Pretty Little Liars returns tonight in the second half of its third season. It has been one of my many guilty pleasures since the show began, so I find myself somewhat invested in the ever-growing clique of characters whose lives exist in a universe where stalking and bullying is taken to a whole new level, and where teenagers have more criminal insight than the town’s detectives. But it’s normally a fun ride if you take it for what it is—a murder-mystery fashion show.
For a première, though, this felt a lot like filler. The liars have been turned left, then right, then left again so many times that it’s hard to determine exactly what they are even after anymore. The show is still operating under the assumption that the whole point of the girls running around playing Nancy Drew is to ultimately find who killed their friend Alison, and that the killer is the same person who is bullying/blackmailing/occasionally trying to murder them—the ever-elusive A. But as the body count rises, it’s easy to lose track of who is after whom and what code the four are trying to crack. We’ve known for a while that there is an entire A team who are all after the girls and who apparently kill people in their way (Alison, Ian, Garrett, not Maya). And with the summer finale’s revelation that Maya’s murderer had nothing to do with A, and he was after Emily just because, questions are raised regarding what is actually an A threat, and what is “normal” high-school drama.
This is where problems begin to arise. By throwing more and more wrenches into the original plot, the show develops ADD, introducing characters who are originally posed as A threats, only to be revealed as B-storylines that don’t move the actual mystery forward at all. This has taken form before as bitchy girls coming in to destroy one of the liars for flimsy reasons. Remember Hannah’s evil stepsister who was in, like, four episodes and then disappeared? She tortured Hannah for a minute, the liars set her straight with their wit and can-do attitude, and then she was gone. This is the formula for all characters that exist outside of the close-knit circle: After failed attempts to humiliate or hurt one of the liars, they are chased out of Rosewood in the next scene. So with the return of Aria’s father’s former mistress, Meredith, as the new American-history teacher, I find it hard to believe that anything more will actually materialize after she almost burned to death in tonight’s episode.
But let’s back up. This episode focused on three main revelations that supposedly will drive the first part of this season: Mona is back in school; Aria’s dad is now acting shifty re: Alison; and, most importantly, Toby is on the A team. Mona coming back to school feels a lot like moving backward, the only change being the girls now know how twisted she is and thus are slightly more cautious around her. But from the summer finale, we know that she’s still exhibiting A-like behavior. As Spencer nonchalantly mentioned, Jenna has transferred schools, so Mona is now filling in as the A presence at Rosewood High. Obviously she’s not to be trusted, as made clear by some random fire she and Jason apparently started to burn Meredith (one that was reminiscent of the first fire of the series that blinded Jenna and that was the original thought-to-be motivation for Alison’s death). What’s unclear is if her motivation was to frame the liars, or to, as she put it, “be worthy” of being their friend.
Aria’s father, Byron, is the latest to look guilty in Alison’s murder, the second liar’s father to be suspect after Spencer’s dad. He’s yet another person whose life Alison made miserable, this time through blackmailing with information about his affair the week before she was murdered. The problem is that so many characters have been thought to be involved with Alison’s death that at this point, it’s hard to believe that this theory is going to be the real thing. The case against Byron seems weak, even if he is kind of a jerk. But, despite years now of being bullied and misled, the liars remain fairly gullible, and they are going to pursue this angle for at least a little bit.
None of this has changed the tone of the show more than the Toby revelation. The turns this character has made feel reckless on the show’s behalf—first he was the main murder suspect, then he was the all-American boyfriend, and now he’s been the tormenter all along? Of course, this can go one of two ways: Either he is involved with A as some sort of double agent and is really doing it all to protect his girlfriend, Spencer, and her friends; or he really is on the A team and is trying to kill his girlfriend and her friends. Either way, there is a very different air about Toby now. He seems more annoyed with Spencer, quicker to brush off any A talk, and less concerned about the possibility of someone spying on the two of them while they’re in the hot tub. And unlike Caleb, who is always the first to come to Hanna’s aid, or Fitz, who seems blissful in his ignorance and self-involvement, Toby is now somewhat detached from Spencer. It’s only a matter of episodes before this blows up and poor Spence is left to pick up the pieces, and after everything the two of them have been through trying to be together, it’s too bad this relationship is now most likely set up for failure.
In the meantime, this was not a very A-heavy episode. The only actual A action we got came in an “It’s A Boy” gift basket outside of Fitz’s apartment. The baby-daddy storyline has become one of the most obvious secrets the girls have now, since all their other skeletons are either exposed or long forgotten. Also, no texts! The little ping of receiving text messages and the following threats was one of the best motifs of the show, and also plays well into what underlies all the drama—serious high-school bullying. It seems unlikely the writers can withhold A for long, so hopefully we’ll make a move from the frivolous exterior drama and onto some good old-fashioned theAtrics.
The theme that rises above all this nonsense and betrayal is that the only people the girls can truly trust are each other. It would be interesting for this to explode and suspicions arise about one another, leading the audience unsure of whom to trust, and I almost hope all of this will end with a reveal that one of the liars has been involved with A all along. I doubt that, though, because if Pretty Little Liars has taught us anything, it’s that you can trust your high-school girlfriends above anyone else. Right?
- I feel badly for Lucas. Between being what looks like some kind of A puppet and remaining hopelessly in love with Hanna, that poor kid can’t catch a break. Also, it’s pretty obvious that he was the person Toby was trying to run over at the beginning of the episode.
- So Jenna transferred schools. That was abrupt.
- I don’t know where Hanna’s mom has gone or why her grandma is there, but I love it! “Why is your grandma singing in the national anthem?” “Because she can.”
- With Jason, who looks to be at least 25, showing interest in Mona, I’m just going to say it: The amount of men going after high-school girls in this show is as creepy as a hooded figure lurking in the shadows.
- Ugh, Harold, the Lost Woods Resort clerk/Rosewood High janitor. You are creepy and it is improbable that you now work at this high school.