Pretty Little Liars continues to be one of those shows I overlook. I don’t mean for that to be true, but it is. I so often dismiss it in my mind as a simple guilty pleasure, but then I’ll watch it and be blown away by its depiction of the spectrum of female sexuality, for example, or the complexities of female friendship or the difficulties that come with having a troubled relationship with the truth. At this point, well into Season Six, I should stop being surprised when Pretty Little Liars does something so well.
For the past few weeks, since their escape from Charles’ Dollhouse, our four liars have been spending their time doing what they can to recover from their trauma. And I gotta say, with every episode that passes, I am becoming more and more fascinated with the detailed complexity with which this show is dealing with this issue. Trauma doesn’t affect everyone the same, even when you’ve been through the same things, and behaviors exhibited by the girls have been varied and nuanced, tailored to each individual’s personality and constitution. And while I’m certainly eager to untangle more of the mystery (this is the Summer of Answers after all!), it’s these character developments that are keeping me riveted.
Aria is done. She is just done. She is determined to have the matter over and finished and out of sight as soon as possible. She’s not going to talk about it, she’s not going to write about it, she’s not going to immortalize the experience in any way. There’s almost an element of denial in her behavior; if she doesn’t ever think about it, then it’s like it never happened. But it’s pretty clear that this attitude comes with consequences. Aria is so determined to put her trauma behind her, she lies to the police in order to solidify their case against Andrew and hasten his arrest and conviction. Her rash, desperate actions – again, born out of a desire to put the matter behind her as quickly as possible, to the point where she’s almost blindly willing to believe the police’s theory on Andrew – have the potential to both put an innocent man in prison (a position she herself was just recently in) and derail the investigation.
By the end of this past episode, Aria seems to be starting to heal. She’s seen the error of her lie to the police, even going so far as to apologize to Andrew when he is released. Her photography has taken the place of her writing as a creative outlet for her. And she finally opens up to her father, showing him one of her photos and sharing with him a glimpse into her time in the Dollhouse.
Hanna’s response is interesting because on one hand, she shares a lot of similarities with Aria, but there are also major differences. Like Aria, much of Hanna’s response is very action oriented. She’s very focused on moving forward and leaving her trauma behind. Charles kept them in replicas of their bedrooms, so Hanna gets rid of everything from her clothes to her bed, all the way to ripping the wallpaper down off the walls. She’s the one who pushes for them to return to school and start going to therapy together (even if neither of those things quite work out). And when Andrew is released by the police, it’s Hanna leading the charge and demanding answers out of Allison.
The major difference between Hanna and Aria is Hanna’s not simple willingness but desire to talk about what happened to them. Whereas the others, especially Aria, are incredibly hesitant to talk about their experiences, Hanna is determined to. She does talk, to both her mother and Caleb, she encourages the others to speak to each other and attempts to orchestrate a group therapy session for them all, and when that fails, she makes sure to go to an individual therapy session for herself. Just like Aria, Hanna wants to move forward, but she wants to do it by acknowledging their trauma and then leaving it behind.
For Aria and Hannah, the driving emotion behind their respective responses to their experience in the Dollhouse has been anger. They are both burning with rage over what has been done to them, and it shows in their current actions: in Hanna’s cathartic destruction of her bedroom and her somewhat insensitive dealings with Allison and Sarah and in Aria’s attempts at vengeance with her lie to the police. Emily and Spencer, on the other hand, are being driven by something else: fear.
Emily’s fear seems very obvious. She wraps herself up in the protection she feels in her father’s military jacket since he can’t be there himself (and, I’m sorry, the military may not be a 9 to 5 job, but he is stationed in the US so I refuse to believe he wouldn’t be given some sort of emergency leave after his daughter had been kidnapped for a month). She takes her father’s gun to the shooting range, hoping the weapon will provide her with a similar feeling of comfort and protection. But it doesn’t, she tells her mother afterward, it only adds to the fear.
While some of Emily’s fear comes across in very obvious ways, it also manifests itself in her odd, protective treatment of Sarah. She’s never met this girl before, and yet Emily is absolutely determined to take care of her. A lot of Emily’s feelings of fear are tied up in Sarah’s very existence: fear for Sarah’s own safety, not just in relation to Charles but because of her home situation, fear for Sarah’s recovery and what that means for her own recovery, fear that what happened to Sarah could have happened to them. Emily’s putting so much effort into taking care of Sarah so she doesn’t have time to deal with her own recovery.
And last, there’s Spencer. Just like Emily, Spencer’s trauma response is very much tied to fear. Her anxiety level is at an all time high and she can’t sleep because of it. We’ve also seen that Spencer, more than any of the other girls, seems to be prone to flash backs. Spencer has always been an incredibly controlling personality, and this experience has knocked that loose. Coming out, it’s not at all surprising that she’d need to find a way to regain that control in order to curb her mounting fear and anxiety. But her mother making the decision to withhold her anxiety medication (due to past drug problems) without any kind of consultation or discussion with Spencer actively contributes to Spencer’s loss of control and her downward spiral, seen first by her stealing one of Aria’s pills and then digging through Aria’s trash for the rest of them, and then finally resorting to buying marijuana. Were she consulted on her meds, made to feel like the decision to forgo them were in anyway her own, she might not have spiraled so fast.
Now, this on its own would have been good already. These are four distinct women who have all been through a similar (but perhaps not identical) trauma, but are reacting to it in completely different ways, but all matched to aspects of their personality. Emily has always been the most trusting and most forgiving of the group, as seen with her treatment of Toby, her forgiveness of Paige, her acceptance of a returned Allison, and now her self-appointed protection of Sarah. Spencer has always been someone who needs to keep strict control, and so the loss of it both during her trauma and now after it, has caused her to spiral. Hanna has always been somewhat rash, someone to act first. And Aria has always been the one to channel her emotion and problems and insecurities into her artistic expression. So, as I said, this already would have been a strong and compelling look at the varied affects of trauma.
Instead, what has actually struck out to me the most, is Pretty Little Liar‘s full acknowledgement that Aria, Emily, Hanna, ans Spencer are not the only ones to have experienced trauma in the past month. Just because they were not the one kidnapped and held in the Dollhouse, doesn’t mean the families and friends of these girls haven’t also been dealing with trauma on their own. Losing a child, losing a loved one, and not knowing if you’ll ever see them again is a traumatic event all of its own. And just as the girls themselves don’t respond in the same way, neither do their loved ones.
While the girls are still trapped in the Dollhouse, Hanna learns that Ashley has become physically sick due to the stress of losing her child. Veronica, Pam, and Byron all show a desperate need for control over their children as a means of protecting them. They make big decisions for their children (Veronica keeping Spencer’s anxiety medication from her, Pam putting her foot down with Emily when it comes to the firing range as well as going to therapy, and Byron demanding he drive Aria to and from campus in order to keep an eye on her) without actually consulting with their children over these decisions. Toby needs someone to blame for the trauma he and his friends have been going through. At first, he latches onto Andrew, but when he is released by the police and assumed to be innocent, Toby reverts back to blaming Allison for everything that’s ever gone wrong, telling Spencer to keep her away from his new partner. And lastly, Caleb has been exhibiting hyper vigilance since Hanna’s return. He struggles to leave her side, stays awake all night to watch over her, doesn’t trust the police to keep Hanna safe, and by the last episode has crossed the line into violating her privacy by doing things like putting a GPS tracker on her car.
The thing is is that while the show recognizes that the liar’s families and loved ones have gone through trauma, the girls themselves don’t. More than that, they really can’t. They are so busy trying to navigate their own anger and fear and every other emotion brought on by this experience, that they just don’t have any room left to give anyone else any leeway. They need support from their family and friends, and when those people exhibit their own fears and other effects from the trauma, they just don’t have the time for it. Hanna just doesn’t have the capacity to cut Caleb’s hovering any slack. And Spencer can’t be the one to assuage Toby’s fears of Allison.
For the most part, the parents are attempting to mask their own trauma recoveries, trying to just be their for their children instead of indulging in their own needs, but it’s often not enough. Byron and Pam and Veronica and Ashley still end up giving in to their own fears. And their children, who are too busy dealing with their own trauma, can only feel those actions and behaviors as smothering and controlling and reminiscent of the control lost by Charles’ Dollhouse. At this point there’s a real disconnect between the girls, their families, and their loved ones. There are so many conflicting needs that it’s no wonder relationships are beginning to fray.
I really have to remind myself to stop dismissing Pretty Little Liars. Sure, sometimes it’s campy or over the top. Sometimes the twists are weird or out of nowhere. I still have no idea why any of our core four were ever friends with Allison in the first place (seriously, she was an absolutely terrible person). But it doesn’t have to only be a guilty pleasure. Sometimes this show can tell a very complex story. And I’m here for that.