Something occurred to me halfway through tonight’s stellar episode of Pretty Little Liars: Like Veronica Mars before it, this show has always been a modern day noir masquerading as a teen drama. Funnily enough, it took a literal journey into the genre to make me realize it. Like those crime dramas of the 1940s, PLL is sexy, cynical, and dangerous. It’s full of morally ambiguous characters who lie to protect themselves and each other, and it focuses on style and glamour (and shiny hair) as much as it does on its central mysteries. As in many a noir, the plot plays second fiddle to the real focus: atmosphere, character relationships, and bold fashion choices. It should be no surprise then that when the show decides to lovingly recreate the film noir aesthetic while doubling-down on the character work, it culminates in one of the best episodes of Pretty Little Liars ever.
“Shadow Play” is equal parts bizarre and fabulous—a distillation of everything that makes the show work transposed into another, slightly more glamorous era. Before diving into the noir goodness, the episode starts off as a fairly normal PLL romp: Looking for evidence to prove Spencer’s theory that Ezra is A (#EzrA), the girls sneak into his classroom and find Ali’s diary—the one that was stolen from them—in his desk. Despite popping Adderall like Tic Tacs, Spencer stalls out on her investigation from there. Too tired to properly put the clues together, her drug-addled brain creates an elaborate fantasy world to help her realize what she already knows: Ali’s journal has been tampered with, and she has the photo evidence to prove it. As Spencer flips through the diary for the umpteenth time—with a noir playing in the background—she takes one more pill and suddenly she’s in a black-and-white incarnation of Rosewood that just happens to exist in the 1940s.
And man oh man does this turn into one hell of a fun episode. Highlights include: Hanna works as a switchboard operator and bosses around some girl named Mabel! Emily and Paige manage their secret (and illicit) relationship in the rigid 1940s! Ali is a nightclub dancer! Toby is a weird half private detective/half physical manifestation of Spencer’s subconscious who inexplicably gets his own subplot with Ezra! I was genuinely scared Spencer’s hand was going to get mangled by a garbage disposal! Not to mention everyone looks simply stunning in their period clothes. Aria’s pinstriped dress and Spencer’s gorgeous silk dressing gown are particular highlights, although Mona also gets points for rocking a gold lamé dress and a giant fur coat.
“Shadow Play” was clearly a passion project for writer/director Joseph Dougherty, and it shows. The noir aesthetic is brought to life in everything from the set design to the Raymond-Chandler-inspired dialogue (“You’re spread so thin I can see right through you”) to the beautiful lighting—all dimly lit coffee shops and chiaroscuro. The score leans heavily on the strings; figures are silhouetted against smoky backgrounds; Dutch angles make the world feel askew; the streets seem permanently wet; telephone rings are piercing; Mona’s face is reflected in a dozen mirrors; and suddenly Rosewood is full of fire escapes. There’s no wink-wink-nudge-nudge camp and the episode isn’t just checking off noir boxes—it’s reveling in the chance to use that visual language to tell the story of its four central characters.
And while I’ve admitted I don’t care about the plot of Pretty Little Liars, I do care about the characters, and this episode does well by all of them. So although it’s a bit tangential to explore a version of Emily and Paige’s relationship that takes place in the ’40s, their subplot helps get at an emotional truth for the 21st century version of the couple as well. The world may be more accepting of same-sex relationships today than it was in the past, but modern day Emily and Paige nevertheless have a hard path to walk in a still-prejudiced world. It’s nice to see the show explore that difficulty before allowing the girls to reaffirm their love in a make-out scene that’s equal parts sweet and sexy.
Really, however, all of the character development this week belongs to Spencer (since it’s her dreamscape), and the suspenseful noir backdrop is the perfect place to explore the pressure she puts on herself—and the other girls put on her—to be the smartest one in the group; the one who pieces together all the mysteries. That pressure drove her to seek out “prescription study aids” in the first place, and the show has carefully built up to her breakdown over the past few weeks. The serious stakes of Spencer’s mental health keep the episode from flying off the handle into a stylish adventure with no substance.
Plus it helps that the cast are clearly having a blast playing period versions of their characters. When I first heard about the conceit of this episode I was worried we were in for multiple iterations of Kristen Wiig’s fast-talking dame. Instead the actors heighten their performances ever so slightly—enough to match the tone of the episode without losing their characters in the process. Keegan Allen really comes alive when he’s not forced to be mopey, as does Sasha Pieterse as a slightly vampier version of Ali (“No woman has ever been able to warn another woman about a man.”). But Ashley Benson is far and away the stand out of the week, reimagining Hanna as a ballsy, glamorous “man-hater.”
The whole cast and crew deserve ample praise for turning what could have been a largely extraneous concept episode into a compelling piece of television. Pretty Little Liars functions best when it’s setting up mysteries rather than solving them, which is a big reason why tonight’s suspenseful detour is so gripping; it’s virtually all set-up with no real resolutions. I highly doubt the writers have a series endgame in mind. I’m even doubtful the show will stick with the Ezra as A (#EzrA) concept past this season. But Pretty Little Liars has always been about the journey, not the destination. As long as the show keeps producing episodes as rich as this one, I’m happy to stick around for the ride.
- Many shows have done noir homages over the years; both Charmed and Smallville did all-out noir episodes like “Shadow Play.” I haven’t seen them myself, but I’m curious if they were as successful as Pretty Little Liars’ take on the genre.
- “Em, get real, this is all about the A-ness of things.” How has this show not used that joke before?
- “I’m not as used to walking the streets as Mona is.”
- Poor Paige got the short end of the styling-stick this week, which is a shame since Lindsey Shaw’s got a perfect face for the era.
- Hopefully this episode will inspire the show’s younger fans to check out the vast world of film noir. I think noir-precursor The Maltese Falcon is a nice place to start exploring the genre, but sound off with your recommendations in the comments!