Last night, watching the season 7 premiere of Pretty Little Liars, I realized: this show now pisses me off more than it entertains me. This season is its last (the first half airs now, the second in the fall or winter), and in terms of mysteries and plot, it may be at least one season too much.
I binge-watched the first half or more of the series on Netflix before watching episodes live. Waiting week to week may have reduced my ability to shrug off the endless red herrings and ridiculous plot twists. If you watch just a few episodes of this series, you quickly have an idea of what you’re in for: a soapy mystery-thriller. Bingeing the first few seasons at my own pace allowed me to enjoy the show in all its wacky glory. But at this stage of the game, after two “A’s” have been unmasked, it’s become harder for me to care about who did what and how or why. Likewise, most cliffhangers are drained of tension when you know certain characters will not be killed (e.g. Hanna this season).
I began feeling this fatigue at least as early as last season, probably earlier. But the characters and their relationships–in particular the relationship between the Liars (Spencer, Hanna, Aria, and Emily)–always sustained me. PLL has offered a positive and complex portrait of female friendship, which is still a rare thing in popular culture. Even when the girls lie to or hurt each other, they can’t keep their secrets for long and always forgive.
Now that Ali is back and we’re five years in the future, relationships have shifted. We’re given a set of new love interests, all of whom it’s easy to guess will not last. The Powers That Be at PLL are slavish to fans’ perceived desires–for Ezra and Aria, Toby and Spencer, Caleb and Hanna, and Ali and Emily. They disrupt these pairings at points, even vilify the love interests temporarily, but it’s clear from this first season 7 episode, “Tick-Tock, Bitches,” that we’ll always go back to the romantic status quo. I’ve long accepted that my least favorite pairing on the show, Ezra and Aria, won’t go away (though that doesn’t mean I have to like it and still believe that Aria’s character, of all the Liars, has been most defined by her relationship). I’ll never like Ali and feel Emily deserves better (I still pine for Maya) while knowing it’s a lost cause. I never boarded the Spoby (Spencer and Toby) ship, which felt forced to me with little chemistry, but Spencer is my favorite, and I deal.
The exception in terms of ships has been Caleb and Hanna. Hanna is a close second in terms of favorite characters, and Caleb is by far the best boyfriend–the best boy–on the show. In fact, until the end of last season I’d sometimes think he was too good a guy, the dream boyfriend that doesn’t exist. He’s supportive, smart, skilled, and kind. Last season I surprised myself by quickly getting on board with Caleb and Hanna’s breakup, and Caleb’s subsequent relationship with Spencer, with whom I’d begun to see a connection the season before at the latest. I believed their feelings for one another, and I like that, though we see Hanna struggle with it, she ultimately blesses their coupledom. Spencer doesn’t make a move before then, even with a clear shot in Europe. They’re sweet and hot together, two smarties, with lots of vulnerable!Spencer.
Then the last episode of season 6 came, and Hanna confessed that she never stopped loving him, yada yada, and they kiss. I hate what this says about the two of them, especially given what I said earlier about the relationship between the Liars. My biggest fear with the Spencer/Caleb ship was that it would hurt Spencer and Hanna’s friendship. I was relieved with the way it was initially handled. Then…not so much.
Next most painful is the unfamiliar sensation of not liking Caleb. In the premiere, he treats Spencer coldly, and she clearly feels it. I get his concern for Hanna, but I don’t get his dickish attitude. Hanna’s been in danger before–who on this show hasn’t–but it’s not a license to be a douche. It feels out of character for him. *cuddles Spencer*
Meanwhile, they give Spencer and Toby some scenes together, reestablishing their connection (and it’s obvious where this will lead). Ezra and Aria hook up despite her boyfriend’s attempt to contact her. Emily flashes back to when she and Ali hooked up.
I loved that it’s Spencer who Hanna dreams of helping her. I thought this might bode well for when Hanna is inevitably rescued and the truth comes out about her and Caleb. Maybe their friendship will survive this.
With the status quo relationships coming back together at the expense of others, I found myself thinking of changing the channel and sparing myself the agony of watching it happen. If I don’t believe or like the characters and their bonds, there’s nothing left for me. So I cross my fingers that at the end of the series, if I make it, the Liars at least are still true to each other.