For Max’s Pretty Little Liars, Hell Has Always Been a Teenage Girl

Series stars Chandler Kinney, Bailee Madison, Malia Pyles, Maia Reficco, and Zaria break down the relationships and teenage trauma that ground Summer School's campy horror.

TV Features HBO Max
For Max’s Pretty Little Liars, Hell Has Always Been a Teenage Girl

In any good horror story, it’s never just about who’s wielding the knife. And especially in Max’s bloody good Pretty Little Liars spinoff Summer School, the most impactful beats don’t come from bodies dropping to the floor or sudden jumpscares (as enjoyable and brutal as those moments are), but rather from the interpersonal relationships and inner lives of the complex, layered, and grounded characters at its center. And while it’s fun to revel in shock and horror at the Bloody Rose reveals and the return of last season’s Boogeyman, it’s even more rewarding to watch these five final girls evolve over the course of its two seasons. 

And, boy, have these girls been put through the wringer. Tabby (Chandler Kinney), Imogen (Bailee Madison), Faran (Zaria), Mouse (Malia Pyles), and Noa (Maia Reficco) have survived everything between Seasons 1 and 2 of this beloved teen drama, from high school bullies and teen pregnancy to masked figures and culty churches. But in the midst of it all, they’ve also continued to grow into characters worth investing in and growing along with, especially as their relationships both to each other and to those they welcome into their group shift and change. Their trauma informs all of their relationships, and, with that, those relationships create new and interesting drama along the way. 

Episode 8 in particular was an exercise in empathy, especially when it comes to a slightly controversial figure within the series’ stacked cast: Kelly Beasley (Mallory Bechtel). Kelly has betrayed and saved the Liars by turns, but at the end of the episode, she officially joins their tight-knit group, all cemented with an FGR (final girl realness) tattoo to commemorate all that they’ve survived. 

When speaking with Kinney, I couldn’t help but admit that I was surprised to see her included; so much of Kelly’s storyline this season felt like it would be a touch too far to truly come back from, at least with this specific friend group. “You know, Kelly was just misguided,” Kinney explains, “I think the girls are very forgiving and they extend a lot of grace to those around them, but I think Kelly is a badass and we see at the beginning of Episode 8 that—there’s that realization that she’s a final girl as well because she also survived the events of Principal Clanton and the Millwood Masacre. So, you know, come hell or high water, she’s a part of it, too. And she’s with the gang.” 

Kinney laughs, “We support women’s rights and women’s wrongs.” 

But speaking of Kelly’s wrongs, Episode 6 was particularly brutal for the friendship between Kelly and Imogen, and Madison states that there is likely quite a bit of animosity still between the two, “I think there has to be. But I also think that Imogen is a deeply empathetic person, and she’s lost a lot of people in her life that knew her before all the trauma. For me, I’m always like Kelly strikes that nostalgic part of Imogen, where it’s like ‘Okay, everyone that’s now in my life entered post-trauma, Kelly was there pre-trauma,’ and I think she has a soft spot for her in that sense.” 

But if Kelly keeps up her unhinged antics, Madison isn’t too sure she’ll be able to make her way back in again, “We have made it very clear to Mallory, and Mallory has made it very clear that, if she goes pulling anything else, I just don’t know how she’s going to end up back in the group! Third strike, you’re out, I think. We’re all going to be unhinged in our own way, but [Episode] 6 was next-level insanity.” 

Beyond the ways this friend group has grown and changed and shifted to include (or not include) Kelly, one of the highlights of Episode 8 is a scene that puts their friendship to the test—if only for a moment. Early in the episode, Noa brings up Jen’s (Ava Capri) concerns that Christian (Noah Gerry) or Johnny (Antonio Cipriano), Tabby and Imogen’s boyfriends, could be involved. This leads to a hilarious, snappy bit of bickering for our favorite Liars, and the cast all agree that it was refreshing to go at each other in that way, even in just this brief scene. 

“It’s really fun as an actor, and it’s really fun as Faran because I think Faran is constantly [running through] in her mind about what she could say, and so, in those moments, she’s like ‘What are we talking about here? Everyone’s a little suspicious!’” Zaria says about the joy of filming that scene. “So it’s fun, I hope we get more opportunities in the future to kind of give that to each other. Feels natural.” 

“In real-life we’re all such good friends so it’s so silly to get to come at each other’s necks,” Reficco explains, “I love these girls with my whole heart, and getting to do this show with them is such a gift to me and I learn from all of them every single day. So I love that, in those scenes, we get to play with what that friendship dynamic looks like. I love that we can find different shapes for it, and there’s so many different ways to portray that friendship that feels way more accurate than such a streamlined, ‘it’s always good’ kind of relationship would be. Friendship is that.” 

“I think it was time to see a little bit of that!” Kinney laughs recalling the scene. “They’re all in this state of stress and hyper paranoia, that it was going to get to them one way or another, so to see that turn within the group and that internal conflict—just for a second, just to get a peek at it—really grounds the story. […] It was cathartic, even to just like, well, now we’re all saying the things we might have been thinking all along. Like the quiet voice in the back of our head, we’re finally just putting it out there, just putting it all on the table.” 

And speaking of significant others, it wouldn’t be a season of Pretty Little Liars without plenty of relationship drama. However, everyone’s favorite couple, Mouse and Ash (Jordan Gonzalez), come out relatively unscathed. Even in that bickering scene, Ash isn’t considered a suspect. 

Pyles enjoys the goodness of their relationship, but hopes to explore some conflict with them in the future. “It’s important to have queer, healthy love on screen and to have that supportive partnership be reflected on TV. On the flip side of that, at a certain point, it would be nice to see them have some conflict. And that doesn’t mean that conflict couldn’t be resolved and they still couldn’t stand as this beautiful power couple.” 

She continues, “But I just think the reality of the situation is that Mouse has been lying to Ash and Ash has been supportive, but he is, you know, a human with autonomy, and I think it would be really cool to see that come to a head in some way. Or, if their relationship isn’t challenged by themselves, maybe by external forces. Of course, he is privy to all these villains that are in the girls’ lives and he’s been a support there, so I’m like ‘Maybe one of the villains would come after him…’ Or maybe he’s one of the masked people, who knows!” 

As for the series’ other queer couple, Noa and Jen, Reficco speaks to the difficulty of seeing the reaction to this particular relationship online, and how viewers could stand to be a little more understanding when it comes to engaging with Noa’s journey, both this season and in the future. “In reality and in life, we all make mistakes, and I think that’s such an important part of the show that is so centered on these teenagers actually being teenagers and actually messing up and being realistic about the fact that these girls—of course, they’re getting chased and that is the camp, horror aspect about the show—but there’s also a lot of reality in [the fact that] this is a 16 year-old girl trying to figure it out. […] And obviously there’s no desire behind perpetuating cheating stereotypes, but it’s more so the understanding that humans are complex.” 

She continues, “[With] Noa, specifically in this journey, Jen means so many more things than just the love interest. She also represents her past, and she also represents a lot that she wants to get away from—old habits. So I think working through that with her is a very big part of Noa’s journey this season. […] And along the way she does hurt people, and as painful as it is to sometimes watch and hear what people’s opinions are—because it is painful—I also feel that there’s truth behind it. We are Pretty Little Liars, at the end of the day!” 

Whether or not the audience connects to Noa and Jen as a couple, Noa’s journey this season is just another element that allows this series to so deeply and effectively explore all facets of teenage life, and Reficco emphasizes empathy once more: “Sometimes it’s really easy to judge teenage girls on TV. I also believe that that double standard is quite exhausting, and shouldn’t be perpetuated.” 

And while Zaria admits that Faran has “no idea what she’s doing” in her controversial situationship with Greg (Elias Kacavas), she is certain of one thing: her organic progression into a protector figure for the group. 

“It feels really natural for Faran!” Zaria says when asked about her protectiveness. It’s been a fixture of her character since Season 1, and she hopes that arc continues to evolve in the future, “I’m excited to see her protect herself. I think she did some of that this season as well, she was like ‘Okay, Henry, whatever cult you’re in, you’re going to have to do that by yourself!’”

But in protecting both herself and her girls throughout Season 2, Faran acquires a new scar. During the first season, so much of her storyline revolved around the shame surrounding her scars, and Zaria says that making sure this new scar was both visible and top-of-mind was extremely important to her character’s continued journey. 

“From Season 1, she had that journey as well, of like ‘I’m not going to hide this from the world, I’m not going to hide this from myself, and I’m not going to hide this from my mom,’ and so [in Episodes 7 and 8] you see the scar and she doesn’t wear long sleeves—she’s in her tank tops, and it’s just really phenomenal! We had a conversation, me and my makeup artist, about it. Because there’s always a little movie magic and everyone heals a lot faster on TV, and I said ‘You guys, she has to have one because it’s so much a part of her, and we can’t just cover it up with a bandaid the whole time. We have to see it,’” she explains. 

Zaria also emphasizes the importance of Faran’s physicality, especially in showcasing the growth she’s experienced throughout the series’ two seasons, “Faran is always really aware of the differences on her body and what make her look different, so last season she did a lot of [touching her neck or shoulder] when no one was looking, and this season she does a lot of [rubbing and flexing her fingers], and it’s her calluses that she’s feeling for—she does a lot of little tiny things. So it was really fun to get in the gym because I got real calluses.” 

As for Imogen’s journey this season, and potentially heading into the next, Madison speaks to the difficulty of filming Imogen’s big ice cream parlor scene post-strikes: “We had 10 days left of our finale and those 10 days were pretty much any big scene that you could think of. […] Bless Antonio, I don’t think he heard much from me in that moment. I was like ‘You’re gonna be in your own zone, and I’m gonna be in mine.’ It was towards the end of filming at like 11 PM or midnight. I think you just try to let it go and commit to it. I also had The Shining as a reference, which, what an iconic reference to give an actor!” She laughs. 

Imogen has been through hell and back throughout this show, and even though Johnny feels like a safe bet that she can trust, that scene only serves to amplify her greatest fears once more, Madison says: “It’s like twisting and threading that needle of pure dread and shock and horror and fight or flight instincts and also the trauma she’s already been through. So why the hell, at this point, would she not [react in that way].” 

At the end of the episode, after Johnny has been freed from the freezer, their exams have all been passed, and their villains have been locked up, Imogen and Tabby sit down for another one of their heartfelt debriefs. Tabby tells Imogen that she’s ready to move on from it all, that she’s ready to tell a new story. 

When asked if Imogen is ready to follow her down that path, Madison explains, “Yeah, I think so! Will their paths align? I don’t know about that. I think that these two girls are ready to let that part of it go—I truly believe that, from the bottom of my heart, they’re like ‘We’re done with that shit, we’ve been through it, we’ve done all the drama, we’ve cut all the loose ties from the trauma now.’ […] I’m not sure what [it’ll be], but I would love to see them go off the edge a little bit and maybe overly let loose.”

She continues, “But I think all these girls are on a different journey and a different path of healing because healing is different for everyone and trauma is different for everybody.” 

If Summer School made anything clear, it’s that villains like Archie and Bloody Rose are real, tangible threats, of course, but they’re also the physical embodiment of guilt, grief, anger, and shame—emotions teenage girls (and, in particular, these teenage girls) are all too familiar with. From relationship drama to betrayals amongst friends to the ways these characters impact its audience, Max’s Pretty Little Liars takes the already-heightened reality of high school and throws a hyper-realistic, bloody, gory mask on it, evoking the impact of its predecessors and carrying the torch for a new generation of slasher-fostered sisterhood. 

Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of complicated female villains, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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