“And now we know what happens to bad little girls,” Sara Harvey says to Emily in the hospital, two strangers, both trying to come to terms with a hell they’ve endured, a place they escaped, but maybe not truly. Perhaps it’s like the old saying: The only thing you take with you is what you leave behind.
The Liars have escaped Charles’ dollhouse, where all of the worst attitudes about women in our society were compressed into one simulacrum. The Liars weren’t just playing dress-up and having tea parties in the physical embodiment of A’s soul, but were literal dolls to be played with by an unseen demented child, the same way the world exerts the control we try to force upon women. Not just of their bodies and minds, but of their souls and their narratives. The societal evils that created the King in Yellow in True Detective last year also fuel a lot of the nastiness prevalent in PLL.
In that regard, everywhere we go is basically another street in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, and everyone might as well be A. The A doesn’t just stand for “Anonymous,” it also stands for Audience. And it’s hard to think of anything as freedom when you’re just trading one dollhouse for another.
Is Andrew a red herring? Probably. But the evidence against him includes a manifesto attacking our Pretty Little Liars for their being a representation of the feminization of society. Maybe this really is from the mind of Andrew Campbell, but if it’s false-planted evidence, then what’s sad is that A knew it would play.
(At least we have Aria’s “Stop Men!” dress.)
Maybe fans will remember Taylor Swift quoting Katie Couric quoting the Starbucks coffee cup quoting Madeleine Albright: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” The line was hovering in the back of my brain during this episode as we saw the Liars processing the dollhouse trauma, and flashing back to something horrifyingly reminiscent to the Milgram experiments.
When the Liars made that decision to go back underground into the converted missile silo in “Game On, Charles,” they knew they’d survive because they had each other. So, of course, that was the very first thing A took from them.
It’s an especially insidious villain who turns everything you rely on as familiar into the unfamiliar and leaves you to rot in that cognitive dissonance.
And it’s funny because all of this ontological terrorism that these girls suffer though it’s continuously referred to as just a game. The “game” was something that was stolen from Mona when she was in Radley. The opening gambit of the endgame was staged in last week’s premiere, and I. Marlene King has already let us know that the 6A finale will be called, “Game Over, Charles.”
One of the things that made this episode so incredibly special was how real it felt. And the fact that, other than Alison’s brief attempt to get something resembling an actual answer from her father, this was the episode that didn’t focus on the mystery. This was an episode about processing, about dealing. This is about stepping out of the long dark night of the soul into the harsh light and remembering that your shadow will follow you everywhere you go.
And all the Liars handle this trauma differently. For Emily, it’s embodied by her father, and the idea of literally arming oneself. The idea of protection and physical release that a gun can offer. For Hanna, it’s about breaking down the physical space that is her childhood bedroom, which was tainted and warped in its dollhouse facsimile. For Aria, it’s about repression and the easy distances either offered by her camera or elapsed by lies. And for Spencer, it’s about avoiding the mystery. I found this especially interesting because if there’s one thing Spencer Hastings does almost as well as her Can’t Stop Won’t Stop sleuthing, it’s deconstructing her own weary mythos.
You especially had to love that the show referenced her addictive personality. But, for Spencer, it’s not just about scratching an itch or filling a hole within herself, it’s equally just about getting some rest and a break from the pressures of being herself.
And as the Liars go through their different coping methods to deal with their PTSD and wounds that can’t be seen, we’re treated to not just some of the finest acting the show has ever given us, but brilliant writing and direction. Joseph Dougherty, responsible for the gorgeous noir-infused jaunt through Spencer’s subconscious in “Shadow Play,” has probably written his most ambitious and daring script yet.
And Norman Buckley, who’s directed more episodes of the show than anyone else yet, has long celebrated not just PLL‘s influences, but its deeper messages under the surface. Buckley has said the works of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni were one of the primary references for this doubleheader of episodes, and it works. The negative space on-screen powerfully suggests just how far the Liars are from everyone else in their world, even when mere inches away.
Plus, the references to William Blake in this episode’s title and next week’s “Songs of Experience” are no accident. Blake’s poems dealt with the notion of paradise lost when we move from innocence toward experience and how one makes peace with that new world. This is the tale of little girls who lose the protection of a naive world they thought they knew but find themselves making peace with their own nature as well as the environment around them.
In the end, there’s hope that our Liars are moving back together, repairing their bond and perhaps finding even more glimpses of their future selves seeded there. Maybe this episode was a breather — even if it was a long, deep breath — before resuming the quest to get to the bottom of the mystery of Charles DiLaurentis.
The final shots of this episode reminded us that Andrew is still out there, with things to say, with a whole other narrative, even when in police custody. And those missing photos Alison found in the DiLaurentis family photo album are just more missing pieces in an already complex puzzle. Like the broken shards of glass in the promotional campaign for the show, this season can represent the state of the Liars post-dollhouse. It’s also easy to see those pieces being assembled into something stronger, like the Liars themselves, or the clearer picture of what’s going on in this compelling and crazy world they live in. It’s getting warmer and warmer in the Summer of Answers after all.
Maybe next week, we’ll be back to pondering theories and ships and OTPs (I don’t even know what this new burgeoning relationship between Alison and Toby’s partner, Lorenzo, who’s suspiciously “new-ish” in town, could be called… Lorison? Alirenzo?), but it’ll be in a whole new landscape. No more whistling past the graveyard here.