In the third episode of PLL's fifth season, the show finds itself wearing its noir influences more proudly than ever, and it's working. This week's installment gave us a series of flashbacks that reframed a lot of the show's subtler psychosexual subtext that left at least one character reeling.
Back in the day, Ashley Benson's Hanna Marin was sort of a useless person. She shoplifted, she obsessed, and most of all she did not realize that she was amazing. But as we've already learned this season, her transmorphification into the wonderful character we've grown to love had some pretty sick shit going on underneath.
PLL takes place in a universe so suffused with sexual violence and danger that everyone you meet—gay boys, blind girls, men, women, even little psychic children—will probably turn out to be a predator. When the show's central antagonist was revealed at the end of Season Two (not for the last time), the tragedy of it all hinged on the fact that Hanna's mentor in beauty, Mona Vanderwaal, was actually an omniscient supergenius who existed in a hyperreality of her own creation... And that in part, her machinations over the past two seasons arose over a twisted obsession with at least one of the Liars.
(Pictured: Some Liars, just standing around dressed insane on their first day back to school after being abducted and reviving their friend from the dead during a gunfight.)
This week, we learned that even this reveal was only part of the problem: In fact, Mona had organized Alison's "death" (the prime mover event that set the show in motion) to get her out of town, but then her obsession caused her to seek out and create a shadow double of her old enemy that she could control. Hanna thought she was becoming more herself, a caterpillar becoming a beautiful butterfly, but has finally realized she was only being forced into a butterfly suit by the cunning Mona, who could then act out her Alison fantasies in a safer space, with the real woman gone.
A show centered visually on the spare eternal sunsets of Edward "Nighthawks" Hopper's lonely paintings, and on the retro aesthetics of Hawks, Huston and Hitchcock, PLL never ignores the chance to bring those things into the narrative. (One episode saw another character, Spencer Hastings, abuse "study drugs" to the point that she slipped sideways into a black-and-white version of the show itself.) There is a certain drive to educate here, as evidenced by the progressive/problematizing sexual politics as well as the show's creators' rich basis in film and fashion history.
But this particular movement into the past is one of the show's cleverest, because it brings outside issues to the fore: The return of Sasha Pieterse's Alison DiLaurentis to the land of the living means confronting the visual similarity between the two actresses, which has only grown (by leaps!) as the former actress matures.
(Pictured: Alison on the left, Hanna on the right. Or so it seems.)
What do you do when your show—which makes constant hash of visual similarities, twinning, doubling, mask imagery, and so on—finds itself with two visually identical lead actresses? You turn that shit into quasi-lesbian Vertigo is what you do.
Which would be brilliant and also offensive, if the show itself hadn't always hewed close to the real-life organic nature of teenage sexuality and romance: Mona and Hanna, to at least a slightly greater degree (the show being 100 percent about people being up in each other's uncomfortable business on every possible level at all times; at one point two characters were described, accurately, to be in the habit of trading both clothes and personalities), have always had a deep and abiding love for each other, and it's crossed or touched intimate limits before.
(Pictured: Hanna's first amazing day as an unknowing embodiment of Mona's intense fantasy life.)
There is a history here, deep and almost impenetrable, but also recognizable to any of us who have ever been teenagers: I remember a friend once describing her high school best friendship as "one of those Jane Austen or Anne of Green Gables things where you write long passionate love letters to each other every day for years and years, and now we don't talk much." I never thought I'd see that common thing portrayed on TV, and especially not in such detail.
And then too, you have the fact that we are living in 2014 and there's a real live lesbian presence on the show, which led to a great scene in which Hanna—realizing she'd been turned into a Kim Novak double by her former bestie, and thus has no idea who she is now—consults her friend Emily on what the coming out process was like, subjectively.
While Emily (left) gives her friend some side-eye at first—we gay folks are not metaphors for your straight people problems—she quickly understands the gravity of the situation and tenderly walks Hanna through the differences between being a gay teen and finding oneself in the middle of a Hitchcock movie. (Emily is pretty much constantly called upon to figure out the differences, since she is at all times both.)
Making a YA show about real-life stuff—sex, love, identity, danger—is a double-edged sword. You are feeding something very important, while also at the same time appealing to a fanbase that is going to fucking freak out on you no matter what you do. (See Tumblr in its entirety; "queerbaiting" as an increasingly flexible accusation; fan outcry about everything from Supernatural to Reign. We get what we want and we immediately find a way to shit on it.)
(Pictured: Emily's sometime girlfriend, the polarizing and increasingly flawless Paige.)
But in this case, as historically has been true, I think the show threaded this needle spectacularly well. The Hanna/Mona emotional axis has always been one of the more compelling parts of the story, and to see it return at such a heightened level bodes well for the future of the season.
(Pictured just because: Two more very necessary pictures of Alison making crazy faces at Ezra, the English teacher and occasional boyfriend of multiple Liars.)