It’s safe to say at this point that Pretty Little Liars knows exactly what it is. Even if no one watching can ever quite figure out what in the hell is happening to who and why Aria’s wearing the better half of a Californian condor, the show is confident enough in its nighttime soap identity that the big picture rarely matters. It might have been fun at one point, but trying to keep track of who’s in or out with A is an exhausting exercise that rarely yields satisfying results anymore, and so we get plenty of bewildering moments to tide us over between reveals. Everyone has perfected their wide-eyed stares, their incredulous reactions to foreboding texts, their cracking voices as they insist they can’t do this anymore. Sometimes, this means the show coasts on tropes. Other times, like tonight, it means we get to just sit back and enjoy the deliciously batshit ride.
We open on the Liars fast-talking over finger food about pretty much everything that's ever happened ever. As far as mile-a-minute info dumps go, this one is superior if only because it features Spencer “recreating the geography of the lodge” with appetizers. It also allows just enough room to poke fun at itself. Hannah reminding everyone they never saw Alison’s body is met with a collectively exasperated, “We’ve been through this!” Then Mona scurries up, and the entire mood shifts. It seems fair to say that if you don’t love how the Liars literally get up from their seats to form a skeptical line against their enemy, you probably won’t ever love this show.
The Liars get over their skepticism enough to follow Mona back into the forest so she can show them something to prove her loyalty to them over A. Character growth is an annoying trait in soap operas, so you can hardly blame them for forgetting that no one on this show escapes the forest/school/church/swimming pool/asylum without sustaining some serious internal bleeding. Before the first commercial break, a masked figure chokes Mona, throws her out of her car, and nearly runs her and the other Liars over. It’s a nifty opening scene to tense things up for the hour unless you think about it at all. Hasn’t A tried to run every Liar over? And why bother choking Mona if you're not going to go through with it? It could be a scare tactic, but it seems more like a handy way to convince the Liars that Mona's on their side right after she showed them a garage full of nothing. On the other hand, I should really know better than to think about any plotline once it’s offscreen by now.
So, onward! Emily’s still hoping to get that last spot on Stanford’s team, but that whole dodging A’s car thing bruised her shoulder so badly she can barely get through a conversation without throwing back more painkillers. Paige doesn’t notice, though, because she’s busy spending study hall making them a Sims dorm room with what Em hilariously calls, “those puffy drapes.” When the crucial swim finally happens, it’s unclear whether the show’s history of egregious poolside slow-mo is just showing off again or whether it’s signaling something more sinister…at least until Em swims her heart out straight into the wall. But hey, at least Stanford will totally remember her now. Mission accomplished?
Elsewhere, there’s Aria. She’s still just as concerned about Mona and the cops and A as usual, but in a choice that’s so perfect it has to be self-parody, her response is to go to a martial arts school and get private lessons with a vaguely sexy teacher instead. Also, she does her entire lesson in high-heeled boots. Jake (because of course his name is Jake) is handsome in a Teen Wolf kind of way and says things like, “The best way you can find out if you can trust someone is to trust.” Before he can even wonder out loud if Aria’s comfortable with “the whole teacher-student thing,” Aria makes her move and kisses him. Exactly nothing about it is surprising, which makes Aria’s role is in this show even clearer. No matter what investigative holes or conspiracy theories or mental breakdowns the others are falling into, Aria's off finding hot dudes in the most likely of places.
But while Emily and Aria are busy trying to get away from A and imploding in on themselves, Spencer and Hanna are still digging in their heels to find out the truth. Spencer’s only briefly thrown off when she doesn’t get into UPenn. She decides to only tell Ezra about it, which can’t bode well. If this were any other show, it’d be a touching moment when he offers to help her out with her essay and tells her it’s UPenn’s loss, but this is Pretty Little Liars. It’s only a matter of time until they throw yet another teenage girl at yet another authority figure with a history of liking teenage girls, so we can all look forward to that being completely terrible. But for now, there’s still Toby, who confesses to Spencer that A gave him the transcripts to his mother’s therapy sessions before she “killed herself.” And yes, scare quotes are apparently necessary, according to Toby and every “simple” “death” that’s ever “happened” on this show.
Still, it’s Hanna who gets the most substantial plotline this episode, thanks to two suspicious Rosewood mothers. Unfortunately, the first one is her own. Ashley may insist she didn’t kill Detective Walden, but Hanna isn’t so sure texting in the dark and using a toothbrush to clean her Manolos is the behavior of an innocent woman. To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as “innocent behavior” in Rosewood, but it does seem like something’s up here, so to be continued.
Without much more to go on at home, Hanna ends up focusing on Mrs. DiLaurentis. Alison’s mother is making herself busy decluttering her old house, which largely consists of puttering around the porch like a cross between Big Edie and Laura Linney’s character on The Big C. She tells Hanna a story about Alison smooth talking her way into day-drinking, wearing revealing shirts, and hosting a sleepover in their family’s Cape Cod rental. The first couple cons are a breeze, but when her mother refuses the sleepover, we see Alison do possibly the creepiest thing she’s ever done on this show. She holds her breath, and holds her breath, and holds her breath until she goes completely white. Not even a spilled glass can stop her. So when her mother finally gives in, Alison exhales slowly, sits back in her seat, and smirks. It’s disturbing, it’s horrifying, and let’s be real —it’s perfect. Screw your horror movie villains; Alison DiLaurentis is a sociopathic work of art.
On any other show, this would all be more than enough to fill half a season’s worth of content. But this one wants to make sure you’re paying attention, and so it has Hanna steal her dead best friend’s talking parrot Tibbit for clues.
One more time: Hanna steals her dead best friend’s talking parrot Tibbit for clues. And if that weren’t enough, this actually works. Spencer realizes the parrot is singing a phone number, which is...PERFECT. Inevitably, all roads that point to A point to cell phones.
The real kick, though, comes with the end credits. A’s gloved hands come into frame, hovering over an ornate table setting with a knife. It’s clear next thing coming is the charred carcass of a bird; it is not clear that this carcass is about to be fed to Tibbit, still singing his dialtone song. It all looks like it came from a fever dream, and who knows; maybe it did. But the thing about Pretty Little Liars is that when it’s good, it is a fever dream. It’s at its most fun when it breezes past the big picture, gets lost in its own illusions, and lets a talking parrot steal the spotlight.
- Never fear: Joe Reid will be back next week to make up for my lack of Mona talk, and also, the fact that I haven’t seen an episode of Pretty Little Liars since I last reviewed the show. Surprise!!
- BUT I will say that saying, “screw it” and going along for the ride without getting caught up in the details made watching the show a hell of a lot more fun. Thoughts? Questions? Indignant comments? I’ll take ‘em all!
- “I kissed him.” “Who?” “My instructor.” “Why?” Spencer’s flat disinterest/disdain is just the greatest.
- On a related note: can the spinoff just be a weekly loop of Spencer warily cocking her eyebrow?
- Hanna was on point this week: “She’s interviewing for a new internship.” “With who, Satan?” “The last book I finished was ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’”
- “For those of you who are ahead and fans of doomed romance…” -Ezra the high school teacher, to a classroom including his teenage ex. Cool guy.
- There’s something really lovely about a nighttime soap that includes the following exchange: “We'll talk about this later.” “WILL WE?!” [Smash to black]
- “Where are you on a Saturday morning at 10 o’clock?” -Hanna, strutting to her car in leather pants on a Saturday morning at 10 o’clock.