Anytime Pretty Little Liars flashes back to the days when Ali ruled over the Liars with an iron fist, toying with Emily’s feelings and criticizing Hanna’s weight, I marvel at the tooling of the show’s main premise: girls wrapped up in a dangerous game revolving around their former friend (and tormentor). By making the ever-elusive and ever-evolving A target Spencer, Hanna, Aria and Emily, there’s sympathy applied to the girls and their struggles that would evade Ali. Despite their bad decision-making, the Liars are, at their cores, decent people. Ali, on the other hand, was – and maybe still is – terrible. Whether it was to her family, to her friends or to perfect strangers, Ali was horrible.
So the search for Ali’s killer (back when she was thought dead) was a revolving door of suspects who’d been terrorized by her at some point, and despite the horror at the murder of a teenage girl, the audience could always understand why someone would kill Ali. So Pretty Little Liars made an excellent choice in having Ali not being targeted because she was a terrible person but because an older guy became obsessed with her and got angry when Ali wouldn’t return his creepy affection, removing blame from Ali.* For all of her horrible acts, she didn’t deserve to be buried alive in her backyard and forced to run away from home to stay alive.
But Ali was horrible and secretive, especially with her friends, and “Love ShAck, Baby” had the Liars attempting to decipher Ali’s journal, a blatant reminder of the kind of person Ali was back when she was part of their lives with its stories (some hurtful) about the Liars in an attempt to locate her before A did.
Ali was a complicated girl, and her feelings for her friends were just as complicated. With Hanna’s reveal of Ali’s diary (which hosts pseudonyms and alterations to the stories she told because Ali was that kind of person), the Liars tried to figure out which stories were about them and how much was true. One minute Ali was taking delight in Emily’s desperate crush on her and the next she wished she could be more like her. Just as Ali has no idea who she is – if she’s the Ali that Emily had such strong feelings for or if she’s the girl who mocked and tormented her friends regularly – neither does anyone else.
While Hanna pretended that her breakup with Caleb was no big deal, and Spencer stressed over her father’s relationship with Jessica DiLaurentis, Ali’s diary led the Liars on a roadtrip that got derailed with car trouble and sent the girls to Ezra’s cabin to wait for help. During some nice girl talk Hanna revealed that one of the stories in the diary was about her and a hook-up with Mike, Aria’s younger brother. Ali was the only one who knew about it, and she made sure that Hanna would be terrified of Aria’s response to the news. Once upon a time, Ali said that secrets were what kept the girls close, but they only kept the girls close to Ali who used those secrets to tether the Liars to her. Ali really made manipulation into an art, presenting herself as the only friend who would truly understand and forgive Hanna’s hook up with Mike (whose earnest affection charmed an insecure and heavier Hanna). All of Ali’s manipulations to keep the girls at her side distanced them from each other, but in present day, Aria assured Hanna she wouldn’t have been mad about it, just really weirded out.
Ali’s friendships with the girls depended on their subservience to her and their inability to confront her for her cruelty and secrets, but “Love ShAck, Baby” had the girls butting heads plenty. First with Hanna keeping the diary a secret from them and tearing out the pages about Mike and her unwillingness to talk about Caleb. Even Aria’s weird behavior was called out. While the girls were bound by Ali’s control over them, that same control doesn’t apply to the Liars, making their relationships even stronger because they don’t fear that demanding truth from one another will mean sacrificing their relationships. But the girls are keeping secrets from each other again. Hanna came clean with hers and told the girls about Mike and the breakup with Caleb, but Aria didn’t say a word about Ezra.
When he saw that the girls had Ali’s diary Ezra threw himself into a tizzy to steal it back. Though PLL surely revisited Ezria to add more drama to Ezra’s eventual reveal as A, it’s even harder to invest in them than usual. This wouldn’t be a problem, as its natural to hate seeing Aria with a man who’s tormenting her and her friends, but on some level the show seems to want to add some conflict to Ezra’s motives, making him A but also trying to make his love for Aria appear genuine. But it’s hard to buy it when Ezra tells Aria an earnest “I love you” dressed in his A uniform, and he spent the episode stalking the girls and turning Hanna’s bedroom upside down. Thankfully the show isn’t trying to deviate from the EzrA business, and there’s really no satisfying explanation he could ever give for anything he did.
*Of course, there are people in the world who will attribute Ezra’s creepy violence to something Ali deserved because of her rejection of him, but for the sake of this review, these people don’t count.
- It’s official: Spencer is only allowed one parent per half-season. Veronica’s out-of-town, but Peter’s around and hanging with Jessica. With his hypocritical rant to Spencer about staying away from her, he’s back in the running for Worst Television Parent though Byron Montgomery still holds his first place slot.
- “I know how to make flan.” Doesn’t Toby know that Spencer knows everything?
- Hanna episode arc of putting on a brave face through the Haleb breakup was nice, as was the return of Travis and Hanna finally crying at the episode’s end.
- If we didn’t already know that Ezra was A, Travis would be an insta-suspect.
- Please let this be the end of the Marian Cavanaugh suicide/murder/foul play thing. Just let it rest, show.
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