For example, there's Toby laying his judgements on Alison. Now that his girlfriend and her friends are safe, Toby chooses to believe that Ali is the same girl she was before: the girl who died but never truly left. The girl who was under every stone anybody turned over. The queen bee that collected traits in friends like dolls and made people into something they weren't before (but maybe made them better in the process). The girl who once blinded his controlling and abusive stepsister (and whom he later thanked for allowing him to be "free at last"). The girl whose own legend was so tenacious that it refused to stay dead. The girl who was notorious and infamous and loved and hated everywhere she went. The girl who didn't go into the Dollhouse, but instead went into the Big House. The lightning rod for trouble. And the girl that Toby turned to when he and the other Significant Others needed help rescuing the Liars.
But instead of pondering the idea of her being the girl who walked through all of that and came out different on the other side, Toby chooses to believe that she's the girl she was before. Because it's convenient, or because it's easy. But the saddest part is that partly because of Toby's judgement of her, Alison now has to view herself that way.
Which has to remind us of the OG Alison herself, Sara Harvey. She's a mystery to everyone, including herself — and a walking wounded. Once upon a time, she ran away from home because something was so wrong that she couldn't pretend it was right anymore, and along the way someone bonked her over the head and she woke up in hell. She's the one who went through the real-life version of the story that Alison told the cops last season, and she's what it looks like to walk out of that place. At home, she finds that her mother preferred the version of the story where she was dead and gone, and in the news she reads that she's "feral," so what's a girl to really think of herself?
That kind of confusion is hard to wash off, no matter how many showers you take.
And it'll be interesting to watch the relationship between Emily and Sara progress, as Sara is a kind of version of Alison, but a version that may actually need Emily.
These story lines aren't surprising, because PLL has always been good about dealing with issues of identity, in both how we see ourselves and what the world tells us to be. From the Liars trying to figure out who they are in a world without Alison all the way to Spencer's effacement after being betrayed by her boyfriend and safe place to land, Toby, to even Hanna last season when she had to confront the idea that she was just another version of Alison, as if she was molded in clay by Mona.
That's why it's fitting that it's Hanna who takes all the first steps to having the group come back together as a unit, first by trying to unite everyone back at school, to walk back in with their heads held high in the face of any and all judgement in the halls of Rosewood High, and then by speaking to Dr. Sullivan. And when those attempts at reconciliation ultimately fail, she forces them to finally start speaking to each other about what really happened.
From this discussion, it's both a relief and even more insidious that we learn that no one was actually shocked in the torture sessions in the Dollhouse, and that Charles really studied the Milgram experiments and only made the Liars think that they tortured themselves. He made them attack one another, to tear at their own bond, and then made them carry that shame with them afterward.
As discussed last week, there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women. So, it was especially interesting that in the last episode, the Liars crawled out of the wreckage of the Dollhouse, where they were trapped and tormented in simulacra of their own rooms, and found themselves right back in their own actual rooms. The formerly familiar suddenly turned unfamiliar, and all of them having to work their way through a different kind of guilt and trauma.
Charles didn't need to hurt the girls physically — just bind them in isolation and crush their spirits. Villains these days don't need to tie girls to train tracks, not when they can do something potentially even worse: steal your power from you.
"Other towns have nice toxic dumps. Rosewood has you." And with that, we find out that whatever it may actually stand for, A definitely does not stand for Andrew. He wants to twist the knife: All of his misfortunes are because he trusted the Liars, he says. Because he didn't see them the way the rest of the world did, he says. But did he really want to help them, or did he just want to be seen as the hero? As if they're the cause of his problems, but that doesn't really matter, does it? Not when someone else can be diminished to make yourself feel better.
And then there's the DiLaurentis family in their haunted house that never really was a happy home. The house where everyone lies and Jason's dad isn't even his real dad and Alison's mom tried to bury her daughter alive and the only time she makes appearances now is in home movies that only play in an evil mastermind's Soul room and the occasional creepy haunting at Christmas. The closest thing Jason and Ali ever had to bonding before was when he bought her a few seconds for her to go on the run from the cops after he failed to back her alibi, and now they have a chance to really come together. Jason had told her before that he always felt that something was missing from their family, and he assumed it was himself, but now there's the chance that it was a whole other person that they didn't even know existed.
I personally found the last shot of the episode riveting: Kenneth DiLaurentis comes home to his children, who refuse to be placated by another lie or obfuscation. And as he sits down to possibly tell them the truth, there's A or Charles or whoever it is under that black hoodie, just watching from outside the window. Staring in at a life that they were possibly denied. Leaving us to ponder the pain and anguish that could lead to all this rage and sadism, to someone wanting to play this game.
Earlier in this, I was going to make a joke about Charles being smart enough to try to tear the Liars apart rather than kill them, that it was better to turn the Liars' strengths into weaknesses. Almost as if he watched the show himself, just like the rest of us. But in a way, that's true.
That's the meta answer to everything on this show: A is always watching, always listening. A nudges and tweaks and prods along every event that happens in the Liars' lives. A sends evil, complicated Snapchats while holding knives over the forms of sleeping girls. A can make you break up with your boyfriend, or make sure that your boyfriend's mom gets in a car accident on the other side of the country or even make you think that you tortured your best friend. A is the character who feels like they're missing from the story, and is going to write themselves back in, even if it's not a happy ending.
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