Got a Secret? You Can Keep It: On Pretty Little Liars and Cycles of Trauma

After seven seasons, Pretty Little Liars ended this week. Should it have ended sooner?

TV Features Pretty Little Liars
Got a Secret? You Can Keep It: On Pretty Little Liars and Cycles of Trauma

For six and a half seasons, Pretty Little Liars was a show about the horrors of growing up. Then the characters grew up—but for another 30 episodes the horrors continued. So Pretty Little Liars pivoted, becoming a show about the ineluctable cycles of trauma, which, appropriately enough, is also when Pretty Little Liars began to feel like it would never end.

Pretty Little Liars premiered in 2010 on the then-dubbed ABC Family network, a Christian-slanted, conservative basic cable channel that has since embraced an older, more progressive audience under the name Freeform. The show was created by I. Marlene King, who’d impressively go on to be showrunner for all seven seasons, but was known at that time mostly for writing the coming-of-age Now and Then, the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, among a few other things that just seem to exist on this planet. Based on the series of YA novels by Sara Shepard—from which the show’s plotline would eventually drastically depart, in a sort of A Song of Ice and Fire vs. TV’s Game of Thrones kind of situation—PLL follows four teens living in the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Rosewood as they navigate both the rigors of pubescence and an all-seeing, malevolent force known as “A,” who has something to do with their murdered best friend and ersatz leader, Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse).

Despite lasting long past the point at which it could’ve cleanly bowed out, Pretty Little Liars stayed compelling (and very lucrative) throughout the better part of a decade, able to balance its teen soap opera tendencies with smart character development and a genuine affection for the world it’d created. That tight-rope walk extended to the many genres it tipped between, helmed by such serialized television veterans like Norman Buckley, folks who’ve stuck around seemingly forever because they’ve got an inherent agility to the way they put together an episode. It helped that Pretty Little Liars was so adaptable to an array of fans, each watching for very different reasons. This was partly due to the series’ overarching mystery, which eventually became an eternally forking mess of mysteries: Who is “A”—but also why is “A,” and what really happened to Alison, and what kind of juicy corruption lies beneath the shiny veneer of the Liars’ (the core group of four girls) suburban hometown?

Once we discovered the identity of “A” at the end of Season Two, the show pressed forward. Next we were introduced to another “A,” and once that villain was unmasked at the end of Season 6A, the Liars—now joined by Alison, who wasn’t dead after all—after a five-year time-jump post-high school, found yet another shadowy nemesis in “A.D.” (a.k.a. “Uber A,” a.k.a. “Devil Emoji”) as well as a mind-boggling array of red herrings and murders and conspiracies and a lot of other plot threads dropped inexplicably or timelines folded impossibly. On Tuesday, June 27th, the series finale of Pretty Little Liars revealed the identity of “A.D.” It was fine.

Throughout the series, the Liars survive their increasingly dangerous ordeals—villains become allies, and vice versa; retconning happens as a matter of fact—but every time they think they can move on, a previously unknown nemesis emerges to open old wounds. At heart, Pretty Little Liars is a slasher film more interested in imagining what happens to its Final Girl(s) after the film ends than stopping once the killer’s been subdued. It operates in the same vein as The Walking Dead by extending the lives of its genre-based archetypes into the endless, trope-less void of the future, and at its best, it shared self-awareness with the likes of Scream, portraying the lives of its high schoolers as serious, character-driven stuff, toying with the bits and pieces of its genre elements to heighten the audience’s sense of danger awaiting the Liars on the other side of adulthood.

Though the Liars grow stronger together, they were and still are victims, their childhoods violated by trauma—by harassment and assault, by betrayal and death. What happens to the Final Girl after the slasher film ends? She settles in for a lifetime of dealing with trauma.

Meanwhile, the more the plot revealed the adults in the Liars’ lives to be the source of so much pain and suffering—who held onto so many secrets as they fumbled every attempt to protect their children from the fallout of their many sins—the scarier adulthood became, a black-clad specter of maturity (both literally and metaphorically) stalking these girls through the supposedly safe streets of Rosewood. That the Liars have always looked like and were played by adults—as is the case with most series of Pretty Little Liars’ ilk, granted—only further complicates the illusion of security so many young adults buy into as they “die” to finally get out from under their parents’ roofs.

Similarly, when we first meet the Liars, we understand where they fit, already well inured to the slasher archetypes each represents.

Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale) is the arty one, who, filled with passion she has yet to hone through her writing—or whatever—begins an affair with her high school English teacher, Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding). Theirs is a relationship that doesn’t so much require tomes of analysis to pull apart as it deserves a full admission from the show’s creators that it was, and will never be, anything but an affair founded on statutory rape, no matter how “good” of a guy Ezra turned out to be.

Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) is our group’s jock, as well as the token queer character—also, the first of the Liars to murder someone. (Eventually each of the Liars commits, at the very least, manslaughter.)

Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson) was once the source of Alison’s fiercest ridicule, but upon her friend’s disappearance became Rosewood High School’s “it” girl, joining forces with another former nerd, Mona (Janel Parrish), to rule the local teen hierarchy and fill the power vacuum left by Alison’s departure.

Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario) is the smart, preppy overachiever whose family provides the show’s darkest secrets. Spencer inevitably battles a pill addiction and, through Bellisario’s acting, grounds the melodrama of the series’ more and more ludicrous developments—to the point that, in the series finale, Bellisario also plays Spencer’s evil twin, Alex Drake (sigh: “A.D.”). More on that in a bit.

Much of the thrill of the series is watching these characters shed the skin of such archetypes. Alexis Gunderson’s already unpacked Mona’s emergence as the “Mean Girl” heroine, charting how Mona moved from being the original “A” to the only person able to truly help the Liars escape the clutches of follow-up “A,” revealed (controversially) to be Charlotte DiLaurentis (Vanessa Ray), the estranged transgender sibling to Alison.

It was a total whiff of a reveal, one King recently admitted in a New York Times interview that she and her writers didn’t see coming. If anything, Charlotte, as the series’ longest-running and most powerful “A,” worked cleanly within the show’s salient themes regarding lives endured by children under the burden of their parents’ trauma. But for a series which so genuinely developed Emily’s coming out and life as a gay person, to focus the whole shocking twist on a person’s gender dysphoria and subsequent psychopathy left little for King to do but sloppily reply by trying to throw the burden on the network or “our society.” It was a sign of things to come.

In Season 6B, Pretty Little Liars jumped forward five years, offering audiences the chance to witness these characters truly put their pasts behind them—to finally embody the adulthood the Liars had only hoped to reach amidst their many traumatic experiences. In turn, the Liars had abandoned their high school relationships and embraced new lives away from Rosewood: Aria found a boyfriend neither age inappropriate nor toxic; Hanna broke up with “bad boy” computer hacker Caleb (Tyler Blackburn) to pursue a career in fashion; after a movingly presented pregnancy scare, Spencer parted ways with hometown bubba Toby (Keegan Allen); and Emily moved across the country, failed out of school after her father died and took up a dead-end job at a bar just like a real college student would. Separated from Rosewood and from the situations that seized them in the cycles of trauma that kept them from forging their identities apart from that trauma—and from the archetypal cages of the slasher narrative—the Liars could master their fears of growing up.

Still, by returning to Rosewood after five years (drawn back by more Charlotte drama), all of that change receded, the show regressing with each episode into the status quo to the point that, now, at the end of the series, Aria and Ezra are married and planning to adopt, Caleb and Hanna are married and pregnant, Alison and Emily are now raising their twins (ugh) together, and even Spencer seems to want to get back with Toby, overlooking the fact that Alex, “disguised” as Spencer, slept with Toby twice—the first time less than a week or so after Toby’s wife suddenly died due to injuries from a car accident.

Mona, after begging best friend Hanna to not let her get back into the “Game”—going so far as to call it an addiction—even ends the series back in her old “A” mode, finally “winning” over Alex Drake by imprisoning her in the basement of a brand new French HQ. Devon Ivie has described this conclusion as “justice” for the character, even though it’s little more than a self-destructive, delusional character reveling in just how far, how definitively, she’s split from reality.

Rather than position such tragic fates as ordained by the ever-grinding wheels of trauma, Pretty Little Liars leaves its characters, in the end, discussing how happy they all are. The show, and its makers, believe this to be the best possible timeline: a domestic partnership between Emily and Alison founded on a reproductive violation (Alex conspired to impregnate Ali with one of Emily’s fertilized eggs, which Alex stole from Emily); a happy marriage between Ezra and Aria founded on statutory rape; a burgeoning relationship between old flames Spencer and Toby founded on the lies of a person who only pushed the Liars’ trauma to its extremes; and a delusional existence for Mona founded on indulging her dangerous mental illness.

As Aria tells Ezra in the series’ penultimate episode (“Farewell, My Lovely”), “When someone puts you in a box and nails the lid shut, part of you will always be locked in that box, in the dark, afraid and crying, but you can’t let that trapped part do the thinking for you.” Ironic, considering that she’s saying this to the older man who took advantage of her as both a minor and a student, who also once set up an elaborate Rosewood-wide surveillance system to spy on the Liars (including the 16-year-old girl he was dating) for the purpose of a “true crime” book about Ali that he never wrote—but that’s a story for another time.

Ostensibly, the show’s refusal to break free from the relationships that defined the Liars’ trauma is a bold move, not to mention a poignant commentary on the ways in which women, especially, must live with the effects of traumatic experiences every single day. According again to Aria, also in “Farewell, My Lovely”: “When people panic, they go back to old behavior.” What’s adulthood if not a sustained panic about the anxiety of living?

But functionally, Pretty Little Liars makes no connections between “old behavior” or the “trapped part” of the Liars’ brains and the trauma they’re still sorting out well into their adult lives. If we’re supposed to take I. Marlene King’s word for it, the series ending with the Liars returning to all of their previous patterns is what the fans wanted. Far be it for the show’s creator to deprive fans of the easiest conclusion the series could have rather than challenge them by presenting these characters they’ve grown to love as real, mutable human beings who’ve similarly grown and still struggle to do so—who over the course of seven years have finally learned how they can start doing that.

Speaking of cycles, the final scene of the series brought us back to the beginning, mimicking a scene we first got in 2010, in the series’ pilot, when, in the barn behind Spencer’s house, we caught a glimpse of the mysteries and the horror to come. At an otherwise typical sleepover, Alison disappeared—seven years later, more than that in PLL time, a new generation of high schoolers lose their leader to weird and unexplained circumstances. New little liars, same old trauma.

In that New York Times interview, King explained the “full-circle moment”: “Even though now our Pretty Little Liars have escaped, the Rosewood mythology continues.” She’s wrong, though: The Liars never escaped. That King doesn’t seem to notice the difference is why Pretty Little Liars should’ve ended an “A” ago.

Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. For the past three years he’s co-hosted a podcast about Pretty Little Liars, ‘shipping Mona, alone at the end of the world, standing on the smoldering remains of Rosewood.

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