Welcome, you clue-singing parrots, you grave-digging dogs, to the sixth season of Pretty Little Liars, the show that dares to ask the question: What happens when every blonde-haired girl in Pennsylvania is forced to wear a yellow tank top and act out The Hunger Games in Spencer Hastings’ backyard one never-ending Labor Day night? Ultimately, honestly, the answer is: lesbianism. Lesbianism is what happens. On a global scale. But in the space between the scissoring: clowns, masks, vampires, witches, puppets, fake cousins, fake sons, snakes, ice cream factories, empanadas, and more classic noir callbacks than you can shake a mannequin leg at.
I didn’t see the season six premiere because I was at A-Camp, and I missed you all desperately! I am happy to be back for real-time #BooRadleyVanCullen-ing starting this very night! This recap will be shorter than usual because I’ve still got a lot to catch up on from doing the queer glamping in the woods for a whole week, and I want to start rolling out my PLL recaps on time after tonight’s episode.
So, here we go. Short and sweet. LOL, JK. Short and terrifying.
Inside, there is another blonde-haired girl in a yellow tank top, hiding away in a dark, cement hallway, tallying the days she’s been trapped here. I could a billion chalk marks. She might be Bethany Young, or she might be Sarah Harvey, or she might be Cece Drake, or she might be Alison DiLaurentis, or she might be the grown-up version of one of those twins that terrorized Ashley Marin that one Halloween, or it might just be Cousin Nate in a wig and a mask. Who’s to say?
Outside, Emily does not try to scale the fence because Spencer screams at her to STOP IT so she doesn’t get fried like an egg. Charles is real mad, though. Women are for being puppets! How dare they act like some Pinocchios! So he shuts them outside and they’re forced to huddle under a tent made of prom dresses while the sun beats down on them and the rain lashes down from the sky. Mona and Spencer assure everyone they can last for three weeks without food, but also maybe not quite as long without water. When they’re just about to give up and die, the cellar doors spring open and the disembodied airport lady voice is all, “Please follow the lighted path to your doom. Please follow the lighted path to your doom.”
And of course, they get gassed and Mona gets Vandernapped right in front of their eyes.
When the Liars awake, they are lined up like they’re in a morgue, their naked bodies all covered up with single white sheets.
Emily: I wonder if we’re all laid out like corpses so Charles could take our photos and torture our families with them.
Spencer: Oh, honey. You are dehydrated. None of us have parents, you least of all.
Mona: Hello, everyone. It is me again, Alison DiLaurentis from the hole in the yard. Who would like some juice?
Everyone is freaked out but their only choice is to follow Charles’ directions and return to their individual rooms, where they each find a boggart, I guess, because man, they scream. Hanna’s boggart is a dead Caleb and a dead Ashley, both of them killed by that gun she couldn’t bury deep enough at the frat party with the plastic cup. Spencer’s boggart is her asking the Sorting Hat to put her into Ravenclaw and the Sorting Hat laughing in her face. Emily’s boggart is a video of every girl she’s ever loved leaving her by either getting murdered, or getting arrested for doing murder, or leaving town to keep from getting murdered. And Aria’s boggart is FanFiction.net, where every Liar is paired with Emily a hundred times in a hundred ways, and people only ever write her fucking Ezra.
It is three weeks later (wouldn’t it be funny if this was the big rumored time-jump?) and Alison DiLaurentis walks out her front door dressed alarmingly like her mother, same hair as her mother and everything, to address reporters about the kidnapping of her friends. She names Andrew Campbell as the perp and asks everyone to please just leave her alone for a little while. She was murdered by her own mom, pulled from her grave by a magic-eyed sorcerer, forced to ride a Greyhound bus around the country over and over after she crashed her airplane, reunited with Emily in homosexuality for one glorious night, framed for murder, jailed, beat down with an iron, trialed for murder, acquitted for murder, and now her friends have all been stolen away. I mean, she doesn’t have Ezra Fitz-style Real Problems, but she’s tired. She needs a little break.
Inside her house are all of Rosewood PD’s finest, including Tanner and Toby, and they’re like, “Thanks for letting us use you as bait to lure Andrew here. He’s for sure the bad guy.” Ali lets them think this was their idea and she’s happy to participate and she totally believes it’s Andrew, but she’s Alison Motherfucking DiLaurentis, so you know she’s got six games going on behind this one because she’s the only one who can save the Liars, has always been the only one who can save the Liars, and, as usual, the police are just harshing her hyperreality.
For example, the sound of a door opening fills the room and Toby nearly blows out Jason’s brains as he walks in carrying a sack of food from Wendy’s.
Ali’s phone rings and the cops get all their tracking gear set up and let her answer it. “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)” plays, which is amazing for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s by the Andrews Sisters. And also, this is the perfect Alison/Emily song, like, “I gotta go fight this war, but don’t make any postcard plans for Paris with anyone else while I’m gone, okay?” And the song was used in Private Buckaroo, which is a thing I’ve been thinking of calling Toby for a full year now. The cops trace the call and guess what? It’s coming from inside the house, because duh.
Tanner locks up Alison in the wine cellar and tells this one new lady cop not to leave for any reason whatsoever (spoiler alert: she fails at that job) and goes creeping through the house looking for A. What they find instead is a mannequin wearing a black hoodie and pig mask. Ali’s phone rings again. Tanner answers it. It’s just pig squealing noises.
When the cops return to the wine cellar, they find that the lady cop has abandoned her post and someone has broken a bottle of Pinot and absconded with Ali.
Ha! Nope! Alison and Toby foiled the cops! He’s the one who did the cyberhacking to make it look like A was calling from inside the house, and she’s the one who masterminded this whole plan and faked using herself as bait so she could escape and actually use herself as bait. This is great! This is so great! All along, we’ve been wanting to see the show flip it around and show what’s going on backstage at the Pantomime of Alison DiLaurentis! How her duplicitousness is part of a larger, unknowable plan for keeping her babies safe!
Caleb gives Ali some shoes with a tracking device in the heel. It’s halfway to a good idea. She needs to be microchipped.
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!