Buffy did 'em. House definitely did a few. I'm not sure Psych has had a NON-gimmick episode in two or three seasons. So it was about time for Pretty Little Liars, now well into its fourth season, to attempt its own non-Halloween "special" episode. And even if you're not a fan of film noir, you can at least find solace in the fact that it wasn't a musical episode. We've already experienced enough suffering as a direct result of Lucy Hale's singing career.
It's also not like this show is a stranger to referencing different aspects of tangentially related culture, from Hitchcock to Veronica Mars. And there was a lot to like about this film noir episode. But let's get the garbage out of the way first. Did "Shadow Play" get us anywhere new? No, it absolutely did not. Spencer spent a lot of time dreaming about something we can only imagine she would've figured out within minutes as soon as she looked at the diary and re-read a word she didn't recognize. That's the thing about gimmick episodes: They can generally be removed from the timeline of a show pretty easily, which means nothing of serious consequence actually happens. Never fear. It was all a dream. But that's my only real disappointment with "Shadow Play."
Not to start off too sour, but the whole dream thing was kind of a letdown. My trusted doctor for many years (WebMD) tells me that Adderall rarely causes hallucinations, but how awesome would it have been to see Crazy Eyes Spencer go into a fugue state, wandering around Rosewood and interacting with everyone while dipping into a newly discovered mental well of 1940s slang, and telling people about her getaway sticks but slapping anyone who called her a skirt? And then she could've woken up at the end of the dream to find herself in the cab of a truck with a bruised-knuckled Toby, her friends in the bed, with the limp body of Ezra Fitz coming to in their dust? I don't know, maybe Vince Gilligan should stop by to direct a future episode of Pretty Little Liars. He's got some downtime these days.
But alas, "Shadow Play" was more of that unfortunately trademark, slow progression instead. But without having to focus on what actually happened, story-wise—like, seriously, nothing new happened, and Spencer's surprised look while watching Ezra kiss Aria indicated that we might've actually had a negative amount of progress—we can focus on what's important: the bizarre perception of reality in Spencer's brain.
To wit: Yes, her mind painted in the chiaroscuro of a bygone and less tolerant era, but did she really have to imagine Emily and Paige's relationship as clandestine and timid? How historically accurate did Spencer's allegory really need to be? It was also a strangely digressive arc compared to everyone else's. Paige and Emily sorted through feelings in Spencer's head, feelings that we as viewers (and she as a character) already know they have. So what was the point of letting her brain spin cycles to create a narrative for something she's already got all figured out? Sex. Obvs.
Film noir as a genre is powered by existentialism, disillusionment, and tumbles into the rabbit holes of moral decay and ambiguity. While "Shadow Play" had most of the important elements of noir (the anti-hero, the questionable ethics of individuals in post-war America, women with impossibly coifed hair atop legs that go all the way down to the floor), there weren't a lot of opportunities for sexiness. We were deep in Spencer's head so #Ezria was super icky, there was no #Haleb, and Toby was more of a conscience than a romantic opportunity. All we had left were Emily and Paige, who let their feelings build until they laid each other down on the bed. Sex in 1940s film and sex on ABC Family are fairly similar. Emily sliding a finger beneath Paige's strap might be more risqué than than anything else the girls have done on-screen throughout their relationship (well, except for Emily wearing a denim vest).
Spencer pigeonholed her friends into particular roles that may seem obvious to us, but that are interesting in the context of knowing that they reflect what she thinks. Aria is nothing more than a victim of tragic love. Hanna is truly her only co-conspirator, that quippy Gal Friday who's doing her share of the legwork while Spencer racks her brain to assemble the puzzle pieces. And Alison is somewhere between a Damsel in Distress and a Femme Fatale. She's clearly the victim of some villain, but she's also, you know, bitchy. And all that lines up well with Spencer's unwavering perception of Alison over the seasons, which is that Ali is the source of Spencer's puzzles, those precious puzzles that keep her going, while still being the gut punch at the finish line. Unraveling everything means Alison comes back, and Spencer has to give up her clique-driving seat. The decoy thing is an interesting point, though: Maybe they aren't all in this bullying thing together. Maybe Alison sicced A on her friends to save herself.
But most important was the way Spencer cast herself: as exhausted, struggling, and hopeless, but absolutely the lead detective on this case. She put herself in that role of the anti-hero, that hard-boiled and jaded investigator who's just trying to fit the clues and her life together. Spencer is ethically ambiguous enough that Alison's prosecution almost holds water. She's disillusioned enough to accuse the people who are close to her of being part of the criminal organization that's bent on crushing her. "I'm the smart one," she said, providing necessary self-validation. But Spencer's also been humbled in the last few weeks and over the past few seasons. She's been through war. Pretty Little Liars doesn't really dedicate individual episodes specifically to the development of one character, so this as close as we've gotten to a "Spencer" episode.
So what did we learn from Pretty Little Liars' film noir week? First, we learned that the show's writers may be getting bored. Second, 1940-style Ezra looks like a child wearing his father's suit. But third, it seems like we gleaned a lot about Spencer's perception of what's happening. There is no greater evidence of the current confrontation being Spencer versus A than to dedicate an entire 42 minutes to what she thinks about things. The quote she uttered right before falling under the sleepy spell ("Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean...") is from Raymond Chandler's 1994 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder":
Down these streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
That about sums up Spencer, right? You know, other than the "man" parts. That'd be a plot twist no one saw coming.
– The quotes on Ezra's board were the same ones that've been up there for a couple weeks. More emphasis that Pretty Little Liars paused the story for this episode.
– "This is all about the anus of things." I know a good many words, but I'm not exactly sure what Hanna was trying to say there. I'm going to allow anus.
– "I got fascinated with the villain." UGH, Aria's trademark "let me stumble upon some answers while being unequivocally oblivious to anyone's issues but mine." With phrasing like that, you might assume that Aria was actually hinting that she knows Ezra is a bad guy, but loves him anyway. Alas, that was just Aria talking to her herself and not noticing the evil grin on Ezra's face while he thought about the villain winning sometimes.
– Don't any of these girls watch movies that are in color?
– "You're spread so thin I can see right through you." I don't normally talk about actors in these reviews since it's hard to really gauge talent and ability on a show that's so routinely campy and silly. Bellisario and Benson seemed like natural fits for this kind of acting, particularly the former. Hale and Mitchell's performances were basically the same as they are in any other episode, but with a lot more lipstick. Harding did a decent job, even if his baby face doesn't necessarily match the hard-boiled genre. #BooRadleyVanCullen, though—hoo boy. It felt like he had most of the 1940s slang down, and he was like the antipode to Shay Mitchell. Not to diminish his real-life interest in cinema but it was like he got all his film noir education from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
– Those full fur coats. Let's take a moment to recognize the efforts of all the behind-the-scenes folks at Pretty Little Liars, as they really put together a decent-looking episode, from the chiaroscuro lighting to the costuming to the framing of each scene. Everything was primed for #BooRadleyVanCullen to basically say, "Yeah, see. You're a gangster, see?" all over it. I'm really not trying to get on his case. It was just so funny to see him hit those lines.
– Your Moment of A: No Hoodies or gloves in this one. Just a telegram in the mirror of Ali's dressing room: "Break a leg. Stop. Kisses A." The level of detail in Spencer's addled mind is astounding. We should get her for that Inception thing.
What'd you think of "Shadow Play"?