You gotta hand it to the Pretty Little Liars creative team. It takes some next level disregard for the power of your own story to: make your big bad a trans woman, murder her, digest the cultural backlash, and then decide your final move is to rewrite her psychosis and duplicity to be even worse than you previously revealed while also holding her responsible for her own death. And, as an added bonus, stripping away the agency of the best, most complicated, most kickass woman on your show until she’s a blubbering mess of incomprehensibility dressed as a literal child. That’s Charlotte: Dead by her own deceitful hand. Mona: locked away in some asylum again. Alison: Redeemed through torture. And Ezra and Caleb over here pushing and pulling Hanna and Aria, talking about, “You’re not going to do this or that, young lady. You’re not going here, little miss; you’re not going there.”
When I wrote my recap for the BIG REVEAL that Charlotte DiLaurentis was A, I got about a hundred emails and texts and social media messages from people who work on this show; even the wife of a guy who drives a golf cart on the Warner Brothers backlot wrote to me. “Thank you so much for explaining why writing trans characters like this is so harmful. Thank you for continuing to hold us accountable for the way we write lesbian and bisexual women. Thank you for not backing down on your feminist critique. It means so much to us. We’ve learned so much from you.”
Now here we are — two years, 30 episodes, and one Donald Trump presidency later — and Pretty Little Liars has responded to the knowledge that they were actively putting harmful stories into the world by … putting more harmful stories into the world. 50 trans women have been murdered since I wrote that recap. The Trump administration has rolled back Obama’s Title IX protections for trans students, causing SCOTUS to punt Gavin Grimm’s case. State legislatures around the country have introduced “bathroom bills” to keep trans people out of public facilities that match their gender identity, as well as bills to make it impossible for trans people to access their vital records. North Carolina has lied repeatedly about repealing HB2. The two Conservative forces that have caused the most harm to trans women, Breitbart and the Family Research Council, are in the president’s ear all day every day. We have written almost twice as many trans obituaries as Pretty Little Liars recaps since that midseason finale back in 2015.
I’ve said it a billion times before and I’ll keep saying it until the day I die: There is no such thing as “just a TV show.” There is no such thing as “just a story.” Nothing, nothing, nothing ever has or ever will change and sustain our individual lives and our culture like stories. Fiction shapes our religions, our politics, our beliefs, our ethics, our behaviors, our relationships with ourselves and with each other. All major religious texts are made up mostly of stories. The Bible is 80 percent narrative. Lists of rules and consequences mean nothing to us; they’re as easily forgotten as a chance encounter with no one on the street. Stories move us. They teach us. They warn us. They reward us. They get stuck inside our brains and hearts and we never forget them. Stories are a primitive need. We project ourselves into and onto stories, mentally acting out our place in the world, without anyone ever teaching us how to do it. It is an instinct we develop as tiny children and it never goes away.
I could tell you one thousand times that trans women are not psychotic, that they’re not deceitful, that they’re women just trying to live their lives at the intersection of a culture steeped in misogyny and transphobia. You could hear me. You could nod along. But you will never remember my words the way you’ll remember Charlotte DiLaurentis torturing Aria and Emily and Spencer and Hanna and Mona.
PLL’s defense of the Charlotte reveal back when it happened was that they humanized her, that they showed her as complicated woman capable of doing great harm but also capable of great love. They’ve unraveled that defense in every way this season. Repeatedly misgendering and misnaming her. Memories of her catfishing Lucas. Memories of her revealing to Mona that she had used her trickery to re-trick her psychiatrists into thinking she was “better” so she could get out of the mental hospital and start torturing her sister and her friends again.
It’s one thing to write a story you don’t know is harmful. It’s another thing to know a story is harmful, to acknowledge it, and to write it anyway.
Anyway, here’s the plot. It is the penultimate episode of a seven-year mystery, after all:
Caleb and Ezra rush to tell the Liars that Mona’s got the game. They saw her through the wall with their infrared x-ray app. Problem is, by the time Mona gets back to her apartment with takeout for dinner, the game is gone and a note is in its place. So Mona goes to meet the person who left the note at the same diner where she met Charlotte the night she was murdered, Hanna and Caleb and Spencer peeping her from the middle of the parking lot while she pushes a piece of pie around on her plate. What this mystery has been missing all these years is men taking charge, so Caleb pushes past Spencer and Hanna and invites himself to dinner with Mona. He menaces her and she bounces through a secret passage in the bathroom wall that leads to the Rosewood Presbyterian Church where everyone gets married and also hanged.
Charlotte died here also, you’ll remember, and it was her death that made up one of the main three mysteries Pretty Little Liars promised to answer after the time jump. Well, how it happened was that she was just up here looking out at the city the night she got released from the mental hospital and Mona brought her some flowers. But like some joke flowers. She knew Charlotte wasn’t done being bananas. Mona was like, “I’ve been watching you five years; I know you’re re-plotting a doll house scenario.”
And Charlotte was like, “Mwahaha! Mwahahahaha! I will continue tying everyone to the train tracks and robbing sacks of money from the bank!” She stroked her evil cartoon cat, called Mona “the smart one,” and dismantled Mona’s sanity by reminding her the Liars still never did like her very much. Mona thought about killing Charlotte by kicking her out the window or stabbing her with a screwdriver, but then Charlotte pushed Mona and Mona pushed Charlotte and they wrestled for a minute while Charlotte continued to taunt Mona about being a nerd. Ultimately, Mona shoved Charlotte into the wall where there was an exposed pipe and when Charlotte slammed into it she died.
Mona remembers that she’ll never be popular and so she goes catatonic and dresses like a small child and rocks back and forth on a couch at The Lost Woods Resort. Why The Lost Woods Resort, you ask? Well obviously because Mary Drake bought this place then signed it over to Alison and Spencer and so this is where they all live now.
Another thing Mary Drake does is turn herself in for the murder of Archer Dunhill. She does it to save her daughter and her niece from going to jail for all eternity. Because Archer Dunhill’s body has been found. It has been found in Charlotte’s old grave, where it was moved after someone stashed it in Aria’s car trunk and then stole it from Aria’s car trunk. The Liars go there to dig it up and then decide the only way to stop being the Liars is is if they stop lying to themselves about how they’re not perpetually committing felonies — but too little, too late: Tanner got a hot tip they’d be at the grave and so she shows up with the entire police force and a bulldozer that hilariously comes crashing through the trees as the Liars are making up their minds to stop gravedigging.
Whatever, though, Mary Drake takes the fall.
The second mystery Pretty Little Liars promised to solve was the mystery of the opening scene after the time jump. Alison’s a teacher and she’s writing “Mrs. Rollins” on the chalkboard and the Liars rush in talking about, “He’s coming, we’ve got to go!” Okay, well that was just a dream. See, there’s a gas leak in Emily and Alison’s house and it knocks them out and while they’re knocked out Emily dreams that flash-forward but with more zombies coming through the wall. They wake up and don’t fix the gas leak or figure out about the gas leak, which bodes well for their future life together as a couple of living humans in this house.
The third mystery Pretty Little Liars promised to solve was the mystery of whether Ezra Fitz was ever going to be held accountable for being a predator and a statutory rapist. Rather than just ignoring that question, the show brought it up a hundred times this season, reminding us of the various ways he preyed on Aria and the Liars and the various ways Aria almost turned him into the authorities. In the end, Aria betrayed her friends to keep Ezra out of jail. Now that they’re mad at her for that, Ezra says they are not very good friends and don’t deserve her. He yells that at them and at Aria. “We’ve all done rude things,” he says, remembering how rude it was for him to seduce a child and video her every move for the next several years while writing a book about her dead friend.
The Liars and Aria work it out, though. While they wait for the padded wagon to come haul Mona off, they say they love and trust each other and they’re best friends forever.
I’m just kidding about that being the third mystery. There was never any question about who was going to get punished in Rosewood. Women only, and especially queer women. Ezra Fitz was always going to be fine. Just like real life! You want to know what I learned from seven seasons of watching Pretty Little Liars? The best you can hope for as a woman in this world is to make yourself boring and docile and helpless enough that a man will ultimately intervene and save you from interesting women, and also from yourself.
The real third mystery is the mystery of Pretty Little Liars is Who is A.D. and I guess we’ll find that out next week in the series finale.