Previously on Pretty Little Liars, Mona Vanderwaal was mercilessly assassinated by a blonde-headed person only seconds after fingering Ali as Big A. Spencer was arrested for murdering Bethany Young, the Radley patient who was fond of drawing pictures of Mrs. DiLaurentis getting eaten to death by lizardmen and who also was buried in that hole in the yard. You know the one. Toby got hit by a car on the way to the second day of Rosewood Police Academy, which also is the day of graduation from Rosewood Police Academy. Hanna read Emily’s boobs. Paige smooched Emily’s face. And the manger of Christ the Lord was emptied of Christ the Lord and filled with Mona the Vanderjesus.
It’s Christmastime in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, the one town in Pennsylvania where you can walk around outside in December in just a t-shirt and cardigan and not suffer even a nip of frostbite. Spencer is not feeling the holiday spirit because what she got from Santa Claus was money for bail. Hanna also is not particularly in the mood to celebrate because Mona is dead. Emily, no stranger to murdered girlfriends and being at least half-convinced she smashed in someone’s face with a shovel in Ali’s backyard on the Night of a Thousand Nights, suggests that everyone take a deep breath and make a wish on a snowflake.
In front of a store window, Hanna flashes back to the glory days of Hannily, when the only thing Hanna and Mona had to worry about was how much pilfered swag they could fit in their purses at Bloomingdale’s and whether or not Ashley was going to walk in on them playing a two-person game of spin-the-bottle. Flashback Hanna is like, “I wish for Jimmy Choos” and Flashback Mona is like, “I will get those for you and literally anything else you want including the spleen of a living human being, if it will make you happy.” They laugh. They promise to be best friends forever, to always make the yuletide gay.
In real-time, the Liars sense a ripple in the Force. An alive black person catches their attention due to being alive and black in Rosewood. Spencer’s curiosity goes one step further than everyone else’s, obviously, and within seconds she has constructed a mental list of 100 reasons he is A deduced that he is a lawyer because he is writing with a fancy person’s pen. And she’s right. He is the lawyer of Mona Vanderwaal, who left instructions for him to to deliver a package to Hanna exactly 30 days after her death. The package contains a hand-drawn map of all of Ali’s hiding places in her house and a note that’s like, “Honey, if I can die, it truly is like what Arya Stark said: Anyone can be killed. Be careful and remember I love you.”
Aria: Aww, she mentioned me.
Spencer: She was talking about Arya Stark.
Aria: What’s a Stark?
Spencer: Emily’s a Stark.
Aria: What are you?
Spencer: House Lannister.
Spencer: Targaryen, born of the dragons.
Aria: OK, but what am I?
Spencer: House Bae.
Aria: Is that a thing?
Santa walks by and Aria trades him a fiver for a snow globe. In the snow globe is a picture of all four Liars, and a note from A talking about: “Do you hear what I hear? Spoiler alert, it’s the sound of you being tortured to within an inch of your sanity. Ho ho ho!”
Ali is at home by herself, trying to sleep, but the sound of clanking chains and ghosts wailing in the walls is keeping her awake. Unlike most nights, though, the source of the dark magicks reveals itself, and it is Jessica DiLaurentis(!!!!). She goes, “She’s got a lot to show you, pay attention!” And then vanishes! Ali walks through the house, pausing to play a little holiday ditty on the piano, and then dozes off on the couch. She awakens with a start, exclaims, “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Because what her eyes are seeing is Mona Vanderwaal, fully embodying the Ghost of Christmas Cataclysm!
Ali: Nope. Nope, nope, nope.
Mona: Uh huh, honey.
Ali: Why are you dressed like some kind of Jem and the Holograms zombie tribute band?
Mona: Because, much like Mamaw Marin, I do what the fuck I want. Hey, look at little you, playing the piano. Shit’s about to get so for real, though.
Little Ali, who is playing “Silent Night” in a tragic bit of forever foreshadowing, hits a key that makes a weird sound, so she lifts the piano lid and finds a couple of wrapped packages inside. She opens them up and discovers matching dresses that look like the dresses those murdery twin girls wore in the second Halloween episode. Jessica comes rushing in, and Little Ali is like, “Dad’s gonna get a real kick out of the fact that y’all bought me the same present!” And Jessica goes, “The same present? There is only one dress here. You only found one dress. Do you want Daddy to abandon us? No, right? So you only found one dress.”
Little Ali nods and retells the story to her mom about the one dress, to make sure she’s got it just right, and Mona turns to real-time Ali, says, “And so anyway, that’s your superhero/villain origin story. Makes Bruce Wayne’s whole deal look kinda jolly, huh?”
Identity has been a theme of Pretty Little Liars from the minute it hit the ground, which is why it’s always fun when the show goes all in with these balls-out Hitchcock homages. Like, most people think Hitchcock is scary because of shower stabbings and birds, and yeah, that part is true, but the actual terrifying thing Hitchcock did was ask really unnerving questions about the nature of identity.
Most of his movies, including Rear Window, are about people inventing or reinventing themselves. (Rear Window has the added bonus of other pretty little motifs like voyeurism and the male gaze and the line between sex and violence and the ethics of being an amateur detective.) Marnie is about this woman who is a kleptomaniac but has no sense of self outside of the fact that she’s vain and good at stealing shit. Scottie and Madeleine/Judy wander around Vertigo the whole time talking about how they don’t know who they are. North By Northwest is about an innocent guy who gets trapped in a mistaken identity situation where everyone else makes terrible decisions for him and he has no autonomy at all. Rear Window wonders what happens to someone when they can no longer do the thing they excelled at most in the world.
So the questions you come away with when you watch Hitchcock are like: Is identity fluid? Is it just a facade? Is who you are as easy as putting masks on top of masks? And if yes, does that mean that who you are, at your deepest place, is just an expanse of ephemeral nothingness? The idea that the youness if you is not rooted in something substantial and enduring is as horrific as the idea of just floating off by yourself into space.
Hanna dealt with this last year, in the most Hanna way possible, which was to: spiral for ten minutes, confront the ghost in the chair, and claw her way back to the top of the mountain to stand in the sunlight, knowing herself and the spiritual fullness of this life even better than she did before. But Mona and Ali are (and hopefully will continue to be!) locked in this battle about who made who, and who is wearing a mask and who is wearing a real face, and how much of their very selves is defined by the people who are standing next to them. Ali told Mona to put on her face every day before school, in that flashback to the lodge the night Mona rescued Ali and sent her away as Vivian Darkbloom, and on the surface that’s makeup and being pretty, right, but the second layer of that is straight up paper faces on parade. Which circles back around to: If you hide your face so the world will never find you, will you ever find yourself?
This scene is one of the best this show has ever done, not just because it’s creepy as lumps watching Mrs. D brainwash a small child with threats of abandonment, and not just because Janel and Sasha play so good off each other, and not just because we finally get confirmation that Jessica has stashed away a small Ali-lookalike somewhere, but also because we’re getting to see with our own eyeballs the moment the sapling of Alison’s identity begins to split like an aging willow. And we get to witness it with Mona watching over her shoulder, looking like if Anna never went and rescued Elsa from the woods.
Toby is confined to his wheelchair with a cast and a camera, L.B. Jeffries-style, and while he and Spencer ramble off their plan to break into Ali’s house tonight and rifle through her possessions while the Ice Ball is going strong, Spencer changes into a Santa Claus outfit that seems to indicate that Obama’s War on Christmas is over and sexiness has won. Can you even imagine being Toby Cavanaugh? Getting to a place of such familiarity with Spencer Hastings that she steps out of the closet wearing this and you don’t even need smelling salts? What a life.
Hanna and Caleb, dressed as matching elves, spread holiday cheer and hard truths at Pastor Ted’s church. Hanna chats to a deaf girl in sign language, then comes right out of the frame when she sees that this one Mean Girl in the crowd is Mean Girling the deaf girl, loud as a Rosewood pharmacist, and encouraging her friends to do the same because the deaf girl can’t hear them. Hanna calls them over and literally says the words “bitches get buried” to these like seven year old children, in church, at Christmas. It’s amazing. It’s perfect. It’s so Hanna. Caleb just stands there and nods, like, “Yep, bitches do get buried” to these small girls. The main Mean Girl acts like she is not scared, so Hanna just glares at her until the girl leaves in a huff. Her friends don’t go with her, though, because Hanna explains to them that when you follow an asshole kid like that around, someone’s going to end up getting their eyeballs poked out with a firecracker.
At the Shady Pines retirement community, the whole gang gathers to sing carols for Rosewood High Class of 2013. Emily and Paige canoodle adorably and hold hands and snoozle their noses together like eskimo kisses. Paige is wearing a shirt that says “I Go Overboard,” which is like the Paige-est t-shirt in the cosmos. On the back, it’s probably like: #PennyFlavoredCupcakes #NeverForget. Jenna and Sydney are there, and so is Lucas. Ezra also, and this is a conversation he has with Aria:
Ezra: I bought you diamond earrings and a diamond necklace and a dress for the Ice Ball.
Aria: This is slightly more than the gesture we agreed to exchange.
Ezra: I came into several millions dollars when I sold my surveillance equipment back to the CIA.
Aria: I’ll bet your family bought you ponies for Christmas.
Ezra: Yeah, but I only asked for the one.
No, seriously. He says that. He says he only asked for one pony.
Paige is snipping at her mom on the phone about, “No, that’s what you want” and as soon as the words are out of her mouth, you know what’s happening is that her parents have finally decided to be the only parents in Rosewood that actually parent, and shuttle her out of this shitshow of a town. Emily, who has never seen a TV show before and continues to not be as desperate for Paige as I am, for reasons I will never understand, says “sounds like a fun vacation” when Paige says her parents want her to go to California after Christmas. Aria zooms by and points up at the mistletoe, and Paige and Emily kiss, and they still make my heart swell up like a reformed Grinch after all this time.
The Ice Ball is a big charity Christmas party that Alison is throwing to raise money for Homeless Teen Pilots probably, and everyone looks fly as hell, but Emily and Paige look it the most. Paige is wearing a white suit and Emily is wearing a dress that’s like what we’ve talked about before when costume designer Mandi Line must just give up on trying to make Shay Mitchell look like a regular teenage person and not an otherworldly goddess and is just like, “Fine.” And the result is why painters paint and singers sing and poets poet and Paige McCullers doesn’t give one single damn if living in this hellscape means her whole entire head is going to get set on fire one day while she is eaten alive by trained wolves.
Tiny Toby is Home Alone, so Spencer breaks from the gang to sit on Lucas Claus’ lap and tell him to be careful tonight because Ali potentially has a group of super-soldiers at her disposal. Then:
Lucas Claus: HO HO HO, LITTLE HASTINGS! SANTA WILL TRY HIS VERY BEST TO—
Lucas Claus: [shuts up]
It’s pretty hilarious.
Ali makes a triumphant entrance with four new Liars in tow, all masked up, and the old Liars split up to complete Operation Vanderloot. It’s a terrible plan. Not even the splitting up part, which just Is What It Is at this point, but the part where Hanna and Spencer are going into Ali’s house to ferret out all her hidden trinkets. How do they not know by now that a map to Ali’s hidden trinkets isn’t like: here is a wall safe and here is the combination and viola! here are the documents we need to solve the mystery at hand.
No, it’s like, you go to the place marked on the map and chop through a wall and what you find is a disembodied doll hand, which reminds you of this thing Alison said one time that would have been useful to know back in the pilot episode but you have only just now decided to share it with the class, and that memory leads you to a different place where the claw-like fingers of the disembodied doll hand function as a key, and inside that hidey hole are the rest of the doll parts, and so you assemble the doll back together and finally notice there’s one doll missing from a nearby shelf, so you put it back in its place and when the sun comes through the window at 3:33 p.m., the light hits the reassembled doll in the eyes, and the eyes are actually mirrors, and the sunbeam pings around the room and lands on a crawlspace, and inside the crawlspace —a place you can only open by giving it a sacrifice of your own blood while standing on one leg and singing the lyrics to “Linger” by the Cranberries, backwards— is a child’s toy that looks like it’s from an abandoned circus from the 1800s and inside that toy is another, even creepier toy, and inside the even creepier toy is — YOU’LL NEVER KNOW! Because it took you so long to uncover the actual prize that someone in a hoodie found you and stabbed you in the kidneys with a cleaver!
So anyway, Hanna and Spencer scamper off to do that while the Liars and their partners spread out across the five square-mile auditorium where this dance is being held and creep on Ali.
Ali has no trouble losing them, though. Firstly, she sneaks off into one winter wonderland to snog Officer Holbrook who is dressed like Sexy Santabro. And secondly, she sneaks off into another winter wonderland to trade presents/skin with Cece Drake. Like this:
Holbrook: I’m a skeeze now like every other male authority figure in this town, so I’m going to wear this shit, call you naughty, and say Ezra’s name in a way that’s grosser than anything anyone has ever said to you.
Aria: Bitches get buried, is what I have heard.
Holbrook: Not me, though! I am a man with power!
Aria: Tell it to Wilden. Tell it to Garrett. Tell it to Cousin Nate.
Holbrook: See you around, little girl.
Aria: ACT NORMAL, BITCH!
Ali: Thank you for coming to visit me in the town where you murdered an officer of the law.
Cece: Girl, I brought you some perfume too.
Ali: I’ve been seeing a lot of ghosts, literal ones.
Cece: The first Christmas after losing someone is the toughest.
Ali: Probably not as tough as the last three Christmases I spent gnawing meat off old chicken bones from the trash can at the Greyhound bus station, but I get your point.
Cece: I love me. I mean you. I love you. And me, who is you, and you who are me.
Ali: Merry Christmas, soul sister. Again, I mean that literally.
Meanwhile, Emily follows one of Alison’s new minions into a whole other winter nook. The minion unmasks herself and is Sydney. Also, Jenna. Emily goes, “Well, you I already blinded, Jenna, and Sydney, I think I made it perfectly clear that I will be drowning you when swim season starts back, so what do you want?” They explain that they are working as double agents, getting in good with Ali while also being pretty sure that Ali murdered Mona. Emily says they’re sleeping with the enemy, which is ridiculous, because clearly they are sleeping with each other (despite Sydney bullshitting that she’s not gay). It seems like Sydney and Jenna want to form an alliance with the Liars, but Emily hates their beautiful guts so blorpin’ much. It’s not going to happen.
When Ali and Cece try to maneuver their way out of the building, Lucas and Paige give chase from one side and Emily and Aria give chase from the other. What they find is that Ali has dressed Mindy and Cindy in Ali masks and they are her robots now.
Things are going equally effectively over at Ali’s, which is to say: impotently. Hanna and Spencer crawl around in the dark whispering for a while, while Toby looks on from the window of Spencer’s bedroom with his telephoto lens. They find one of Ali’s many passports, this one for a lady named Holly Varjak, like if Holly married Paul in Breakfast at Tiffany’s*, and in the basement, Hanna hits the jackpot: There’s an archery certificate that proves Ali has been training for The Hunger Games, a Mad Hatter jack-in-the-box that leads to a stack of box hats that contain a bunch of mad letters from Bethany Young. Just: “Hey, Al! Can’t wait to break out of the asylum and hang out this Labor Day weekend trying on yellow tank tops and hanging around in your backyard!”
But Hanna’s time runs out because A is in the house, brandishing a kitchen knife, lurking all around. Spencer gets so freaked out that she breaks a picture of Mrs. D and crafts herself a quicky shiv. Also, Hanna left her phone upstairs so it’s not like Spencer can text to tell her to make a break for it. And so Toby wheels around in circles in his chair in Spencer’s bedroom and cries and makes the most terrified faces and flashes his camera flash to try to get Hanna’s attention. But nothing works. A bonks Hanna on the head, flies out the window into the night like Toby’s mom on top of a Radley roof, and you want to know the worst part? That goddamn burlap baby zombie is watching from the corner. That thing gives me the heebie jeebies like no other.
*Spencer says Ali chose “Holly Varjak” as an alias because of a Breakfast at Tiffany‘s (movie) fantasy she’s playing out in her head about her and Ezra, but I don’t believe that for a nanosecond. I don’t think Ali believes in happy endings or thinks she deserves a happy ending and I think if she identifies with anything about Holly Golightly it’s the inability to commit or even name things she loves. So, I don’t reckon that passport is Alison’s, no siree.
The Liars and their girlfriends/boyfriends meet up at Spencer’s house to talk about how if Ali knew Bethany, probably that means Spencer won’t go to jail for murder, based on whatever waggle saggle Rosewood law. They are all sad for a little while that a blizzard has arrived and they will be away from their parents for the first Christmas ever, but then they remember that they don’t have parents and everything is okay. But like super okay. Super duper okay to the max. Because the Liars’ partners put on a little sexy fashion show for them, and guess who also gets herself some Santa boxers? Paige McCullers.
When this picture started making the rounds on Monday, everyone was just losing their minds in a pants-flaming way, but let me tell you what I did. I looked at it and I burst into tears. I could tell you right now, off the top of my head, a full list of every queer female TV character in history, what show she was on, what she did with her life, what her appearance meant in the broader scheme of lesbian/bi visibility, what the social impact was of her character, how that character birthed whatever new crop of characters. That’s my job and that’s my brain and I’ve been doing it since forever. Never, ever did I ever think we’d get to a place in my lifetime where a lesbian TV character would be treated with so much affection and dignity and respect that her girlfriend would fit in as seamlessly as all the boyfriends on the show. It’s sweet, yes. But it’s sexy, too. And it’s no big deal in Rosewood, and that’s a big fucking deal in the real world.
So’s this next part, this montage of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” when the Liars come together with their found family and bake a feast and say grace and hold hands and laugh and smile and cuddle and toast and all the things all the best Christmas movies do, and Paige and Emily are there doing it to, and it’s not a Thing? It just Is? Damn, y’all. What a Christmas miracle.
You know how when you’re gay, you don’t think about being gay. It’s not like you wake up and gay-kiss your girlfriend and gay-hold her hand on the train and gay-hug her when she gets home from work and gay-play with her hair while you gay-cuddle and watch Netflix? It’s just what you do because it’s what people do? It’s hard to watch TV like that as a queer woman because we have been so underrepresented and fucked over in so many ways from so many directions for so long that you just want to cast protection spells around these queer characters the whole time an episode is on, to keep them safe from other characters, from writers, from showrunners and networks and stupid fans. Pretty Little Liars is the only show I have ever watched that doesn’t make me feel like I am gay-watching TV. It doesn’t even make me feel like I’m watching TV. It makes me feel like when TV was just a magic box that pulled me in like the force of a TARDIS and transported me to a whole different world.
So yeah, dudes. I cried about that picture. I cried during this whole montage. I cried when Paige said her parents are making her leave school early to move to California where teenage girls have more than a four percent chance of not being buried in Veronica Hastings’ garden. I can’t even deal with that part right now.
The Ghost of Christmas Cataclysm visits Ali one last time. I think it’s the last time. I honestly wouldn’t mind if Mona shows up like this in every episode. This scene is straight out of The Christmas Carol, even though Ali is very much not Scrooge at all and actually has a lot more in common with Miss Havisham in terms of Dickensian buddies. But whatever. Another thousand words for another time. Anyway, so Mona teleports them to the church and Ali sees herself dead in a casket, with no legs. Then it gets EVEN WORSE because Mrs. D shows up, tells her “they’re” coming for her, and also that she is going to hell. (“We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”)
Then poor Ali wakes up and goes to Spencer’s and peeks in the window at the Merry Little Christmas of all her friends. It’s so sad! Probably she was happier chewing on those trash can chicken bones!
The Liars holiday reverie is interrupted by someone they think is Santa, but actually is someone else in a red coat, who has trimmed a tree for them and left them a holiday greeting.
A super huge enormous mega holiday-sized thank you to Nicole (@PLLBigA) for the screencaps. She’s got the goods on season 5B, if you follow her on the Twitter machine!
The best thing about Pretty Little Liars is the #BooRadleyVanCullen community, which is honestly just the smartest, funniest, silliest queer women in the internet live-tweeting the greatest show of all time. Here are some of the awesomest tweets from Tuesday night.
Ali wakes up screaming Mona's name. Hanna pops in, rolling her eyes, & says "join the club!" #BooRadleyVanCullen
— Pretty Little Liars (@LittleLiars) December 10, 2014
NO. PAIGE IS STAYING RIGHT THERE WITH EMILY. OR EMILY IS GOING WITH HER & WE GET A SPINOFF. I WILL ACCEPT NOTHING ELSE. #BooRadleyVanCullen
— Carolyn (@adrblepancreas) December 10, 2014
Mirror mirror on the wall, who should I frame to take the fall. #BooRadleyVanCullen
— Jenn (@editorjenn) December 10, 2014
There's a nursing home? People actually live until old age in Rosewood? I don't believe it. #BooRadleyVanCullen
I have a very special "gesture" for Ezra (spoiler alert: it's my middle finger). #BooRadleyVanCullen
Hanna never change. You have the best jesters. #BooRadleyVanCullen
"Bitches get buried." I would 100% entrust any future children I have with Hanna Marin. #BooRadleyVanCullen
— Jenna Duggan-Lykes (@jennalykes) December 10, 2014
I just realized how amazing that scene on the stairs was with the three guys and Paige. We've come a long way, gaybies. #booradleyvancullen
"How do you fit all that information in one head?" Uh because Spencer's brain is Hermione's enchanted bag come to life. #BooRadleyVanCullen
— Theodora (@TheodoraG13) December 10, 2014
— Xan (@Xanadugrrl) December 10, 2014
Yeah because making clone friends is the best way to convince original friends you're not shady as hell Ali #booradleyvancullen
— Nerdgirlwalking (@nerdgirlwalking) December 10, 2014
— Kate Dickinson (@kayteedeeisme) December 10, 2014
— #embarrassing (@guiltyplzre) December 10, 2014
The day Tippy shows up in an Ali mask, I'm outta here. #BooRadleyVanCullen
— whitney (@its_whitney) December 10, 2014
— Sarah Lloyd (@Vandermarin) December 10, 2014
Pretty Little Liars returns in what will surely be a blaze of winter glory on January 9th!