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Pretty Little Liars S04E19: "Shadow Play"


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.


NOTES

– 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"?


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 4/25/2017

Season 7 : Episode 12

Next Episode

AIRS ON 5/2/2017

Season 7 : Episode 13

52 Comments
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I was really looking forward to this episode. And I liked it. A lot. It was something new, sth unique and I can say, original. I really liked the plot, Spencer being the detective and also I liked the idea of Toby being her conscience like Mr. Campbell said. I knew this episode had very negative response from fans and the comments I´ve read were also not so positive, but I made my own impression of the episode and it was great. Not perfect, but I was really impressed by the idea and pretty much everything.
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i don't think it was "anus".. I think it was... "A-ness" of things?
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I am Asian, therefore I'm not use shadow motion pictures. Almost have to contain my urge from hitting my laptop for not giving me colour. Add on to the fact that this episode did not show any progress so I dislike it.
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I enjoyed this episode even though I did notice the lack of actual progress. I have been complaining about it a lot, though honestly I think things have picked up a bit this season - finally. The biggest reason why I liked the episode is probably just that I am a film noir fan myself.

Spencer was of course flawless but my personal favourite still was Hanna. Not only she looked stunning with the light eyes and dark lips (this classier look is so much better than the trashy-with-tons-of-eye-makeup she usually has) but her character was very endearing in this episode - Hanna at her best.

I think they should do a real clean house with the romantic interests of the girls, they are all kinda bad. Perhaps just put them all in a house and blow it up.
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It's really too bad that it seems almost everyone missed the quality of this episode. But I suppose so many crappy shows have blinded people to the allure of real storytelling. When it's subtle, it seems to go completely unappreciated. This was an amazing episode. Spencer cracking under the pressure she puts on herself to protect her friends, to always figure everything out, to always be right. Also, her shame and disappointment in herself for her new drug habit. The things she knows she's not seeing because of it. Her anger at Ali when she figures out that the Liars are just the bait Ali dangles in front of the sharks so she can escape. Her anger that Ali may be the one who created the danger, in the first place. That Ali may actually still be the one pulling all the strings, may still be playing games. Her sense of betrayal at realizing they have been trying so hard to find out who killed Ali and she was alive and manipulating them the entire time. Basically feeling like Ali was laughing at them. And Spencer's painful self-doubt, this time she is probably right about who A is, but she really doesn't want to be because it's going to hurt Aria. We'd all ready seen Hanna deal with the "ghost" of Alison and we'd also seen Emily do the same (to a degree) but this was Spencer's version of it.
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Like a lot of other commenters, I thought this episode was DULL as dishwater. I even started checking my phone in the middle, which I never do when I'm watching TV.
I don't get the Paige and Emily thing. I actually groaned and tutted out loud when they were on screen. Paige is such a dopey character, they really need to just cut her loose. There's no reason she cant become an off-screen presence, much like the parents of Rosewood. Also, her hair was ridiculous!
Hannah was brilliant in this episode, as always.
Props to the costume and set design people, visually this was a really stunning episode. Too bad about the content, and the writing was pretty terrible too.

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The episode was okay... not great, not brutal, but a lot of it I found boring. I was hoping that instead of a true dream sequence style it would turn out to be that the events were - more or less - happening, but this was Spencer's way of perceiving things due to the drugs. Then we could have had the awesome film noir style mixed with some plot progression. Ah well. We can't get everything we want, I guess!
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Can all PLL episodes from now on be shot in B&W? I know that nothing particularly notable happened this episode (but then, that's every episode), but the format had so much more suspense and tension than any episode this season. Plus, Toby looks really good in a trench coat, and I actually thought his line delivery better suited to this era? His lines are always really cheesy, but it just worked for me in clichéd 40's speak. Ezra even seemed like a formidable villain this episode, and not just a creepy creeper creep. All I know is I was riveted.
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The episode looked gorgeous, didn't it? It's like the people behind the production of the show got to flex some muscle and it worked out.

As cheesy as Toby's lines were, he probably did have the delivery that was the closest to the old films, if his presence wasn't exactly of the same charisma as the actors in that era
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I have to say that this was the first episode of PLL that was BORING!!!
I fell almost asleep watching it....what a waste just so Spencer can figure out who really A is...and we all know it already EZRA...
So can't wait till next week when Aria finds out...wonder what Ezra is going to do then???
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this felt like watching my old school theater tapes, awfull
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and embarasing
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I think toby should be shoot in black and white all the time, he looks really good ,I'm not talking about the acting which was dead on bugs bunny like nick campbell said but everyone just looked extremely beautiful in this episode.
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I didn't mind the episode. It was beautifully shot and aired during the olympics, so they were expecting high ratings anyway. Most shows are on hiatus.

But I'm extremely angry about some spoilers floating around. I might even send hate tweets to Marlene King, which is crazy because I shouldn't be so invested in a show airing on ABC family. Damn you PLL :(
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*weren't expecting high ratings anyway. We need an edit button!
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While I loved all the aesthetics of how this episode was filmed, I found it pretty boring. There was no new information to move the story forward. Its a shame because they could have used it to do something awesome.

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this was BORING!
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Completely adorable!!! Just love this episode!!! And yeah - they twisted my mind beyond any border...lol..just finished watching it and feel some kind of pressure in my brain
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It was slow, even for a PLL episode and not much was revealed. I also don't like how it seems Ezra is the one and only A... It doesn't make much sense to me. Does he have a fixation with Allison? Then why did he start a relationship with Aria and genuinly seemed to care about her? It just seems weird now, it's like they completely changed his personality only to reveal him as A, or someone on the A-team, for a twist. This episode also made me hate Allison more...
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I have decided that Crazy Spencer just needs a spinoff. One week, film noir dream/hallucinations, the next week we could find ourselves smack dab in Sesame Street. The possibilities of Crazy Spencer + drugs are endless.

I liked this episode for the simple fact that Spence is my favorite, and I loved that we got a nice view of the world through her eyes. Putting it in 1940s film noir allowed the show to have all that moral gray area they love so much, but things seemed a lot more black and white as well (haha, I didn't even intend for that to be a pun). Ezra was more outright in his evilness, it was clear that Mona was working for him, etc.

I found the interactions with Ali interesting though. It definitely gave an insight into Spencer's worries about Ali coming back. It definitely enforces that this hunt for -A, Ali's killer, and now Ali herself has become what defines this girls, and Spencer moreso than anyone. This game has paid the biggest price on her mentally. Without her brains, the others probably would be dead by now and she does get a sense of satisfaction from being the smart one, the one to figure out the puzzles. So what happens to her when it's all over with? There's every chance that bringing Ali back causes Spence to lose a lot more than she's already lost and I don't know that she can handle that.

I loved, that even in her own subconscious, she bitched about people not spelling "nitely" correct. Spencer just kicks ass.
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Well I was okay with the black and white but i was not okay with Hanna's new found attitude towards men. She experiences a bad breakup and now has lost all faith in male sex so all the others liars get to have boyfriends and she has to stay single because Caleb broke her trust how unfair is that?
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I thought Hanna meant: It is all about the A-ness of things. Which then obviously sounded the way it was written in your review.
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Seriously? They only did it in the black and white to mask the aging of the actors. Which didn't work. They look even older. I know I've been on about this for weeks now but it's really starting to bug me.
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Interesting how Spencer still views Alison as a problem. However, it does lead to this question: How will Alison be accepted back into society?
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That was pointless. Also the A note at the end really annoyed me, the reason telegraphs used STOP was because they couldn't use full-stops. The letter used both. Sorry for being pedantic but it bugged me!
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Like others have mentioned, I too love film noir episodes. But dear god pll didnt need one! This show is getting super annoying, with every episode being a filler but I still show up every Tuesday hoping for something, anything. Also I have to admit this ep was visually pleasing but the acting was just terrible. It usually doesn't bother me but my god tobys acting was ridiculous. Why is he still in the show, his whole storyline with his mom was a snooze fest that if anything made me hate him more. I still hope that the writers make the storyline somewhat relevant and it wasnt just too torture me with his acting. And lol ezra did look like a baby with his clothing all so oversized. P.S. I know theyd only want to include music relevant to the times. But man they missed an opportunity to play shadowplay by joy division. :)
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I love the film noir tool when used in TV shows becasue it usually is the one character's views about the people in their lives and the roles they would play. I just rewatched the Smallville and One Tree Hill noir eps and I remembered why I loved that genre!!!
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I LOVE the Smallville film noir episode!!! It was perfect!
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I know!!! I've been rewatching the series box set and i watched that ep just a week ago!!! So good!!!
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The actors who play Chloe and Jimmy nailed that episode. It's such a good show.
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I loved the premise of this episode but it was just soo boring. I wish something had happened even if it was just a bottle storyline that had no impact on the rest of the series. Troian and Ashley did their best to sell it but man was the acting bad.

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I think Hanna was saying "the A-ness of things" not anus...unless you're just spelling it that way because it's funnier.
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I also wish that it had not been a dream but was wondering around with this illusion
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Since the writers want us to believe that Ezra is A, I think that this week could've been a flashback episode from Ezra's point of view instead of a Spencer dream. How interesting would that have been? Then to watch them write their way out of it for the rest of the season. I mean, PLL always feeds you a lie about A and then completely blows your mind with their big reveals. I enjoyed the wardrobe and make up and not much else about this episode.
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chiaroscuro - I had to look that one up. Liked the hair and the hard lipstick. Definitely noir. No serious advancement of the plot (what is the the plot anyway? I've kind of lost track over the seasons) ... Overall, I enjoyed the episode. Looking forward to their 'Spring Break' offering.
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hanna didn't say "anus." she said "A-ness..."
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Ok, I have no problem with 'special' episodes... but this was a waste of an episode. All it was, was 40 mins of useless crap & a reveal Spencer would have normally realised in 2 mins of a normal episode.

'Once More with Feeling' (Buffy) for example, was a great 'special' episode. Made great use of it's characters, it's every-episode comedy style & the perfect way to reveal a secret (a secret to the supporting characters at least, not the audience) that was very important to that season!

This PLL ep was just a waste.

[Sorry, I'm not the best writer, hope I got my point across tho]
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No,no,no..ughh,just no. This episode should not have been made and I thought I've seen everything from this show,but come on...such a drag to watch this episode. Emily and Paige...wtf was with those scenes...back to season 1?? Yeah,I know,because when this episode should take place,but only good thing was the end and Hannah saying "I am not used to walking in the streets as Mona"(something like that). And then there's Toby.....never again.
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A very spot on review. I thought the costumes and the all the girls looked amazing, but I wish they had done this as a one off episode or a special in between seasons. It didn't really add that much to Spencer's character for me, it was just beating us over the head with everything we know and love about her.

Aria's conversation with Ezra in the car clearly adds flame to the fire that she is secretly A, "You don't want to know what I am thinking," "Sometimes the villains win in the end." "It started off as this one thing and now it is completely different." Or it just proves that people in this universe only speak to each other very vaguely.
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According to PLL's head writer, the purpose was for Spencer to fall asleep and dream and only by dreaming could she realize that she knew THE answer! Which is why she says it does furthers the plot. Before we get all "judgey" about this episode, let's see next week if indeed Spencer got all her answers by giving her subconscious over to her dream!
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Hannah said "This is all about the 'A'-ness of things" just to clarify.
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To quote Shawn Spencer, "I've heard it both ways".
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As someone who adores 1940's film styling and the just-for-fun episodes, I absolutely loved it!! I don't really mind that it didn't advance the plot because it instead gave us a focus on one particular girl, which is something we don't get very often. This episode works so well for Spencer's character because she is a detective and to show a different cultural setting of what a detective looks like was great. I really enjoyed Toby being Spencer's conscience because she has been his conscience for most of their relationship. To see that shift was beautifully played out, especially in noir. And, yes, #BooRadleyVanCullen was perfect in this setting!!
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I hated this episode. It was boring and hardly advanced the storyline at all. There's nothing worse than a bad/unentertaining filler episode, which is what this was.
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