As far as reactions to game-changing episodes of television shows go, that is perhaps the most Jess Mariano-like one of all, but how exactly should one react to Pretty Little Liars finally answering the major questions? (The key word is “major.”) Which answers should be considered a relief and which should be considered a disappointment? What should be considered a shock and what should be considered just nonsense? Pretty Little Liars has gone more than five seasons and survived only by adding more twists, turns, and questions to its twists, turns, and questions, stalling every chance it gets to resolve things. So as showrunner I. Marlene King and others behind Pretty Little Liars constantly said this summer season would be one of “Answers” (revealing ‘A’ as someone the audience and characters already know), all of it sounded like the same old stuff, part of a pattern that could be seen in the handling of every season before it. That’s why it’s an impressive shock that “Game Over, Charles,” the season six summer finale, answers the big question of ‘A’s/Charles DiLaurentis’ actual identity in the first 10 minutes.
A month ago, a supposedly disgruntled former Pretty Little Liars employee took to Reddit for an unofficial, impromptu AMA about the series. The story picked up steam because this person “revealed” that Wren was ‘A’/Charles (that accent was fake!) and also went into detail about how this would be found out and handled on the show. Honestly, the idea of Wren being Charles made all the sense in the world for a show that rarely makes any of the sense in the world. It would at least explain why a grown adult doctor would constantly try to insert himself in the affairs of teenage girls. It would also be a chance for the show to get a do-over on the “Is Ezra A?” storyline. With Wren as ‘A’/Charles DiLaurentis, there would also be a greater possibility of having the Liars’ greatest tormentor (yet) branded as a villain with no chance of redemption. You see, as dark as Pretty Little Liars is, redemption is often key, but how could any version of Wren as Charles lead to that? Such a decision could have been a chance to move away from that, at least for a moment.
But the story this season of Pretty Little Liars has been trying to tell with Charles DiLaurentis is one of a tragic backstory, one that should facilitate even a little remorse. Take a deranged, estranged son and then throw in the manipulation factor (of Spencer, and to a lesser extent, Hanna), and that doesn’t add up to remorse (no matter how well Julian Morris could play it), except for maybe in the case of ’shippers. So now, the actual choice for ‘A’/Charles DiLaurentis (aka Charlotte DiLaurentis aka CeCe Drake) may sound like an out-of-left-field decision, but it ends up being one of the best decisions—if not the best decision—the show could have made in this situation.
CeCe Drake has been one of Pretty Little Liars’ most interesting and fascinating characters since her introduction in season three (which is revisited in this episode), and of all the disappointing character “disappearances” in this show, hers is the one that has been felt the most. (I say this as the one Samara fan.) CeCe being sent to leave the country just so happened to coincide with the series becoming much, much darker, and it didn’t help that she was the last character (in a world of maturing Alisons and Monas) who intentionally brought the fun to the crumbling world around her. As Alison and Mona have become more afraid for their own lives, even the occasional fun quip from a Liar (usually Hanna) doesn’t compare. As CeCe says in this episode, most of her personality was an impression of Alison, but by a certain point last season, not even Alison was acting like Alison. That is one of the strangest things to lament about the show, considering how brutal Alison DiLaurentis could be.
The episode takes the themes and tone of the past season and a half (which have centered around growing pains and how harsh and unsettling everything really is) and uses them to tell CeCe’s story. Pretty Little Liars has not really been all that fun or carefree lately, and a lot of that is because of this particular ‘A,’ raising the stakes and coming dangerously close to seriously injuring or even killing the Liars. This ‘A’ then kidnapped and tortured them mentally, emotionally, and physically; more than ever, the Liars have been living in a nightmarish hellscape of PTSD this season. The only things that feel distinctly Pretty Little Liars in this season are Aria’s clothing (see: her prom dress) and the Liars still jumping to conclusions and trusting the wrong people. Here, the concept of the Liars standing in a room that looks like it’s out of Tron, watching CeCe spill her heart to Alison (and her brother and father and the rest of them), is the truest Pretty Little Liars has been to itself in a while, as it is pure, unadulterated voyeurism.
As CeCe fills in the blanks of five and a half seasons of spotty backstory (complete with her own backstory as Charles DiLaurentis, Charlotte DiLaurentis, and CeCe Drake), it’s like a weight is being lifted off the show and the audience. Catharsis could be the word, but still it’s not something CeCe really feels after all these years, unfortunately, even if the Liars do. And I say “unfortunately” for CeCe, because this version of ‘A’/Charles is someone who the show can absolutely get away with choosing when it comes to redemption. Think about it: Even the Liars are crying with her the moment she starts tearing up over this whole story. Vanessa Ray knocks every single emotional (and chaotic) beat she is given out of the park, reminding the audience (and characters) why they were drawn to CeCe in the first place. But she also finds a way to make nearly every thing done by this character—who comes across as the ultimate victim of circumstance—alright, even though once CeCe comes back from France, nothing she does is really alright. In fact, given how much the show has gone out of its way to say how unstable and dangerous “Charles DiLaurentis” is, it’s actually fascinating that this instability and danger are fairly new developments for her. It’s one of the keys to making her story work and have her come across mainly as the victim.
There’s also the fact that Vanessa Ray absolutely carries this episode on her back, in a way very few secondary characters could. To narrow it down even more, for a secondary character, Ray carries this episode the way only Janel Parrish could and has throughout the course of the show. In this episode, when CeCe (or, giving credit to the younger cast, the young Charleses) is not in a scene, the question becomes one of why or when (as in, “when will she come back?”), and it’s not just because of the answer being given; it’s because she’s telling a compelling and fascinating story of how she got to where she is, whether you think she should be ‘A’ or not. “Game Over, Charles” is very much an episode about the character of a person, in the sense of how they deal with everything life tosses their way. And for an exceptionally long time, CeCe was able to rise above it all… until Mona came into the picture and unknowingly lit the fuse. Because at the same time, it’s also a story of blame, and CeCe walks a fine line throughout this whole episode of either being the victim or simply not taking responsibility for her actions; it’s a line you typically see characters like Lesli or even Sara stumble all over.
I’ll say it: Pretty Little Liars is probably not ready to be a show that tackles transphobia. Before the episode, I read a post about ‘A’s true identity, and my mind (within the context of what this show is) immediately went to Sleepaway Camp. Then, the episode has a bit of a touch-and-go situation with the Jason/CeCe relationship segment (which also implies Jason’s anger and subsequent substance abuse were a result of CeCe not giving him any), only for CeCe to almost appear to be one second away from giving an ABC Family appropriate version of Buffalo Bill’s “I’d fuck me” speech. But I also see how genuinely heartbreaking things are for Charles/CeCe from the moment she’s treated as insane by her father (for, at that point, just wanting to play dress up and be a good older sibling), to the sweet friendship moment with Bethany immediately turning traumatic (since Bethany really was the worst), to her getting gender reassignment and attending Charles’ “funeral,” only for none of it to mean a thing when it came to rejoining her family.
However, as far as episodes of Pretty Little Liars go, it’s difficult for me to compare it to others, because this is not really an episode of Pretty Little Liars. Yes, creatively and stylistically, it’s the same show (the episode is written and directed by showrunner I. Marlene King), and of course it has the same cast. (In fact, it means a lot that the present-day characters of the episode are mainly the Liars and CeCe, with very little Sara and no love interests, parents, siblings, etc.) At the same time, until the end tags of the episode, the Liars themselves are only tertiary characters in this epic. The exception is once the confusion over the Alison/Bethany situation is corrected, as CeCe is the one who bludgeoned Alison with the rock (assuming it was Bethany), and a fed-up Mona shoveled Bethany to death (thinking it was Alison):
Mona: “I killed an innocent person.”
Spencer: “Bethany wasn’t innocent.”
It’s perhaps the best purely Pretty Little Liars moment of the episode, serving as a reminder of how this isn’t a show that lives in black and white (as much as the Liars often want it to be). Over on Teen Wolf, one of the characters is currently having an internal debate and a moral dilemma over the fact that he killed a violent-man-turned-literal-monster in self-defense. It is absolutely destroying him. Then you come over to Pretty Little Liars, and a character feels guilt over killing someone in a mental breakdown, and it’s defended by another character (and defensible) almost immediately. Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars are two completely different shows with different outlooks on life (Teen Wolf is ultimately more optimistic), but it’s interesting to look at their respective approaches to “monsters,” especially given how terrible Mona would come to be after her particular incident.
To get back on track, saying this finale is not really a Pretty Little Liars episode is not to say it’s a bad episode of television—in fact, despite being a massive exposition-dump, it’s actually quite sweeping. But to compare it to other episodes of Pretty Little Liars is like comparing it to a completely different show, especially when its stars are pushed aside for such an extended period. The ReveAl With CeCe Drake is an absolute tragedy that, with a few tweaks, could easily stand up as its own work. The only “true” Pretty Little Liars parts are the tags, setting up the rest of the season (and series), and while the Labor Day tag reads as a real series finale close, this comes from a show that the audience absolutely knows is coming back. That’s also what the five-year time jump is for, and the only thing I can think to compare it to is the Veronica Mars season four FBI pitch, only more absurd, and not just because Alison becomes a married teacher at Rosewood High School (and now Sasha Pieterse is the only who’s the “wrong age” for her respective character).
No matter who ‘A’ was revealed to be, Pretty Little Liars would never please everyone. Given the nature of the beast, think of how badly things could have gone with this reveal: Think of the Gossip Girl series finale. There are so many holes (which go beyond the shoddy math Pretty Little Liars has developed from squeezing so little time into so many seasons) in that reveal that it’s retroactively turned the entire show into a joke. I‘ve seen a lot of ‘A’ theories, and they either would have garnered the same reaction if they’d been the real one (sorry, “Aria is ‘A’” fanbase) or provided the show with a mustache-twirling villain, which has never really been the show’s way when it comes to ‘A’. This is an episode with five and a half seasons’ worth of questions to answer, and to believe that Pretty Little Liars was ever the type of show that would keep track of every little detail (outside of the relationship dramas) to get to its ‘A’ endgame—especially with the constant renewals and the fact that its supporting cast is often very busy elsewhere—is to believe that Pretty Little Liars is a much different show than it ever was. “Fun insanity” has been the ever-present description for the show, and while fun has become less a factor in the characters’ lives this past season and a half, there’s still a manic nature to it, both in front of the camera and behind it. This is a show that was supposed to only be five seasons; at this point, especially, there was never going to be a character who made “perfect sense” for the reveal. The best to hope for was something tangible in the performance and storytelling, and that’s really what we get here.
The ReveAl: B
Pretty Little Liars: C-
- I do still have some questions: So Clark was useless, right? More or less useless than Lorenzo? Are the Pretty Little Moms alright? Also, why exactly was Sara involved with CeCe? Why did she join her/become her decoy? That’s the most pressing (non-Noel Kahn-related) question to me.
- I’ve seen questions about why CeCe hated the Liars so much (for not missing Alison) but none of them appear to take into account the character’s mental illness or warped view of the world (which would exist whether or not Charles was CeCe). Then again, I went to the worst place in the world to look for episode reactions.
- I’ve also seen reactions saying CeCe was an audible for the Wren thing being “leaked,” but if that is actually the case (the leaking), why would the show go a completely complexion-altering way in making Charles/CeCe trans? There are plenty of other inappropriate adult males on this show that could have been thrown to the wolves (and I’m sure there would be complaints regardless).
- I really think this episode will be a lot more interesting to talk about in the comments, so have at it. I definitely want to have a conversation about what all of this means for Bruce The Three-Eyed Baby With A Watermelon, so don’t be shy.
- Once upon a time, Peter Hastings was the Pretty Little Dad we all worried about. Before that, it was Byron Montgomery. (Hanna’s dad is a deadbeat and Emily’s is perfect.) But if it weren’t true before, it is now: The real award for Worst Pretty Little Dad Ever goes to Mr. DiLaurentis.
- I hadn’t been paying too much attention to Sara before a few weeks ago, because I found everything about her (from the acting, to her Single White Female haircut, to her co-dependency with Emily) lacking. When I actually had to write about the show a few weeks ago, I pointed out what I wish had been obvious to Emily: the fact that Sara’s behavior constantly depended on things Emily did and said independent of her. Lo and behold, Sara is a part of this all and just genuinely unpleasant. Oh Emily. Emily, Emily, Emily. Keep wearing leather pants in the future. Just don’t date.
- My second biggest complaint about Pretty Little Liars (after the adult male population of Rosewood) is the Liars’ propensity toward jumping to conclusions (yet also being blissfully ignorant) after all these years. As soon as Sara monotonously (though, in her defense, that’s all of her line readings) says, “I’m gonna wait out here. It’s a little tight in there,” right before the door closes, that should be the sign things are not on the up-and-up. Instead, the “Tanner being in cahoots with CeCe” theory becomes the prominent one until CeCe fesses up, and even then, it’s only Spencer who accepts the truth. Meanwhile, Andrew and Clark are probably drinking over these girls constantly pointing the finger at them. Ezra is looking for new surveillance victims.
- I am aware the Wilden scene is supposed to take place in the past, but Bryce Johnson has aged a lot since the last time we saw him.