the girls, but we do certainly hear their offscreen screams of terror as they're greeted by those "surprises." The doors scream, we hear Spencer plead, "No!" and the Liars are locked away from us by a title card that reads, "Three weeks later." This is chillingly effective.
We see the Liars emerge all those weeks later, and for the most part, they're dressed like approximations of who they used to be. Spencer's back in preppy argyle, Emily's back in swim team jumpsuits, Aria's dressed like Harley Quinn again and the pink streaks in her hair are back. And I think this will be key: We're told again and again that A has a soul because of the twisted remnants of nostalgia he keeps there in the dollhouse and seems to fetishize, presumably because that's where he's trapped, in a way. And now he's forcing the Liars to be who he sees them as, who they once were. And they definitely look changed from their experiences there, and unable to deal with the effect it'll have on them, and afraid to put it into words.
In this episode, we see a new side to Alison, the one who acknowledges how important her friends are to her and puts herself on the line to try to save them. This includes working with the Hardy Bros, Caleb and Ezra, to fool the cops while Alison basically volunteers herself to be kidnapped by A and taken back to his pretty little lair. This whole sequence was wonderful in how it paid lip service to so many wonderful clichés from movies, from "The call is coming from inside the house!" right up to Caleb giving Alison fancy new footwear with a tracking device in it. This is another great sequence that goes from the Kissing Rock to another evil GPS navigation system in a car to Alison acting out her own horror movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night Through the Dark and Forbidden Woods, while in the infamous yellow top.
You know, the one from that night. That night from the pilot in which Alison drugged her friends and confronted pretty much every other character on the show to either threaten or be threatened by. She was then clobbered over the back of the head and buried alive by her own mother, just to crawl out of that grave and be helped by the psychic lady from PLL's spin-off and Nerdy Mona, and then begin her life on the run with the rest of the world thinking she's dead. I feel like not only is that important, it's also the show enjoying how naughty and enjoyable its villain is with all this self-referencing.
A has the Liars unpacking some of Ali's old things, which alerts the girls to the fact that Alison's arrival is imminent. After some examining some of the crimes Alison has committed upon the world, like calling Lucas "hermy" and, you know, the blinding Jenna thing, the Liars decide that enough is enough. It's time to break out. No more existential terror, no more of this dollhouse and no more being somebody's plaything, whether it be Charles or Alison.
Under the faithful guidance of Spencer, the Liars break their way back into Charles' "soul room," where they again find that old home movie with the now dearly departed Mrs. D and what appears to be baby Ali and two blond boys, presumably little Jason and little Charles. You see, Spencer found a toy mixed in with Alison's stuff earlier, one that had the initials "C.D." on it, and Spencer has worked out those anagrams found under Mona's hand mirror from last season so that she can inform her friends, "Charles is a DiLaurentis."
They know Charles is watching them, and has them trapped, but they're resolute. They're sold on the idea that he has a soul, and that it is physically embodied in the stuff he's collected in this room, from baby pictures to a crib to an old popcorn machine. It's the simulacra of a life that should've gone out to a garage sale. The girls have been tortured by Charles for almost a month now, with seemingly some dark part of themselves reflected back at them, and they're going to bargain for their freedom in true Pretty Little Liars style: They're going to light it on fire and let it all burn. Starting with, Spencer decides, those old home movies of Charles' that she purposely let heat into a blaze in the projector. I could not love Spencer more than when she does this. This is PLL's answer, possibly, to the carousel scene from Mad Men, I hope. Mona played with dolls when she was A, Charles plays with body parts and his victims' psyches and Aria, Spencer, Hanna and Emily play with fire.
The timing works out for the Liars because as they're torching the trinkets in the soul room while A (who briefly literally becomes the Man Behind the Curtain) watches, Alison approaches. And now Charles has an impossible dilemma: save his possessions, or capture what is possibly his most sought-after possession, which is Alison.
The Liars have escaped the dollhouse, but what shape are they in, body and soul? Sara Harvey is alive and free. Who, not what, is Charles and how does he fit in with the rest of the DiLaurentis clan? What is going on with Andrew? Is the Rear Window Brew still open while Ezra is growing stubble and hanging out with teenagers? And will our Pretty Little Liars still be able to attend a real prom and graduate before the long-promised time jump?
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