The most recent episode of Pretty Little Liars?, “She’s No Angel,” kicks off with Spencer walking down what looks like a hallway in a post-apocalyptic sewer in someplace cheery, you know, like Ravenswood. But no, this is a dream! Spencer is just strolling through her Mind Palace, in the section that spills over from the dollhouse and dumps you right out into Radley. Of course!
Spencer then sees what at first looks like an apparition in a dirty and frayed nightgown, which leads her into another room, a tiled bathhouse there in Radley. This creepy specter, played by 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler, the dancing phenomenon from Dance Moms and a few Sia music videos (including the one with Shia LaBeouf that gained some controversy) begins to act out a monologue via an interpretative dance routine as a freaked out Spencer watches, enraptured.
Later in the episode, Aria will sum up what we’re about to see in the pre-title credits sequence perfectly: “It’s this new thing I’m trying… Embracing the creepy.” Amen.
Ziegler’s dance routine, choreographed by Travis Wall, is over in a matter of minutes, but it left me wondering: Is this the entire #SummerOfAnswers encapsulated in one frenzied burst of movement?
The moment is obviously related to the trauma Spencer is specifically dealing with while coming out of the dollhouse, especially the moments we saw in a flashback in last week’s episode, where she woke up with blood all over her and her fake room, but with no memories of what might have transpired or how she might have been involved in who knows what kind of horrific incident. As the ghost danced, we saw more flashes of that scene on-screen and saw Spencer recoiling from those recollections and their resonance for her. Within seances, we’re moving from the fringes of the supernatural to the haunted corridors of Spencer’s mind.
You can’t help but look at the scene in this episode and think back on a previous Spencer hallucination set in Radley: Toward the end of Season 3, when she imagined finding Alison there in the mental asylum late at night (during a time when it was believed that Alison was dead), and she imagined conversing with her dead friend and then sharing a slow dance with her. The imagined Alison said something about the sixth grade to the sleep-deprived Spencer, who responded with, “I didn’t even know you back then.” And Alison, with that sly smile that suggests it knows more than it lets on, counters with, “Oh, honey, you didn’t even know me back when you knew me.”
That particular moment is important to remember, especially since Spencer will describe this figure in her dream as reminding her of a young Alison.
A young Alison, or a young Charles, in some form? Or a metaphorical interpretation of Spencer herself? The always curious and compulsive mind of Spencer Hastings, always relentless and always prey to her own addictive personality. (We find out in this episode that Spencer is dealing with her sexual frustrations by sexting with Toby while he’s away, and it’s up to you if solving mysteries is a better or worse solution for that.)
At times, the figure played by Ziegler seems to be clutching her sides in pain. Then she’ll pirouette into a twisted kind of ballet. She emits sounds that could either be an old chair squeaking or a chicken squawking — and is effectively unnerving. She bounces from area to area, contorting into positions, acting out some kind of pain. Even for a show that once did a whole film noir fugue state hallucination episode, this is a weird structural choice, both daring and experimental, and something only capable with a loyal audience who appreciates how PLL builds on its own story and references.
When Ziegler begins walking over a covered tub, Spencer gasps, as if sensing imminent danger. Later, the sequence ends with the ghost disappearing into a corner of the room, but not before Spencer finds something: The worn slippers of one “C. DiLaurentis,” former patient of the Radley Sanitarium. Is this Spencer’s way of making sense of the mysterious backstory of Charles as she continues to process her own trauma with the help of drugs, or is this her subconscious suggesting that she knows more than she realizes?
Later in the episode, we’ll see a picture of someone who looks like the dancing poltergeist, suggesting that’s where Spencer’s mind pulled the image from, as if her subconscious is leaving her breadcrumbs to something; but we don’t get any definitive answers as to what the sequence means. The show’s always been good at using the subjective and confusing nature of memories to convey how the characters struggle with their own enigmatic psychological states and stabs at defining their identities.
At one point, Mona tells Spencer, “I think that everyone that was trapped in that place escaped,” and they’re referring to the dollhouse, but it could just as easily stand in for Radley — or even the Liars’ own traumatized minds.