In Pretty Little Liars: Summer School’s Harrowing Finale, Tabby Triumphantly Defies the Genre’s Worst Tropes

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In Pretty Little Liars: Summer School’s Harrowing Finale, Tabby Triumphantly Defies the Genre’s Worst Tropes

Since the advent of the genre, horror has had a shaky track record when it comes to handling storylines surrounding rape and sexual assault. The entire subgenre of rape revenge horror flicks is littered with downright nauseating, extended rape sequences or mixed messages about victims “deserving” what happened to them. And even in more recent (and, notably, more celebrated) entries, there’s still one lingering misstep plaguing the portrayal of survivors in these horror films: more often than not, when the story comes to a close, the central heroine is still fated to die. 

Since Season 1, Max’s Pretty Little Liars has never shied away from engaging in poignant commentary surrounding the horrors of being a teenage girl, and, specifically, how young women suffer from the actions of entitled men. From Tabby’s beautifully-handled spiral in Rosewood during Season 1 to her refusing to back down in the final episode of Season 2, this series has been a refreshing and harrowing examination of what it means to be a survivor, and has continually used its outlandish horror and bloody slasher villains to elevate its grounded storylines that too many young women find themselves relating to. 

In the finale, Tabby (Chandler Kinney) is confronted with two horrifying villains, each of whom share a similar agenda: silencing her, all while freezing her on film as a permanent, helpless victim. Mrs. Langsberry (Carey Van Driest), Chip’s mother and our chilling Bloody Rose, continually shouts that Tabby is a whore, and insists that she redeem Chip’s legacy by telling the world that her son didn’t rape her; Wes (Derek Klana), in his sick and twisted lunacy, claims he wants to use his film to share Tabby’s story with the world, but his efforts only represent the same effect of films like I Spit on Your Grave (which appeared in Chip’s closet in the Season 1 finale): exploitation and perpetuation masked as some kind of “empowered representation.”  

But Wes, in all his monologuing about brilliant filmmaking and final girls and snuff films, exposes himself as nothing more than a hack. “He really is kind of pathetic. A pathetic little man! Who is just so insecure and so threatened by her brilliance and wants to write it off as all these opportunities coming to her because she is a woman of color… and in reality, it’s just because she is that brilliant, and her voice is valued and needed, as she says,” Kinney explains. 

Showrunner Lindsay Calhoon Bring speaks to Tabby’s conviction in the episode, and how bringing this powerful scene to the screen was a moment where the writing team had to stand their own ground when telling this story, “One of, I think, the most powerful moments in the episode—to me—is, in the church, Wes and Mrs Langsberry are on camera trying to get Tabby—who, in our franchise, is a Little Liar—they’re trying to get her to lie and say Chip did not rape her, Chip did not assault her. ‘Hey, say what we want you to say, and this can all end.’ And we actually had a back and forth about this with the notes that we’d gotten saying like, ‘She should lie! She’s a liar! That’s the franchise, she should lie and she should do whatever she can to get out of this.’ 

And I think we kinda rightfully really stuck to our guns on this in saying: This is a truth. She would rather be killed than let Chip get away with what he did to her. And I think Chandler’s performance is so powerful with looking down that camera and saying ‘Chip Langsberry raped me.’ That gives me chills everytime I see it. And for us, too, Tabby’s character is so powerless for so much of this episode, she is down on the ground, she’s flanked by killers, and that is a moment where she really gains a lot of power and stands up and speaks her truth. I just thought that was so important for survivors to see, too.” 

“While this is a very heightened show and a very horror show and a YA show, [we really wanted] Tabby to take that power back in the way that she could. And to have those wins,” Bring continues. It’s owning her truth that gives her the strength to keep fighting, Bring emphasizes, “From that moment forward, and from the moment after [when] she sees that her mother is going to be hurt, that, to me, is when I see Tabby [go] from someone who was like ‘Everything is lost, I’m not gonna make it’ to ‘I have something to live for, I’m going to fight, and I’m going to get out of this thing. And if it means I have to stick someone to the wall with a pitchfork to do it, then I’m gonna do it.’”

Kinney echoes the importance of protecting Tabby’s truth in this episode, and explains her decision to grab that pitchfork outside of the cabin and use it, “In that moment, she has to do what she did because it is symbolic of everything that her story has been and the ways in which her story has been stolen and taken from her and rewritten and retold through other lenses. So at that moment, [stabbing Wes] was the only way for her to ensure that she could live her truth. She was all out of options.” 

And while Kinney states that Tabby’s intention was to kill Wes in that moment, the writers wanted to protect her from even more trauma by allowing Wes to live, “We definitely talked about her killing him. I think I was of the ‘female rage’ mindset of ‘Yeah! She kills him! He’s dead! Has anybody ever deserved it more?’” Bring explains, “Back to sounding like Jamie Lee Curtis, our season is so about trauma, and what does Tabby killing someone do to her? Is that something she carries with her? […] I think for us, it was all those things compounded together. But we did talk about it and I think we were protective of Tabby. Of everything she’d been through, we didn’t want her—though I feel he deserved it—we didn’t want her to walk away a killer,” Bring explains.   

Of course, it is infinitely satisfying to see Wes get what he deserved, but the most powerful moment in the episode actually comes in the beats following those pitchfork prongs piercing through the cabin. Tabby, bloodied, bruised, and shell-shocked, walks out of the cabin and into the light, having survived the night. 

Kinney emphasizes the weight of that moment, and how she wanted to do the scene justice, “When I was reading it on the page, that was the moment that stuck out to me the most because it is so powerful and hopeful, and she’s made it through the night, and she’s made it through this test, and she gets to live. And she makes it to the end of the story. I was really intent on getting that moment right, and I was scared because it was the first thing that I filmed before any of that test—before I filmed the church or the forest stuff. So I really didn’t have a frame of reference of what all that looked like yet, but I did know what the horror Tabby experienced was.”  

By so pointedly utilizing two characters like Tabby and Wes, who ultimately represent two completely opposite ends of the horror genre—Tabby as a creative force pushing into the future; Wes as the tired, pinnacle of white mediocrity stuck regurgitating the past—the series takes its peers to task and challenges the “rules” in regards to telling these stories, “She’s not going to play into this old, tired horror trope where she’s like the damsel in distress and she’s going to cry and break down and surrender. She’s going to fight. And so I think it’s really empowering to see Tabby in that position. And fight for not only her life, but her truth, and being willing to die for it,” Kinney states of Tabby’s showdown with her tormentors. 

“I really have to sing the praises of Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] and Lindsay because they know the genre of horror so well, and so they know the tropes and the stereotypes and they know what to play into and what to sidestep, and what ‘rules’ to break,” Kinney adds. 

And, truthfully, in moments like these, where the final Final Girl of the season defeats the tormentors who seek to silence her and is instead allowed to move forward and move on, the care taken in crafting this storyline radiates from the screen. “We talk about all of this as respectfully as possible and as honestly as possible in the writers’ room,” Bring says, “From the beginning of the show, Season 1 when we pitched it, we [stressed] very much that this is a horror story and a heightened story, but it’s about the grounded horrors that young people go through. And specifically in our show, that young women go through. And [it’s] hard not to engage in conversations about sexual assault and bullying.” 

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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