Back at the dollhouse, BethanyCeCeHarvey feeds the Liars some food through the grates in their doors, and they think she is Mona. They holler for her like redemption: “MONA, SAVE US! MONA, HELP!” Charles finally releases the Liars and tells them to prep for Ali’s arrival. They flood the hallway and cry and hug each other and are dressed like their pitched archetypes from the pilot episode. It’s slick. It’s some slick visual commentary on the danger and delusional nature of the male gaze.
They’re not dressed like who they are. They’re dressed like the lowest common denominator version of who Charles sees/needs them to be to play out his fantasies with them. We say this is dark, all the fans and producers say how dark this season is, but it’s no more dark than any other season. It’s just that the dollhouse makes it deliberate, the dollhouse forces you to acknowledge that those lingering, voyeuristic shots all these years haven’t just been creepy; they’ve been fucking deadly. This locked box where the Liars have lost all control and exist solely as playthings for a dude, I mean, that is just the central theme of the entire show made literal.
The male gaze — in film and TV, in advertising, in online dating, in this new wave of social media as theater — is all about reassuring men that women exist to be seen and evaluated by them, right? Women have no agency outside of the framework of their gaze. Women don’t create their own meaning; their meaning is imposed on them by men working out their fantasies and obsessions on them. Charles is distilling the Liars down to one-dimensional versions of his desires.
Pretty Little Liars is remarkable because it never, ever participates in the male gaze (I can only think of two times that it even came close), but consistently reminds us that gaze exists. It is literally the only show in the history of TV that zooms back and encourages the female gaze to actively scrutinize the male gaze and the way it’s constantly disempowering the show’s female characters, and then extrapolate the truth of that violation to the real world. Yet, we’ve become so desensitized to it these last five seasons that it takes confining the Liars in a cage and forcing us to acknowledge that angry-eyed camera, again and again, for us to remember what we’re dealing with here.
And what Marlene King has done brilliantly over the course of this show, and especially in this episode, is reiterate that the Liars’ relationships with each other are the main thing, the saving thing, the sustaining thing, the only thing that matters, ultimately. Emily says a cool thing later about how the Liars aren’t who they were when this show started, and that’s true in so many ways, the main one being that this show hinted at Mean Girls, but zagged the other way. Roxane Gay said it real good in Bad Feminist: “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses — pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”
Or even Tina Fey: “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
What is endlessly fascinating to me about Pretty Little Liars is how many critics — most of them, in fact — write and talk about this show in a way that makes them the dollhouse, that makes them the things this show is pushing back against and subtly skewering week after week. Shit, y’all, even ABC Family’s official social media is the dollhouse half the time. Watch the same people who call Tanner a cunt talk about how Wilden or Garrett or Holbrook are just so darn cute. Watch the same people who glorify Ezra Fitz ridicule Paige McCullers. Watch these assholes praise Don Draper and Walter White and Dexter Morgan until the end of time while shaking Alison DiLaurentis down as a little bitch, when Dexter and Walter and Don are the exact same person: destroying everyone they ever claimed to love and also themselves, while Alison DiLaurentis destroys herself to save the people who have no idea how much she loves them.
But she’s just a girl! A teenage girl! Let teenage girls in on the secret that if they control themselves, control their own sexuality, the access to their own bodies, stick together and embrace the intensity and intimacy of their relationships, teenage girls will grow into women who will rule the world. We can’t have that, can we? So throw her in the pit. So call her a little bitch until she believes it and we believe it, and we all shut up and acquiesce to the dollhouse.
Pretty Little Liars is Judith Butler’s definition of queer: this fluid, untamable thing that exists to get between the cracks of the establishment and break it apart.
The dollhouse fucks us up — us, the viewers — because it reminds us that this world is doing its best every day to shove us in there and dress us how it wants and feed us what it wants and torture us into brainwashed compliance. It wants to separate us from each other and, once we’re isolated, play out its entitled, deranged fantasies all over our brains and bodies. Pretty Little Liars takes the real world and crunches it into Rosewood, and now it has taken Rosewood and crunched it into the dollhouse. It makes you sick because you’re looking at the truth. And you know it’s the truth. Spencer says Charles feels familiar. Goddamn right he does.
So, the Liars go to Ali’s “bedroom” and start unboxing her shit to ready themselves for her arrival. They’re thinking it’s Mona, but Emily pulls out an Eiffel Tower statue that makes her know that this is actual Ali’s actual stuff (because of the time with the sunlight in the classroom and Emily’s little polo shirt and the lesbian postcard plans, when Ali was her tender inside self on the outside for one full minute). Spencer finds a toy truck with the initials C.D. carved into it, and that’s when she realizes who Charles is. Aria is hanging up ten dozen of those yellow tank tops, and she sees this etching in the back of the closet where Mona has scribbled with her fingernails into the wood the news that Charles is going to kill her when real Ali gets here. To prove her theory, we cut to Mona in the pit, begging Charles to let her be the best Ali ever.
When the Liars return to their rooms, they find boxes of their own stuff, and also information about how Charles has been tormenting their families. Ashley has stopped drinking wine. Veronica has quit the Special Victims Unit. Ella turned to Byon for comfort. And Pam Fields is catatonic. That last one isn’t really news. Pam’s been pretty much done since that car smashed into her living room. The last time we saw her, she was getting Hanna drunk. The Liars take turns screaming at Charles via the camera in the ceiling — Aria, stricken by the news that her parents might be back together, yells most of all.
Caleb drops off Ali at the kissing rock with her tracker jacker shoes, and she finds a car there, so she gets on in and follows the GPS’ instructions to drive north and take a left. She keeps on following the directions like it’s a doll in her backseat, until she arrives at Tyler State Park and the car runs out of gas. She tries to alert On-Star, but they’re just like, “Oh, Ali, just get out of the car and put on the clothes in the trunk and get to hiking.”
When Caleb arrives at the park, he realizes Ali took off the tracker jacker boots. He cannot believe his plan didn’t work! (Sometimes I think those fireflies damaged his brain, irreparably.)
Caleb goes running into the woods after Ali, and Toby lets Tanner know that Tyler State Park is where they should be heading.
Inside the dollhouse, Spencer explains — via her award-winning l Etch-a-Sketch abilities — that A is Charles DiLaurentis, and so they climb through some air vents to get to Charles’ vault, and find it full of all Charles’ stuff from when he was a kid. Dolls and blankets and cribs and that video of Jessica and him and his brother and sister. Spencer decides the way to get Charles to let them out is to set the whole place on fire, because she assumes he loves these knicknacks so much he won’t let them burn. And that’s what they do. They torch everything.
In the woods, Caleb finds Ali and they’re just about to make a run back to the road when Ali smells Emily’s hair burning and flips out. “Heaven,” she says, “Heaven is on fire!” They find where the smoke is coming from and start scrabbling at the door, just as Charles pulls the fire alarm to put out the flames of his burning childhood, just as the Liars find Mona in the pit, just as the cops arrive in their helicopters. The Liars break free from the dollhouse and run into the arms of their bamboozled loved ones.
Everyone hugs and everyone cries and the cops find Sarah Harvey in there and drag her out.
Off to the side of the woods.
Emily: We keep fucking each other up, huh? That’s not good.
Ali: No, it’s not.
Emily: Me and Paige got caught in a roofie loop once; it was a mess.
Ali: I honestly cannot deal with the image of you and Paige making out right now.
Emily: Is it because you true love me?
Ali: I can’t talk about that right now, either.
Emily: Okay, how about this, then: Who is Charles DiLaurentis?
Ali: That sounds weirdly familiar. If you won’t send me to jail for a murder I didn’t commit, maybe I’ll have time to find out.
Enormous thank yous to Nicole (@PLLBigA) for the screencaps! I’ll see you tonight at 8:00 p.m. for some hardcore #BooRadleyVanCullen action!