In last night's episode of Pretty Little Liars, sides were taken in the coming war to keep Alison from returning to school, having recently returned from the dead, while each of her former best friends found themselves slipping back under her spell—and the kinda-shitty people they were when they knew her.
(Pictured: Mona Vanderwaal, villainess extraordinaire and obviously the show's true hero.)
In the "Dead Blonde Girl" mystery genre—Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Deception—the implicit promise is that the Blonde Girl is, you know, dead. One might say that the ongoing engagement our culture has with Dead Girls (The Killing too; they're not all blonde) might have something to do with the Nancy Grace love of Beautiful White Women when they go missing. But Pretty Little Liars, this season, has taken it one step further: If the Dead Girl's not really dead, what did you just spend the last four seasons doing to yourselves?
Imagine if you will that instead of Cousin Maddy—Laura Palmer's lookalike on Twin Peaks—it was Laura Palmer herself that came back into town, throwing everyone off their vectors and making hash of everything they've gone through. And imagine too that, rather than weirdness, what the people left behind had been up to was, in a lot of ways, about becoming stronger and wiser and more caring and compassionate. Even in a world like Rosewood, where everything is sex and everything is danger and everybody is dying from the secrets they have to keep.
While Alison's been back since last season's finale (more precisely, she's been around the entire time, visiting them like an Absinthe Fairy whenever they are fucked up, concussed, or asphyxiating) and she still hasn't returned to school, this is the first chance we have to see the Liars relatively "settled" back into yet another New Normal. And it does not look good on them.
(Pictured: Andrew, hoping to get a look at 'em without prescription drugs changing hands for once.)
Spencer Hastings reconnects with both her distant, cold mother and her ex-drug dealer Hot Andrew, only to "realize" that her father killed her neighbor's mother. This is classic Spencer, putting clues together in a pressured, breathless fashion, and it's something even she recognizes in herself this week as a mode she'd already moved past. (Ironically, after being disproven in her theory, Spencer ends the episode with much more convincing proof of her father's involvement—and her own mother mysteriously missing at his hand.)
(Pictured: Paige McCullers, S5's MVP so far, whose long journey to bad-assness is finally reaching fruition.)
As Mona Vanderwaal—the show's original antagonist and one of its most compelling characters—builds her army (presumably in prep for next week's 100th episode, in which a war looks to break out about Alison's return to the school she once ruled/terrorized), Paige McCullers finds herself at a loss: Mona has correctly picked her out as the one schoolmate equally paralyzed by her love for Emily (Alison's closest friend) and her absolute hatred for Alison herself.
(Pictured: Mona Vanderwall being a bitch about lesbian stuff that is none of her damn business.)
Not since The Chocolate War has a swing vote tried so hard to head off a coming conflict like this, but with even self-absorbed Aria noticing that Emily may be back in love with Alison, one wonders if we'll finally see Paige turn heel after all. (I would hate that, but PLL is above all a harsh mistress, who likes to hurt us with the things we love.)
(Pictured: Hanna's most devoted suitor, a former gambling addict and member of the A-Team, who showed violent tendencies toward Alison in the past for her insinuations that he is a hermaphrodite. Used to be secretly hot, now regular kind.)
Another of Mona's recruits, Hanna-focused dreamboat Lucas, finds himself questioning their agenda, and even expresses sympathy for Alison's status before Mona tells him that the formerly dead girl's story—kidnapping and imprisonment by a psycho—is just another lie. However, between Lucas's reunion with Hanna, and some disturbing behavior on the part of Hanna's doppelganger herself, Hanna finds herself slipping the furthest backwards, into her old ways and old life: Once Hanna starts shoplifting, you know she's about to crack. (Caleb, where are you!?)
Of course this plays against her seeming arc this season, discussed last week, in which her differentiation from being Alison's Mini-Me before her death turned out to be a trick by Mona to remake her in Alison's image: She thought she was learning about freedom, but really was just getting the accelerated version of what Alison was trying to do to her in the first place. So it makes sense that, as Hanna's identity continues to fracture, she would return to her old coping strategies.
(Pictured: Black hair streaks reminiscent of the shittiest version of Aria, all up in Hanna's kickiest hairstyle yet, make for a confusing visual: Both adorable and very much a cause for concern, simultaneously.)
(It also makes sense that, as the strongest and most insightful Liar, or at least the one most willing to engage in painful growing experiences, she will not be taking on this shitty old shape for too long. Unless the point is that her storied flexibility, her willingness to take on new shapes can also be a weakness, in which case she'll probably end up in another Alison mask.)
(Pictured: Aria, wearing this goddamn hat the ENTIRE EPISODE. The girl is a MANIAC.)
Meanwhile, Aria is backsliding into her earliest stages of teen romance with her ex-boyfriend and English teacher Ezra Fitz, which is as understandable as it is understated this time around, and perseverating on the hilariously elaborate videotaped funeral (multiple angles!) of the girl she kind of killed. Only Mona, Ezra and the Liars know about Shana's death, which admittedly connects Aria's storyline to the overall plot more closely than ever: The Liars have to go along with Alison's gonzo obfuscations, because Aria is now the one in danger of arrest. Still, between the hat and the strange hallucinations Aria continues to have, it's all very Aria.
(Pictured: Weird stuff.)
Shows like The Killing and Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars—maybe even Twin Peaks, in its way—use detective and noir genre markers to reframe the act of criminal investigation as an interrogation of the senselessness of death and the hellish powerlessness of grief. It's worth noting, then, that the tone of these shows shares a dreamy, bizarre, filmic quality: The Killing uses its spare, awful atmosphere even more aesthetically than the original to depict emotional states. Veronica Mars was overwhelmingly sunny, so brightly acidic that often the night was safest, after all. Pretty Little Liars is like a tampon commercial filmed by Kenneth Anger. And so on.
(Pictured: A doll hospital in nearby Brookhaven PA, which contained an old lady, a psychic little boy, and a simulacrum dollhouse that contained doubles of each Liar and also a talking Alison doll that shot blood out of its head.)
The second episode of PLL's current season, which returned all the girls safely to Rosewood, had a markedly different tone than any before: More grounded, more suspenseful, less delirious. It reads as more sophisticated, which I guess is part of it too. But more and more, I'm thinking the tonal change is less about refreshing the show and more about making a transition away from the dreamlike, whispering, underwater feeling of grief, and into the harsh daylight of reality once you've gone through your deepest grieving time.
(Pictured: Nearby Ravenswood PA, where ghosts actually do walk the earth and where all the townspeople worship mimes and giant angels and it is the Forties and there is a secret catacomb under the town mortuary where giant marble couches are also sculptures of Leda getting raped by the swan Zeus, and also you might be a reincarnation of yourself or a werewolf, or maybe you are the niece of Count Dracula, who has a nanny even though he is in his thirties, and who also is a witch.)
If your loved one returned to you from beyond the grave, you'd have to go back out and get a job and live in the world. You would still have problems; you would remember that your relationship had only been retroactively uncomplicated and simplified and stylized by death. You would come back to the harsh hassle of life. And that's always been more dangerous than whatever nighttime horrors the mysterious A has cooked up. Whether you're talking about a show like Pretty Little Liars, or you're not talking about TV at all.