The previews after last week's episode of Pretty Little Liars promised an episode centered around Jenna (Tammin Sursok), and I was excited. With all of the A "reveals," the countless near-death experiences, and the unanswered questions, it can be hard to remember where it all began. And it began with the very first mystery that kept us coming back to Pretty Little Liars: What was the "Jenna Thing?"
Years ago we learned the truth. The "Jenna Thing" is when Ali (Sasha Pieterse) led Spencer (Troian Bellisario), Aria (Lucy Hale), Hanna (Ashley Benson), and Emily (Shay Mitchell) to the Cavanaugh's house to punish Toby (Keegan Allen). Ali thought he was stalking and taking nude photos of her and her friends (more correctly she thought he was A) so she threw a stink bomb into the Cavanaugh's shed. In the process, she accidentally (or, so we have been led to believe) blinded Jenna. The Liars have been involved in a lot of horrible things since then, including murdering Shana (Aeriel Miranda) and Elliot (Huw Collins). However, the "Jenna Thing" still in many ways feels like their worst crime.
Every murder and betrayal since Ali went missing has been to protect their lives, to outsmart a murderous psychopath stalking them. When A has driven them to commit heinous crimes, I've empathized with them. But blinding Jenna, lying about it to the cops, and letting Toby take the fall for their actions was before all of that. It's hard to understand why they went along with Ali, and it makes total sense that Jenna hates them. Not going to lie, they deserve it. They weren't listening to an omnipresent dangerous monster. They were listening to Ali — a 15-year-old girl they shared best friend bracelets with. In that moment we saw how dangerous group-think could be, particularly amongst high school girls.
Tonight's episode was not centered around Jenna as much as I had hoped, but in many ways it brought the show back to it's roots in a more meaningful way.
I wondered why the writers had Emily, Paige (Lindsey Shaw), and Ali all working at Rosewood High, other than so the show could reuse the same set. But with the introduction of Alison 2.0 (a new high school character named Addison) it came together. This story has never been about just one group of friends. It's about growing up female: the crushing feeling of the patriarchy when you're a teenage girl, and how easy it is for one person to sway opinions and terrorize people, particularly with the help of technology and raging hormones.
In juxtaposition with Addison, an actual high school student, it's easy to see all of the ways the Liars have changed since they were in high school. But even easier to see all the ways they are still exactly like they were when they walked the halls of Rosewood High.
Aria is still the best at keeping secrets and sneaking around. After a loose-lipped journalist told her Ezra (Ian Harding) and Nicole (Rebecca Breeds) were engaged before Nicole went missing, Aria didn't pick up the phone to call Ezra. Instead, she tried to break in and see Nicole. Thankfully, Holden (Shane Coffey) was there to stop her. Something else that hasn't changed: While the other girls' storylines have focused on the constant blackmail by A, Aria's storylines have primarily focused on her love triangles and relationship drama. Having Aria cuddling and being honest with Holden, while dating, but not quite being truthful with Ezra doesn't just remind us of high school Aria, it was an exact storyline from season two. The only difference is engagement rings are now involved.
Hanna has always been the dumbest smart girl around, and the character with the most integrity (well, once she stopped shoplifting). We saw that again tonight when she mixed up the Mona Lisa with the actual Mona (Janel Parrish), and when she didn't want the senator's daughter wearing a dress she didn't feel was truly her design, respectively. But her weaknesses haven't changed either. Her rashness is what led her to confront Jenna about not being blind in earlier seasons, resulted in her being kidnapped by Noel (Brant Daugherty) last season, and getting locked in a creepy cell in tonight's episode. Her other weakness? Her loyalty to Mona. Otherwise, she would be wondering if Mona is still A like the rest of us. It can't be a coincidence Mona picked the dress design that ended up being on Jenna's body less than 24 hours later. Mona was A in the beginning, and if tonight's episode taught us anything, it's that the origin story matters.
Spencer still shuts her family out the minute things get rough. Ali once said the girls collectively had all the puzzle pieces. I think it's actually the Hastings that have all the puzzle pieces. If the Hastings had only been honest to begin with, then Spencer would have gone into the game knowing Ali's mother had a twin, Mary Drake (Andrea Parker), it was easy to sneak out of Radley, and Mary Drake had enough freedom in Radley to get knocked up at least once. This knowledge could have ended the game before it started. But instead of asking for answers, Spencer ignored her family, and ran to her cop boyfriend...just like she's done in basically every past season. Thank goodness Melissa (Torrey DeVitto) was mentioned in this episode, here's hoping Torrey DeVitto can take a break from Chicago Med and visit Rosewood for the final Hasting's honesty hour (and perhaps reveal we're right in thinking Spencer has a twin).
Emily proved she was the weakest link, again. She was the easiest to push back to the board game. Emily is Addison's swim coach. When Addison overhears Paige and Emily arguing over Ali, you can see the chaos she is about to cause. On one hand, any high school student who learns about a faculty love triangle, is going to gossip and cause havoc. But Addison isn't named suspiciously close to Alison for nothing. Instead, she spies on Emily and Ali and takes photos of them together. She then uses those photos as evidence to back up a completely fabricated story about Emily being inappropriate. Just like that Addison is showing the power one high school student, one whisper, one suggestion can have on someone's reputation. Emily knows the power of blackmail all too well, yet sinks to the same level when A provides her with a video of Addison cutting practice to be with her boyfriend. Yes, you read that right, after A started blackmailing Emily in 10th grade, Emily went and did the same thing. Ali delightfully called her out for it by saying, "Jenna reduced [Emily] to blackmailing a 10th grader."
And that brings us to the one character who felt different this whole episode — Ali. She was the mean girl in high school, and while I wouldn't be totally surprised to find out she's been behind the game all along, she wasn't the mean girl tonight. She was one of the few characters we didn't see sneaking around, lying, or keeping secrets. It feels slightly suspicious to me, but there is always the chance that her character is there to show us how people can change. Addison could grow up be a high school english teacher instead of a manipulative adult. Even Ali saw the similarity between her teenage self and Addison, admitting they shared an attitude but Addison was "worse because I at least looked up from my phone when I threatened adults."
That line made me shiver. When this show first started, all the characters had flip phones with grainy videos and photos. The photoshopped photo of Kate (Natalie Hall) that was passed around Rosewood High in season two is nothing compared to what today's teenagers could do, and nothing compared to the quality of photo Addison took of Emily and Ali. If anything, that's what the board game, Liars Lament, represents — how far technology has come and how that's increased the stakes of the game. When the girls were 14 and 15 they had three college boys (the N.A.T. club) filming them without their consent, preserving the secrets of the town. These days anyone can capture someone's life on film.
In eight episodes, this group of friends will finally figure out who A is and end their seven-year-torment. But it's not going to be an easy answer; I Marlene King and the cast have admitted the final A is a sympathetic character. It's very likely that this game all began, just like the "Jenna Thing," with Ali and her submissive group bullying someone, tormenting A until they concocted the perfect game of revenge that got out of hand (shout out to Lucas is A.D. believers). Tonight's episode reminded us that another Ali, another tormented teenager looking for revenge, and another person with the ability to use a few ill-timed photos to bully people is always just around the corner.
Just because Pretty Little Liars is almost over doesn't mean the group-think of high school that started it all will ever be.
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