Oh, wow, Ravenswood is going to be a silly show.
Tonight’s episode of Pretty Little Liars is supposed to set up the show’s upcoming spinoff, Ravenswood, but given the events of “Under The Gun” I have no idea what the premise of that show is going to be. Ravens congregate on wires and sometimes fall dead from the sky? People walk around when songs are played on loudspeakers? Everything in the town is in grayscale?? (Okay, maybe that I would watch.) Spencer and Toby’s visit to Ravenswood, following the lead of an actual talking bird, is rather anticlimactic, although clearly, secrets are there to be uncovered, if ravens would stop flying long enough for us to take a look at them.
Considering how good Pretty Little Liars is with creepy occurrences that are so unsettling they verge on supernatural, it looks for a minute like Ravenswood might be some kind of magical haunted town—Toby’s insistence on getting something to eat had me convinced that much like Hades’ underworld, if our heroes ate of the fruits of Ravenswood, they would be doomed to stay there forever.
Nothing quite so interesting happens. Instead we spot Shauna attending a strange gathering in front of a statue of an angel, before slipping away to get into Jenna’s car and speed off. Mysterious, but unfortunately not revelatory.
Which is more or less how the rest of the episode plays out as well. Hanna’s mother is arrested in the final minutes of “Under The Gun,” even though Hanna protests she’s being framed; Emily’s surprisingly gutsy attempt to shift the blame is savagely undercut by A, who swaps out the crucial evidence to instead show a video of Emily standing in front of Rosewood’s welcome sign (with a population counter!) holding a paper sign that says GUILTY. It’s a mask; that’s not totally clear at first, but made very clear by the end, when we see A wearing the mask as she breaks into and then drives away in someone else’s car.
The mask thing is terrifying. Look, Pretty Little Liars has the capacity to be a deeply silly show, and in “Under The Gun” there are so many moments of sloppy direction it’s hard to keep count. But what I love about this show is how it manages to be so uniquely bone-chilling in nearly every episode, often by calling upon images or fantasies that are just so original or novel they’re honestly quite brilliant. Pretty Little Liars feels to me like a thousand graduate theses waiting to happen, given all of its experimentation with symbolism.
The mask mystery is one of them. The show’s tension is primarily about identity, after all—who is A? Now Pretty Little Liars is taking on the question by essentially rendering it meaningless. Anyone can wear a mask, after all. It undercuts the main story of the show, which has already taken a hit with the idea that A is not just a person but a team, or that Ali is still alive, perhaps manipulating even A itself. A is just a name, just a letter, a stand-in for some other unknown identity or identities. A is a mask, then; and no one knows more than A how powerful the mask is. There’s already a kind of mystery in the removal of identity from a text message or signed note—just because someone signs their texts “A” doesn’t mean they are A. There’s a lot of existential terror at the root of that truth; a very basic and human fear that their identity is easily wiped away and made over. A fear, and a desire. Masquerade is an ancient trope—Shakespeare used it, as did Zorro!—so it’s intriguing to see it implemented in this very modern story, supplemented by other forms of hiding in plain sight.
Another image that resonated with me from “Under The Gun” is Hanna’s careful undoing of where she hid the dash-cam footage from the car crash; she opens her jewelry box, takes out the tray, takes out another flat box, opens that to reveal a makeup palette, and unfolds that further to reveal the small piece of computer hardware, neatly fitted into the bottom of the tray. The meticulous detailing feels a little like a spy movie and a little like a makeover scene—a fetishization of products that crosses genres. I rewound and rewatched just that one shot, which is carefully filmed so that the boxes fill up the entire screen.
There’s clearly some higher power at work on Pretty Little Liars. It is, often, insufferable: Tonight’s episode features too much Hanna’s dad, too many longing looks from Fitz, too much dithering about this gun mystery that has gone on for too long. At the same time, there are moments of surprising resonance. Aria’s brother Mike is a silly character, but Aria’s struggle with keeping her past relationship with Fitz a secret and meanwhile being branded as a slut is a little heartbreaking. It doesn’t have anything to do with the plot… but then again, nothing I enjoy about Pretty Little Liars has anything much to do with the plot.
- Wow, Rosewood residents drink a lot of coffee. There’s a mug in almost every scene!
- Spencer’s outfit when she’s dishing with Toby in her kitchen is pretty money.
- Oh yeah, Mona’s back! There’s an RV situation. I didn’t understand it. Someone tell me what’s going on. (I’ve always liked Mona. I also always thought she was A. Go figure.)
- Coming back to this show after being semi-obsessed with the first season, I have to say—it really explains a lot that Ali has been alive the whole time.
- Thanks to Joe for letting me sub for him while he’s away. He’ll be back next week to regale you all with how he discovered who A is on vacation.