Pretty Little Liars has always embraced camp over subtlety, but the show seems to be doubling down on that tendency in its old age. In fact, the series went full Scooby Doo by the end of last season, with Rollins ripping off an impressively realistic full-body disguise to reveal his new villain status. Season 7 appears to be no different, as Mary Drake’s ominous bait-and-switch one-liners and the booming chimes of the Rosewood clock tower usher in new plot developments.
It’s a messy, broad episode that tries a lot of different things but fails to connect any of its bizarre puzzle pieces. Continuing to tread in darker territory, the show graphically depicts A.D.’s torture of Hanna, leaving her bruised, beaten, and crying under jarring neon green lights. Just as Hanna begins to give up hope, she’s visited by Spencer in a dream sequence that’s romantic and maternal at once, full of lullabies and hair-petting.
Stuck in a hospital bed, Alison is receiving a different form of torture after being tricked by Rollins into thinking she’s seeing ghosts. She’s sedated continually throughout the episode, and her occasional screams and pleas for God’s help act as confirmation for the Liars that their former leader is harboring a big secret. Pieterse sells Alison’s break down well enough, but it still feels out of place tonally. Instead of going for the sensational, the show would be better suited to explore its complicated relationship with mental illness and institutions, rather than using it as a crutch. They’ve taken a turn for the mature with their approach to torture, why not do the same with mental health?
But that’s always been Pretty Little Liars’ issue. The show is unafraid of making bold stokes, but its structure as mystery series that spans over multiple seasons prevents these events from having any real emotional impact on the characters or the audience. A ticking clock sounds after every commercial break reminding us that Hanna’s in danger, but she’s escaped out of countless torture dens at this point in the series, so she’s clearly equipped to break out of this one. There’s a reason shows often restrict a mystery arc to one season, or even an episode. It’s impossible to sustain suspense — especially while juggling the romances and friendships that draw in the show’s teen audience.
Similarly, Pretty Little Liars is quick to put Alison (or Spencer, or Mona, or Charlotte) in a straight-jacket when it serves the storyline, but there’s never any real discussion of how these characters live with their mental illness, let alone the trauma of the horrors they’ve witnessed at the hand of A, and now, A.D.
As the series plows towards its conclusion, audiences can certainly expect all of the jump-scares, carefully-crafted sassy texts, and makeout sessions that the show has become known for. But, here’s hoping that amidst the flashy reveals, Pretty Little Liars takes a moment to breathe and pay service the characters we’ve spent seven seasons rooting for.
In its seventh season, Pretty Little Liars illustrates the dangers of stretching a mystery as far as it can go with a splashy premiere that fails to establish real stakes for its characters.