I remember when I was lost for words writing about the “Gossip Girl” series finale, a long time ago, I came across a random quote on Tumblr that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the things I had been wanting to say, and been saying, for all those years. Wayne Chase, a songwriting teacher, once said: “If a work of art reaches you emotionally, it teaches you something about survival. You may not be able to put it into words, but you remember it.”
Metaphorically, it struck the right note as far as learning to love the parts of yourself that you need to make peace with, instead of putting them off on other people; more concretely, it was a little bit of a joke about the “Gossip Girl” universe, which occupied slightly less of Maslow’s Pyramid than “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But applied to “Pretty Little Liars,” it’s both.
As vicious as the stakes on the show have become, starting with the Dollhouse and increasingly since, the show has never lost that ineffable, nonverbal, weirdly emotional effect that makes it such an enduring story: It is a story about these five or six girls, but it is also about the five or six people we have to be in order to survive.
Marco Sparks and Benji Light invited Heather Hogan and myself recently to their Bros Watch PLL, Too podcast, and we spoke about the aspects of the show that most intensely sell the five-year jump. When trying to buy the concept that the Liars’ lives really have changed as they’ve matured, we agreed the romance between Spencer (Troian Bellisario) and Caleb (Tyler Blackburn) was the show’s most legitimate, confirming that grown-up-feeling vibe more than even the complex stylistic changes to each of the Liars’ looks.
I would add now, heading into tonight’s summer finale, that Emily’s (Shay Mitchell) life complications have added up to a similar effect, if a bit more slowly: For all the passion and obsession we recall about her many loves, it’s also perfectly Emily that she, and all her exes, would be the most adult about it moving forward. Her heartbreaks, like Spencer’s, have always been effective because they come from such maturity, and to see her with a life otherwise in disarray — no Pam on the rudder, lately — and still approach those she loves with such maturity and compassion is one of the most solid things we have to hang onto.
And speaking of adults: Miss Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), who has always had the toughest row to hoe when it comes to things like respectable choices, because she presents herself as so logical even as she’s got feathers all over herself and an aged stalker-fiance, with his own ghosts trailing behind. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the “antagonists” we’re meant to expect tonight — Jenna Thing (Tammin Sursok) and the always-welcome Noel Kahn (Brant Daugherty) — are two of the most powerful, evocative presences from the show’s early years, nor that they both have memorable one-on-one scenes with Aria, bonding over art.
She’s always been more “Beauty & The Beast” than she would be flattered to realize, and having come back from the five-year jump such a powerful and confident woman gives her more than enough ammo to finally see herself through to the end of that story: She may not be having a singalong with Noel, or making tear-stained pottery with Jenna, but somewhere along the way she figured out how to be a person who can stand on her own feet: Rosewood’s most enduring superpower and redemption, always.
But then too we have Hanna (Ashley Benson), always the first to break — and the first to rise from the ashes! — pushed to the brink by her kidnapping, by this second brush with real trauma. When Aria was having her Dollhouse flashbacks, it felt like synecdoche for everybody’s experience, if lensed through her particular concerns. It would naturally affect Aria more than Spencer, to be in the position of torturing her friends, just as it would affect Spencer the most to believe that she had once again blacked out and possibly murdered someone.
But by isolating Hanna with this latest humiliation and abuse, the show buys her increasingly erratic (not to say Spencer-like) behavior and the finale’s revenge setup: Whatever the past five years’ romantic triangles didn’t take away from her, this retributive horror has accomplished, setting in stone her role for the remainder of the series: While Emily’s body is regularly invaded by A, from massages to pain cream to glass in her hair, it’s invariably Hanna who gets hit by the car.
Even when Hanna’s storyline was the extreme dissociation of personality that came from the combination of Caleb’s darker return from Ravenswood and Allison’s (Sasha Pieterse) mirror doubling, it’s always been a question of finding the actual Hanna among all the broken pieces of leftover versions of Hanna — it makes sense that in a season all about recovery from trauma, and the false starts to which we all are subject, she would be the first to really crack.
Because the deepest result of the five-year jump is trauma plus time. In the first seasons of the show, calamities befell the Liars with such immediacy and regularity it took a dead Toby (Keegan Allen), a dead Shana (Aeriel Miranda) and a Dollhouse to slow things down enough for them to go into shock: Outside factors replaced the natural pause that life gives us to pull it together.
But in these latter years, we see the echoes and the rips and the scars of not just the latest monstrosity but all the ones that came before. That, to me, is what defines the Liars’ adulthood, and for a lot of us, adulthood period: Getting enough distance from a bad thing to recognize it as a bad thing, integrate it, fall back on our rears or into old patterns, and eventually move on.
So much of the melancholy of this new world is located not in the stylized, arid loneliness of the show’s old style, but in the very real sense of childhood lost, innocence destroyed, peace achieved and snatched away again. It’s why Jenna and Noel had to reappear, now, more like people and less like demons in a seance than ever before: Just like high school feels smaller if you ever go back to visit, Jenna and Noel are both — like CeCe (Vanessa Ray), and Alison, and Melissa (Torrey DeVitto) before them — both more like human people than they ever have been. Should you miss the uncanny, of course, we still have Mary Drake (Andrea Parker) — and if we’re very well-behaved, maybe even the occasional Grunwald (Meg Foster).
But too, I think it’s important to consider why we’re meeting these particular faces, now. I would suggest that Jenna and Noel represent two of the most terrible feelings we have: Consider Jenna as Guilt, which we can imprecisely call feeling bad for things you did, and Noel has always been Shame, feeling bad for things you did not do. Feeling bad, hating yourself for what you are, because it suits someone else — dad, Rosewood, America, humanity — to keep you small.
CeCe’s worst moments were about shame, and her greatest in redemption of her guilt. Jenna and Sara (Dre Davis), as a duo, were about the awful repulsive power of helplessness, of being sucked back in, of those old feelings of creeper danger out in the woods. But Noel and Jenna are altogether a simpler reckoning, and it’s one the Liars absolutely need to stay human.
If you say the high school years were a parable about what childhood is like for all of us — physical danger lurking out in the dark, the possible predator behind every man’s face, the millions of masks we wear over our own — and these latter days are just as painful and accurate a representation of exactly what’s at stake when we grow up:
Down inside you is every single person you’ve ever had to be, over the years: Little child, shocked by indecency and inhumanity and unfairness; angry kid, learning when and where to push on the world’s bruises to get results; horny teen, ashamed and triumphant and ugly and proud. It can be awfully difficult to know who’s got the mic, a lot of the time. The moments we feel like we’re being the most rational can, on reflection, turn out to be the time we were acting the nuttiest.
But being an adult is almost entirely about learning to mediate those voices, rather than shutting them down where they can get you — and, as usual: Hanna’s the first responder. But Aria is getting Mona (Janel Parrish) strong, Ali’s so over it she doesn’t know half of what she knows, and Spencer and Emily have the wisdom to just want this whole thing over. Even if everybody doesn’t make it to the end, they’ll have done more than provide mere hints and lifehacks for survival. They will have taught us exactly how you’re meant to go on.
How to pull yourself out of the wreckage — from the things you did, and the things you didn’t do — and make it back home again.