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Pretty Little Liars S05E01: "EscApe from New York"

Never have the Pretty Little Liars seemed more like the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers than they did in that random park in New York City. They were surrounded by Putties, all of them wearing different masks that spanned the illustrious history of A: conveniently positioned hoods, dollfaces, Alison faces, and, of course, the ever-useful screen mask. Some of them weren’t even former A masks, just goofy ones you can buy online. A Guy Fawkes mask. Some kind of crazy Venetian number. I’m surprised someone wasn’t wearing one of those Scream deals or an Eyes Wide Shut apothecary get-up. They bounced around like clowns, circling the Liars, menacing in numbers but kind of laughable in action. I half expected Alison to hop up on an Emily-Spencer standing pyramid base and flying kick one or two in the face.

But the police broke up the party and everyone scurried away like rats. No butt-kicking was to commence. The show did, however, find a somewhat subtle if terribly goofy way to let the Liars and the audience know that, yes, Virginia, there IS an A-Team. There are numbers who are willing to do any amount of heinous bidding for Uber A. And, as Emily seems contractually obligated to remind us every 10 minutes, A is always one step ahead. There is a syndicate out to get them.

What's all the more interesting is that this A syndicate is about to fight a turf war. The news of Alison’s return from the grave has been something of an invitation for all the crazies in Rosewood to reemerge. Melissa showed up at the end of Season 4, Shana’s back in the picture (well, for a while anyway), and even Lucas (Lucas!) has reappeared. I think I remembered Lucas as more of a Seth Cohen type than he really was, but to be fair, he didn’t really have much to do other than stand around and listen to the Queen of Rosewood Crazy, Mona Vanderwaal.

All this time Mona, has been on the cusp of redemption, edging slightly toward making amends with the peers she tortured, particularly with respect to Hanna. And even this latest move might almost be a way to save her friend from the clutches of the predator of outcasts, Alison DiLaurentis. While her motivation might conceivably be less vindictive than it was the first time around, Mona resurrecting an A team rings more like a schism. She’s an excommunicated cardinal raising a following of like-minded individuals (well, similarly interested individuals—no one is like-minded to Mona) who are ready to stand up to Alison upon her return. As she paced around that room, trying to remind everyone of Alison’s tyranny from over two years ago, I got the feeling that this was exactly how Mona got everyone involved in the first place. This was just a new wave, a fire in her belly with news of Ali finding her way home.

So Uber A had “bitch’s” army (according to Spencer, “bitch” is the gender-neutral pronoun for A) and Mona had her ragtag crew of geeks and sad sacks, probably including Paige at least for a little bit and, most importantly, Melissa. Melissa who told Spencer she’s been trying to protect Spencer from the beginning. Melissa who perennially ranks very high on the list of A suspects. Melissa, another daughter and another person who gives Papa Hastings reason to drink. The thing is, there was a third party ready to kill Alison.

While the A Army and Mona’s Heroes built toward an inevitable collision, there was a vigilante out there who was ready to rub Alison out, and she had the inside story. She was the one who helped spirit Alison away and the one who did Alison's bidding when Alison needed things done. She was an emissary and courier. She was a messenger and a cleaner. She was a pal and a confidante.

So when Shana turned on Alison, pointing the gun in her face, ready to snuff her out on a grand stage, it was exciting, for a lot of reasons. The fact that she was sniffing around town for information on what people thought of Ali and that she found nothing but sludge and misery meets our current dilemma with Alison's return. To circle back to something we talked about a lot during the second half of Season 4: Why do the Liars even want Ali back in Rosewood? She was nothing less than a Disney villain in mid-priced couture before she absconded, and now she's a lightning rod for high-stakes contrappassi and other cleverly executed trouble. The Liars will insist that she’s their friend but—is she?

The root of the argument is in the conversation that Not Rish and Melissa had near the beginning of this episode. Melissa was all for condemning Alison and even brought up how the Liars, Spencer specifically, are worse off with her around. That’s the side I feel many PLL fans can understand (putting those words in Melissa’s mouth is undoubtedly the start of the show's humanizing process for the character after seasons of vaguely demonizing her). We saw these flashbacks of Alison being completely terrible and unabashedly manipulative. Who wants that in their lives? But then Not Rish said those magic words: “You don’t know anything about where Alison’s been or what she’s gone through. I’m trying to reserve judgement.”

At what point has Alison finished her penance? She had to drop out of high school, disappear, run around the Eastern seaboard, live in basements and rusty warehouses, all the while looking over her shoulder for a very real, very organized enemy. Is this Alison we’re seeing actually grounded and disabused of her earnest narcissism, or is she just running a long con so she can sleep in a normal bed again? Spencer invoked the deception principle, but is Ali already using the girls as a ring of human shields?

She seemed plenty honest while standing on that stage with Shana and pointing the gun at her. She seemed to have heartfelt concern for Aria and whether Aria will let Ezra back into her life and further pursue Ali’s sloppy seconds. But she also wasn’t convincing enough to make one of her most trusted allies believe in her goodness in the face of all the bad things she’s done. You can blame Jenna and say that she’s just as manipulative as Ali (she did try to bone her stepbrother), and that her manipulation was complicated by Shana falling for her. But at the end of the day, Shana couldn’t deny the evidence, despite whatever Ali’s been feeding her all this time. Like Ali herself said to Ezra in the lone flashback in response to him telling her that she lies like she believes it: “If you can’t convince yourself, why should others believe you?”

That’s the deep moment of this confrontation. Alison probably doesn’t even believe in her own goodness enough to convince anyone else she’s worth fighting for. There was a desperation in her voice to tell her that Jenna’s a bad guy, but there was nothing she could really say with all the staggering evidence that Shana had heard. And yet, here were these four girls willing to drop a woman off a stage to her death in order to let Alison go home. Aria murdered someone, you guys. Shana, who must have a cranium like a like a hard-boiled egg shell, died on the floor of the Fitzgerald Theater, under the music stands, by the hand of the slightest girl on the show holding the butt of a prop rifle.

Obviously it was Ezra’s tip that led Aria back to the theater to take Shana out before she took down Alison, and these girls are pretty willing to believe anything if it means any measure of respite. But Shana being A doesn’t fit. Sure, everyone who’s part of Alison’s network seems to treat the Liars like dog crap, but to spend time individually and collectively torturing the girls doesn’t seem like Shana. And possibly blowing Alison away doesn’t really seem like A’s style. Shana sounded more like she thought that killing Ali was like killing the head of the snake. No more trouble would befall anyone after Ali was dealt with. I understand how Ezra might've confused Shana for A since she was skulking around a darkened Rosewood while doing errands for Alison. But, if I’m right about Shana being a vigilante and the A Team had no prior knowledge to her plans, it makes Ezra about as useless as ever. All that surveillance and he can’t even get A right. Gah.

It looks like we have quite the season ahead of us. There’s intrigue within the group (can they trust each other? Who’s in charge? Can there be a real honesty between them?) and intrigue outside the group (will the A Army absorb Mona’s Cult, eliminate it, or fall to a Vanderwaal sling? How many people are involved in organizations dedicated to destroying Alison? Can this end in a “Beat It” style, wrists-tied-together knife fight?) while still maintaining all the old mysteries (what does Melissa know that she wants to tell the police? So who is A then? Will Ezra find a way to use this shooting as an opportunity for lip-jutting-out pleas for forgiveness so he can maintain his “unconventional” romance?). “EscApe from New York” set a fine a table without leaning heavily on flashback and awkward exposition, devices that would be so tempting. There’s a lot of promise here. But is there enough promise for this and then TWO MORE SEASONS? Let’s find out.


– OMG. Shana riding the ambulance.

– This episode was basically a tribute to the sad, disappointed, and put-upon faces of Papa Hastings. Drink that brown, sir. You’re going to need all that brown.

– The Liars are in the news so often they should probably have a catchy name. The Rosewood Four?

– Holbrook: “Cece Drake escaped police custody.” OF COURSE SHE DID. What’s an episode of Pretty Little Liars without the police being comically inadequate? Then he went on to tell the Hastings that their daughter may be in “more trouble than ever.” Maybe Holbrook's entire life is built on wandering around his quiet suburban existence and muttering promo trailers.

– Speaking of Cece Drake, we sure did learn a lot about her in "EscApe from New York," did we not? She was the one who killed Detective Dead Eyes McCreeperson. She wasn’t Red Coat, except for that one time Alison needed a decoy to save Emily from the biggest buzzsaw in Ravenswood. And she is able to mumble some French. No sign of Bruce, though, so it was a little disappointing.

– Look at Paige being the reluctant participant in her cool-guy (leather?) jacket and almost walking out on Mona’s Heroes entirely. Paige is the kind of woman who knows that Emily, with all her victimized baggage, is still the best chance she’s got to find happiness in Rosewood. With so few swimmers in town, I imagine people get around to practice with the same people quite often. Paige needs to lock that down.

– Holbrook taking a leap of faith on calling the Fitzgerald Theater in the middle of the night was possibly the most ridiculous thing he’s ever done for this case. I think he needs Detective Not Sean Young to ground him.

– Your Moment of A: None, it doesn’t seem like. Just this shot of Shana ready for her chalk portrait.

What did you think of Pretty Little Liars' Season 5 premiere? Where do you think the show is headed?

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AIRS ON 2/16/2016

Season 6 : Episode 16

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