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Pretty Little Liars: “How The ‘A’ Stole Christmas”

Janel Parrish
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Pretty Little Liars could easily keep its holiday episodes outside of the show’s continuity (although it would mean Adam Lambert hitting on Aria on the murder train would be just wishful thinking). It’s the route the network’s sitcoms take, and in a lot of ways, Pretty Little Liars is in fact a situational comedy. Then there’s The Fosters, which just included a flashback (that fits into past continuity without doing too much work), bookended by the show’s current major storyline. Say what you will about Pretty Little Liars, but by going half-assed isn’t really its style.

That inability to go half-assed, however, often creates a problem for the show: It likes to do too much, even when it can’t possibly follow through on the goals it sets for itself. This is especially true when Pretty Little Liars decides to go the supernatural route, instead of the incredible, but still somewhat realistic, explanations. It’s the Ravenswood approach versus Mona’s adrenalized hyper-reality approach.

Back in episode 11, “No One Here Can Love Or Understand Me,” Pretty Little Liars more or less closed the book on the Ravenswood chapter in Caleb’s life with the Ouija board. That show had ghosts, deals with the devil, and the Grunwald, and although it was fun while it lasted, it was never really part of Pretty Little Liars’ world. The closest Pretty Little Liars ever got to that was back in “This Is A Dark Ride,” when Ashley Marin met a ghost girl after perhaps five too many bottles of wine on Halloween. But “How The A Stole Christmas” decides that none of that is enough and has Alison be haunted by her (still cryptic in the afterlife) mother and the ghost corpse of Mona Vanderwaal. In what at first looks like it will be an homage to A Christmas Carol (which plays during the Christmas festivities at Spencer’s place) is instead a poorly-constructed excuse to throw out “foreshadowing” and “symbolism” with regards to Alison’s eventual demise. Again.

Somehow, it’s both too much and too little in this episode. The problem with the storyline—besides the fact that it goes full-tilt supernatural in a show that doesn’t do that—is that it’s one that should demand the full attention of the show. A show doing A Christmas Carol shenanigans usually makes that the episode and for good reason. Instead, Pretty Little Liars takes a little out of column A and a little out of column M to get this all done, while the in between refuses to react to this. Even Alison herself doesn’t react differently to these ghost visits (or mental breakdowns) in between their occurrences.

Hanna: “Wishes don’t come true, Emily. If they did, people wouldn’t die.”

Emily: “I’m still holding out hope.”

Spencer: “Hope is a dirty four letter word.”

Aria: [SILENCE]

These three lines (and Aria not contributing) are the most for all four of these characters, respectively. Hanna’s grief tends to come out in the form of anger, Emily is often too optimistic (and god love her, but a little oblivious) for her own good, Spencer has to make everything “intense,” and Aria still doesn’t know she’s on a show called Pretty Little Liars. “Out of character” isn’t a phrase that’s used often when it comes to this show, and that solid characterization gives the show a lot of free passes.

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Unfortunately, that characterization is what also has: Hanna threaten a (terrible) child, Emily realize at the very last minute she should have told everyone that Cece was in New York “that night,” Spencer formulate a dangerous plan featuring her and the Liar who’s not known for her quick thinking (Hanna confuses “gesture” and “jester” here) , and Aria go to Emily for the Alison/Santa front instead of just bursting in on them and getting definitive proof on who Alison’s gentleman caller is.

Again, there is a lot going on in this episode.

It all starts when the lawyer handling Mona’s estate shows up with a file for Hanna; it contains a map of Alison’s tricked out house and a letter basically asking her to take down Alison. Spencer is out on bail, and the Liars realize this could be the key to pinning Alison down for Bethany’s murder, Mona’s murder, being A, 9/11, Big Foot, and aliens in Roswell. Alison is throwing a party on Christmas Eve, and that will be when they strike. The gang’s all here, with Ezra, Paige, Caleb, Lucas, and Toby (who gets to pay tribute Rear Window this episode) all declaring their allegiances to the one true queens: the Liars.

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Before the party, the episode does well to remind the audience that Emily hates Sydney and Jenna, Aria and Ezra no longer care about their inappropriate relationship being public knowledge, and Alison has absolutely no problem replacing her “friends” when they “abandon” her. There’s a big moment in Sydney and Jenna becoming new members of Alison’s squad, but even they make it clear that it’s because—unlike an alarming number of Rosewood residents—they’re not dumb and they want to be safe. It’s something the Liars have never really quite gotten a handle on, and even though Sydney and Jenna are still clearly not the villains of the piece (even they believe the current theory that Ali killed Mona), Emily refuses to believe them:

Sydney: “Jenna’s not a bad person. You just wouldn’t know that because Alison convinced you that she was the enemy.”

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Again, Pretty Little Liars’ holiday episodes could totally be without consequence, but because they’re not, they often manage to bring up good conversation points outside of the overarching plots. Let’s be real: What has Jenna done to any of the girls to make them hate her?* Aria pretended to be “Anita” to stalk her. Spencer went into a blind fugue state and also stalked her to blind school. Emily probably would have hooked up with her if it weren’t for Alison. Hanna slapped her in a restroom. Alison blinded her, and the girls not only were accessories to that crime but they continued to go to bat for Alison until about two episodes before this one.

Emily’s refusal to even take a step back and think about how Alison framed the girls’ opinions of Jenna (as well as what Jenna has really ever even done to them and why) is actually another big part of the episode’s problem. Besides just being congested without giving all of the plots enough of their own focus—which is also a symptom of the near-the-end merry Christmas montage—the characters are barely thinking here. Lapses of logic are of course needed for Pretty Little Liars to sustain itself for as long as it has and will, but now that the show is without a living version of Mona, these characters have to think for themselves again. They can’t always rely on letters from beyond-the-grave, and they can’t just start leaving their phones while they’re investigating the suspect A’s house. The latter is even more frustrating that the Emily/Sydney/Jenna situation in this episode, because this is a show where phones are practically the fifth lead of the series. Hanna leaving her phone behind is suspense for suspense’s sake, something the show is much better than at this point in its run. Pretty Little Dummies has a nice ring to it, but it’s not what anyone signed up for.

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And to top it all off, this moment happens and can’t be undone:

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There are ghost corpses, omniscient cyberbullies, and towns that time forgot with doppelganger death pacts, but the one thing I will truly put my foot down is the lengths this show goes in this episode when it comes to ultimate fan-pandering, by essentially implying that the Hastings house turned into a sex palace on Christmas Day. Plus, the fact that no one’s parents are around—even the Hastings—isn’t as easy to believe as the show would like the audience to believe. Why any of these girls’ parents would leave them behind (Emily is the only one who gives an excuse) in the world’s most dangerous town outside of the DC Universe is impossible to either explain or comprehend. For that, the MVPs of the episode are Paige’s parents, who “dont think Rosewood’s a safe place anymore.” Wake up and pick up the shovel, people—Rosewood, PA is hell on earth.

Stray observations:

  • *I am aware that Jenna raped Toby, but: 1. That rarely, if ever, comes up when the girls list their grievances with Jenna (her being creepy is at the top of the list) and 2. Honestly, based on everything we’ve ever seen from Jenna, I still think that’s the most inconsistent part of her character.
  • This review might feel all over the place, but that’s because I was hoping to channel my inner “How The A Stole Christmas.”
  • This episode confirms it, but shifting Mona into the role of the (actually) dead friend who needs avenging is one of the better ideas the show has had. It doesn’t just keep the show fresh: It makes a lot more sense than Alison really ever did. Mona, even at her most adrenalized hyper-reality driven state, is an inherently likable (or at least, understandable) character, especially compared to Alison. Alison flashbacks tended to lead to questions like “Why did anyone want to be friends with her?” or “Do you think the whole town lined up to kill her?” Already, the first Mona flashback has something those Alison flashbacks were missing: It’s genuinely heartbreaking.
  • So, Detective Holbrook may be just as bad as every other adult male in Rosewood, huh? Allow me to differ to my notes on this one: “‘You’re on my list, Aria. The naughty one.’ NO NO NO NO NO NO DETECTIVE SEAN FARIS, YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE THE LAST OF A DYING BREED…‘That’s a pretty dress. Tell Ezra I think he has good taste.’ *June Diane Raphael voice* ‘So upsetting’”
  • Cece Drake is back, and that’s great because it means that Bruce might make a reappearance.
  • The worst part of the outwardly fabulous ghost corpse Mona is that she didn’t come out and say Alison killed her. Because Alison clearly didn’t kill her and the show wants to drag out that reveal for as long as possible.
  • “Merry Christmas, bitches. -A”
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