Pretty Little Liars: The Con of the Reveal

Pretty Little Liars had been promoting the revelation of its master villain after five seasons. Did it deliver?

Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, Shay Mitchell and Lucy Hale: Image provided by imdb/ABC Family

As ever with this show, that’s not a straightforward answer.

Major SPOILERS from here. Seriously, turn around if you haven’t watched it.

Pretty Little Liars is a show that thrives on misdirection. On promising answers but only kind of providing them. After five seasons, the show was insisting that fans would learn the identity of “A,” the show’s mega-villain. A, an all-seeing polymath who seems to have access to everywhere at every time. Who’s co-opted any number of people in the lives of several Pennsylvania teenagers to help carry out his campaign of psychological terror.

Perhaps it was naïve to expect a straightforward answer about A’s identity.

As the fifth season finale opened, best friends Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) and Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson) found themselves in the back of a prison transport. The quartet were arrested as accessories after their untrustworthy friend Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) was convicted of the murder of sometime enemy/sometime ally Mona Vanderwaaal (Janel Parrish). And of course, A ambushed the transport, disabled the guards, gassed the girls and made off with them.

Benson, Hale, Mitchell and Bellisario: Image provided by imdb/ABC Family

The girls woke in A’s twisted doll house, each in a replica of her own bedroom. The episode’s biggest shock: Mona was alive. A had been holding her captive for months, using psychological torture to force her to “be” Alison, her mortal enemy. The ever-crafty Mona played along, but in a rare unobserved moment managed to communicate some crucial discoveries about their prison she’d discovered over the months.

Back home, the girls’ S.O.s Toby (Keegan Allen), Caleb (Tyler Blackburn) and Ezra (Ian Harding) furiously tried to trace them. They even brought Spencer’s parents Peter and Veronica (Nolan North and Lesley Fera) into the loop. Detective Tanner (Roma Maffia) was positive the girls engineered their own escape, with Caleb’s help. Caleb instead convinced the police to let him use his mad hacking skillz to help them trace the stolen prison transport. By episode’s end, Tanner was faced with concrete evidence of the conspiracy the girls had been enduring.

Keegan Allen, Tyler Blackburn and Ian Harding: Image provided by imdb/ABC Family

Back in the doll house, A forced the girls to decorate for some kind of twisted prom, that recreated the one Spencer’s older sister, Melissa, had attended years earlier. Brainiacs Spencer and Mona managed to manipulate A into providing decorative materials that they could use to help them escape their prison. But not before Spencer, having observed some deliberately placed letter blocks, unscrambled them to come up with the name “Charles.” At the twisted prom, filled with mannequins, A himself was in attendance and showed himself when the girls called for “Charles” to come out. After some pyrotechnics, Spencer invaded A’s vault and discovered an old home movie, featuring Ali’s mother cradling baby Ali while two young blond boys ran around her. One was Ali’s brother, Jason. The other, the mysterious Charles?

In the final scene, the girls emerged from the bunker where they’d been held, only to discover they were still trapped by an electric fence, with miles of thick forest around them. So, screwed as usual. It’s the Pretty Little Liars way.

That brings us back to Charles. Eagle-eyed viewers had already unraveled a clue from a couple episodes back, a list of nonsense phrases the girls found in Mona’s bedroom. All the phrases were anagrams for “Charles DiLaurentis.”

That strongly indicated a connection to Ali’s family. Ali has always been the key to Pretty Little Liars. She sparked Mona’s original “A” reign of terror with her bad behavior, leaving the concept to be co-opted and expanded by the mystery villain who’s tortured all of the girls (Mona included) ever since. An attack on Ali and her apparent death got the series rolling. A’s obsession with Ali has fueled the series, especially since Alison was revealed to be alive a couple years ago.

The footage of Ali’s mother, Jessica, shown in the finale points to a DiLaurentis connection. The men in Ali’s family we’ve met so far are not named Charles (her father is Kenneth and her older brother is Jason). But might Charles be a lost DiLaurentis sibling? The home movie certainly suggests that. But then, Ali and Jason have never mentioned having another brother and the other girls have never referenced a third DiLaurentis sibling. Of course, if Ali was only a baby when Charles supposedly died (or otherwise was taken from the family), that might not be so big a shock that she either doesn’t remember him or is unaware of him.

Sasha Pieterse: Image provided by imdb/ABC Family

When Ali was attacked on the night she went missing, she was immobilized. She was aware that her own mother buried her to conceal the crime, but couldn’t signal she was alive. The thinking was always that Jessica would only have concealed her daughter’s apparent death to protect someone else she loved. That always implicated Jason (then a stoner/alcoholic with hazy memories of the night his sister went missing). If there was a secret, third DiLaurentis sibling, however, that also would explain Jessica’s actions.

If Charles is Ali’s brother, where does he fit in, in terms of birth order? In the footage, he was clearly older than baby Ali. It was less clear of the relative ages between the two boys. Were Charles and Jason twins? The fact that A recreated a prom that Jason would have attended might support that theory.

If Jason and Charles are twins, that creates another wrinkle. Pretty Little Liars revealed a couple years ago that Peter Hastings was Jason’s biological father. If Charles/A is Jason’s twin, that makes him Spencer’s half-brother, too. A has always demonstrated a particular interest in Spencer, more so than Emily, Aria or Hanna. A familial tie to Spencer would explain this fascination and set up an interesting intellectual showdown between the genius half-siblings.

Pretty Little Liars also has yet to explain how Bethany Young fits into the equation. Bethany was the escaped mental patient with ties to Jessica who wound up on the scene the night Ali was attacked, wearing the same clothes. Melissa accidentally buried Bethany alive, thinking she was already dead and that Spencer (then zoned out on ADD meds) was responsible. Did Bethany know Charles from being locked in Radley Sanitarium with him? Radley has been a crucial locale for Pretty Little Liars over the years. Both Spencer and Mona have been patients there, as had Toby’s mother (who died there). Jessica was on Radley’s board. Whatever is going on with Charles, a safe bet is that it’s tied to Radley.

Brandon Jones: Image provided by imdb/ABC Family

Assuming that Charles is a secret DiLaurentis, the next question is: is he someone that Pretty Little Liars has already introduced to viewers? Much speculation has come to rest on the girls’ classmate Andrew Campbell (Brandon Jones). Andrew has the same kind of blond good looks as Alison and Jason. Andrew was seen sporadically in earlier seasons, mostly in scenes with Spencer. His intellect was shown to be on par with Spencer’s and the two had an odd, flirty connection that went nowhere because of Spencer’s relationship with Toby. In another encounter, a strung out Spencer got ADD medication from Andrew. If Andrew were A, that’s an interesting bit of sabotage.

In recent episodes, Andrew resurfaced in connection with Aria, both as a tutor and a quasi-boyfriend, as Aria’s relationship with Ezra hit the skids. Andrew seemed eager for Aria to depend on him, but raised flags with suspicious absences, a vitriolic rant about the supposedly dead Mona and what looked like a bit of stalking. In the finale, Andrew was seen intercepting a call that Veronica Hastings made to Melissa. While Andrew was always depicted as someone the girls knew, they’ve never referenced a long history with him. If “A” is smart enough to pull off all the other feats he has, forging the documents to be able to hang out in a suburban high school would be a cinch. Pretty Little Liars has gone to a lot of trouble to make viewers wonder about Andrew. That also could be another of the show’s infamous red herrings.

Aside from the A/Charles revelation, the Pretty Little Liars finale was awash in the kind of symbolism the show lives for. The revelation that Mona was alive was a gift for viewers (Mona and Parrish have always been the show’s secret weapon). But the concept of twisting Mona’s identity and forcing her to become her enemy is fascinating. Mona has always been a chameleon, with a somewhat malleable identity. Forcing her to live as the girl who tormented her, which torture sparked the entire “A” concept, is a kind of twisted genius.

Janel Parrish: Image provided by imdb/ABC Family

The whole “doll house” concept has been central to Pretty Little Liars throughout its run. A frequently was seen to brandish dolls in the girls’ images, sometimes leaving them as clues or taunts. It speaks to a certain obsession with innocence and purity, and of infantalization. A’s actions have always been about robbing the girls of certain choices, of co-opting their agency at a point in their lives when they were moving toward adulthood and greater complexity. A’s mania to stunt that has always carried disturbing psychosexual overtones. That quality came to the fore in the finale. A treated the girls as living dolls, putting them into replicas of their bedrooms (their most intimate spaces) and forcing them to play dress-up. At one point, he even tried to force a game of “Mystery Date,” as some kind of mockery of the girls’ romantic lives.

But A has also always been an odd champion of truth. A ferreted out the secrets of not only the girls, but their families and friends. So many of the developments, good and bad, the girls have experienced have come about from A’s revelation of buried truths. Symbolically, maybe A’s identity is the real truth that the Pretty Little Liars and their community need to confront.

Another interesting development of the finale is that, after years of A finding ways to force the girls to keep his campaign a secret, the knowledge is out. The girls’ S.O.s have always known (including Aria’s brother, Mike, who dated Mona, and Paige, Emily’s ex-girlfriend). But the evidence to prove the existence of A was always flimsy enough that the girls never went to their parents or the police. Both those constituencies were faced with irrefutable evidence of the plot against the girls in the finale. It’s an intriguing way to play out the timeless concept of teens hiding truths about themselves they’re convinced their parents won’t accept or understand.

One could drown in the semiotics of Pretty Little Liars. Ultimately, the A/Charles revelation has accomplished what the show always does best: provide just enough information to madden viewers with additional questions. That keeps them coming back. Fiendishly clever. Just like A.

Originally published at on March 25, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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