by: Madelyn Glymour, Contributor
In a way, this is the first real episode of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS since last season’s penultimate episode, “Unbridled.” The fourth season finale and fifth season premiere answered a lot of questions and wrapped up a lot of plot threads, but because of that, they were basically event episodes: “Hey look, Ali’s alive, isn’t that exciting?” Ali’s presence definitely charged those episodes, but it never felt like a permanent return.
“Whirly Girly” represents a return to status quo, in as much as “Pretty Little Liars” has a status quo, with one exception: Ali is alive and sticking around. Given that so much of the previous four seasons of the show has been about the mystery of Ali, this represents a major shift in the story the show is telling. Her presence throws the main characters into disarray (in this sense, I guess she’s actually helping to enforce the status quo), but the biggest change Ali’s return brings is a shift of focus. Ali is too important of a character to drop in and out of the show without explanation, the way others do (speaking of which, hey, Mike and Jason and Toby, nice to see you again!), but she’s also definitely not one of our main characters. Her storyline is vital to the show, but unlike with the Liars, we can’t really trust her statements and reactions to be entirely truthful. There’s still the possibility–really, the probability–that she’s hiding something essential.
Considering “Whirly Girly” revolves heavily around Alison and her emotional state, that uncertainty should really break the episode. The fact that it doesn’t is mostly down to the actress who plays Ali, Sasha Pieterse. Up until now, Ali has mostly appeared in cryptic flashbacks, and Pieterse did a perfectly fine job of playing the consummate mean girl in those. The last two episodes gave her more to do, but they were working at such a break-neck pace to resolve old mysteries and set up new ones that there wasn’t a whole lot of time for emoting. This episode, after some necessary set-up work at the beginning–Ali reveals herself to the police as being alive, but lies and tells them that she was kidnapped by an unknown assailant, ostensibly in an attempt to protect Aria from murder charges–mostly devotes the scenes in Ali’s plotline to emotional beats. And in these scenes, Pieterse manages to find new layers in her character. She makes Ali by turns calculating, angry, scared, and vulnerable, opening her up more in a single episode than she has in the past four seasons.
One of the most memorable moments is between Ali and her father, as they sit in Ali’s bedroom, trying to catch up on where they’ve been for the past two years, and to reestablish their relationship after such a long time apart. Nothing much happens; Ali examines her old clothing and toys with her old doll, as her father basically tells her that he’s missed her, and that he’s sad. But it’s a surprisingly affecting scene, considering that at least one of the characters involved is lying through her teeth, and the other character has been in a grand total of one episode prior to this one. For the first time, Pieterse shows a kind of childlike quality to Ali–you remember that, underneath all the deception, Ali is a seventeen-year-old girl who hasn’t seen her family in years.
And all the work the writers and Pieterse did in building up Ali’s character pays off in a big way at the end of the episode, when Mrs. DiLaurentis’ body is finally found, the camera pans out to show Ali watching the police cart her mother’s dead body away–alone, vulnerable, and inscrutable. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so interested in Alison.
What’s Up with the Show’s Ostensible Main Characters
This being “Pretty Little Liars,” there’s plenty about the episode that doesn’t work, and surprise, surprise, it’s mostly Aria. To be fair, Aria’s emotional fallout from having killed someone is much more interesting than her relationship with Ezra, and I appreciate that the show is committed to having fallout at all. (I also appreciated that they had Aria talk about her issues with Emily, who, the show reminds us, also killed someone way back in season 3. This is the kind of character continuity I was talking about, last week.) But Lucy Hale isn’t quite as good at freaking out as, for instance, Troian Bellisario is, and there are a couple of scenes that just don’t end up playing well.
Spencer, meanwhile, spends most of the episode trying desperately to pretend that she’s not going to get caught up in Ali’s whirlwind again, which, of course she is. I’m hoping that this is setting some groundwork for an eventual confrontation between Spencer and Ali, since that’s where their characterizations seem to be heading.
Hanna and Emily spend a lot of time advancing the plot, but other than Emily’s one conversation with Aria, neither of them gets much emotional meat in this episode. Hanna does get to go on a funny tangent about cheese, though, so that’s something.
This Week’s Worst Outfit
Spencer spent half the episode in a romper suit, and toward the end, Hanna had on a truly perplexing pair of leggings in a pattern that may or may not have been floral. But both of those questionable fashion choices pale in comparison to Toby’s new hair cut. Well, it’s really the lack of a hair cut that’s a problem.
Spot the Highbrow Reference
Aria, who is hearing constant violin music because she’s either being stalked or in the middle of a massive PTSD breakdown, demands to know, “Who’s the fiddler on my freakin’ roof?” Mike corners Mona on the street and asks her, “What’s in the box?” (The answer is rape whistles. How that fits into Mona’s Evil Plan of the Season remains to be seen.) And the girls cross the street from the bus stop to the police station single-file and with synchronized steps, à la the Beatles crossing Abbey Road.
Madelyn Glymour is a freelance writer based in LA. She shares her generally unpopular opinions about television at stopitshow.blogspot.com.