Webs of Deception and Allusion Thread Together to Make 'Pretty Little Liars'
With its constant nods to the work of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, Pretty Little Liars conjures up a world of allusions, where the source of truth is always uncertain.
Viewers of Pretty Little Liars will remember the shocking but rather insignificant scene in season five when Toby Cavanaugh, driving to his police academy graduation, gets injured in a traffic accident. The other vehicle is never seen. It strikes suddenly on the driver’s side, and Toby’s left leg is broken by the impact. When he next appears, on the morning of the following day, he sits in a wheelchair, showing discomfort only when his girlfriend, Spencer Hastings, one of the eponymous Liars, is arrested in front of him for murder.
We never learn who was driving the other vehicle, or why the driver was so careless as to hit a stationary pickup truck. Was Toby parked in the middle of an intersection? Was the other driver driving on the sidewalk? Did his or her brakes fail? We simply don’t know.
Toby’s accident serves a couple of purposes. It occurs in a mid-season finale, an episode in which the viewer has already been promised that a character will die. The incident, therefore, functions as a ruse, but it also facilitates an allusion. Ruses and allusions: Pretty Little Liars is not just reliant upon, but totally addicted to these devices.
In the next episode, we again find Toby in the wheelchair, his leg in plaster. A month has passed, and it’s Christmas. Spencer and Hanna Marin, another of the Liars, are breaking into the home of Alison DiLaurentis, their erstwhile friend, who until recently was presumed dead. They suspect that Ali is A, their tormentor, and that she murdered Mona Vanderwaal, who herself was A for some time, in the previous episode. They’re now raiding Ali’s house for proof.
Confined to the wheelchair, Toby watches them through a telephoto lens from the house next door, which belongs to Spencer. Binoculars would have sufficed; Toby is no photographer. By this point, however, anyone familiar with the films of Alfred Hitchcock will recognize the allusion to his 1954 thriller, Rear Window. Toby, then, spies a third figure inside Ali’s house, hooded and carrying a large knife: A.
While Spencer hides, Hanna obliviously continues to sleuth in the attic. It’s 2014, so Spencer tries to text her a warning, but Hanna sustains the allusion by carelessly having left her phone downstairs. Toby tries to warn her by flashing his digital camera’s flash, also to no effect.
The scene illustrates the show’s absolute devotion to the practice of allusion. The Liars’ sleuthing could have been done without Toby watching, as it usually is. His leg was seemingly broken only so that the allusion could be staged. In the next episode, he walks again.
An uncharitable viewer might argue that such allusions bespeak lazy storytelling, but I want to suggest that this practice contributes much to the haphazard complexity that makes Pretty Little Liars such a charming series. A moment hardly passes without a reference being made to some other work of culture, and Hitchcock is a frequent guest. The Liars’ local cafe is called Rear Window Brew, and the show has featured prominent, extended allusions to several other Hitchcock films, including Vertigo, The Birds, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Literary allusion is even more pervasive: the Liars -- one of whom, Aria Montgomery, dated their English teacher for several seasons -- are shown reading, or at least carrying, an array of American classics. Mona reads Henry James’s Terminations; Spencer, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; Ali, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Allusions such as these add considerable depth to the characters through the implications they carry.
The implications of the show’s various allusions are rarely voiced. In fact, their potency is derived from their ability to signify what cannot be explicitly stated, in either verbal or visual terms. The show’s many allusions to David Lynch's cult favorite Twin Peaks are a case in point. There are numerous plot similarities between the two series, but the specific Twin Peaks allusions in which Pretty Little Liars indulges point to a darker sexuality than would normally be permissible on a network like ABC Family.
We encounter a bird that squawks Ali’s secrets; a friendship bracelet bearing Ali’s name, discovered in the forest; a video of Ali, filmed in the forest by Ian Thomas, a secret boyfriend who was secretly videotaping her and her friends, as well as being threatened by her. Why, we ask, would Ian and his friends secretly videotape teenage girls in their bedrooms? The reason is left unsaid. These allusions to Twin Peaks invoke specific elements of the sexuality of that show's murder victim, Laura Palmer: the talking Mynah bird that bites her at the party on the night she dies, the broken-heart necklace buried in the forest, the film taken at a picnic in the woods by a secret lover.
Ali’s diary also features prominently in Pretty Little Liars. It describes a summer of flirtation, rather than a lifetime of incest, rape, and drug abuse. Nevertheless, the allusions point to a darker account of Ali’s activities before her “death” than could be directly represented. Ali is 15 when her mother buries her alive in Spencer’s back yard. Both Ian and Ezra Fitz, adult men whom she secretly dated, explicitly deny having had sex with her.
Anyone familiar with Twin Peaks may find in these allusions an alternate explanation. Pretty Little Liars could be described as Twin Peaks-lite, borrowing elements of Lynch’s story but repackaging them for a younger audience. Allusion as a signifying practice, however, permits the erotic horror of stories like Twin Peaks or Psycho to infiltrate Pretty Little Liars without the need for direct representation. Allusion facilitates interpretations of the show’s events and characters that transgress the moral limits imposed by its medium and audience.
By opening itself to this profusion of signifiers, Pretty Little Liars allows an array of contradictory interpretative possibilities to coexist. The other side to this chaotic state of affairs is that it becomes impossible for anything to ever be fully explained, or for the truth about anything to ever be satisfactorily revealed. This tension between the promise of a conclusive revelation and its consequent impossibility is the central operation of the show.
A is for Autonomy
Some viewers understandably become frustrated with this tension. Pretty Little Liars tantalizes us with the prospect of a truth that it cannot deliver. By upholding an ideal of truthfulness that it perpetually violates, the show proves itself dishonest.
Conversely, though, its excessive use of allusion points to a world of signification beyond the moral dichotomies -- pairings like good/evil, truth/lies, and sane/insane -- in which the characters participate. We might take this frustrating aspect of the show to be something more than an example of cheap, lazy writing: with its surfeit of allusion stressing the over-presence of the cultural past, Pretty Little Liars comes to resemble a danse macabre, a rendering of reality in which the dead play alongside the living. In this dance of signifiers, we detect not merely a celebration of deceit and hypocrisy, but a purposive subversion of the moral structure upon which the narrative relies.
The Liars are trapped in the world of the living. They rarely perceive the significance of their allusions, and cannot see beyond the inflexible dichotomies that structure their lives. The viewer, however, is invited to witness the carnivalesque collapse of these categories.
The more we focus on the allusions and the unspoken, unrepresented world that underlies the moral categories structuring the show’s spoken and represented reality, the more we observe that the Liars lack autonomy. The spoken and represented world of Pretty Little Liars is one in which identities are assumed to be stable, and actions driven by intent. The Liars, of course, see themselves as autonomous. Their actions are motivated by a common desire to unmask A, to attribute a stable, human identity to that ambiguous letter. They display a stubborn faith in their ability to do so, never quite accepting that A not only evades, but also dictates their efforts.
Recall, for instance, the episode in which Spencer and Caleb, Hanna’s boyfriend, destroy the knife with which Mona was thought to have been killed. Their attempt to change the course of events through deliberate action backfires, as A anticipates their decision and locks Caleb in the kiln, nearly killing him. Every time the Liars take such decisive steps, we feel that some trap has been laid. Their plans are always already foreseen. Although the show maintains the premise that autonomous action is possible, it never permits such action to be fulfilled.
Identity is notoriously unstable on Pretty Little Liars, so much so that we hardly blink when Toby seems to become a police officer overnight. Ali uses multiple aliases, and changes her appearance to suit each one. Characters perform their gendered identities through dress: Aria with her garish outfits, Spencer with her animal vests, and Ezra with his painted-on abs.
Family relationships are precarious: Ali’s brother becomes Spencer’s half-brother, and Ali’s mother suddenly has a second adult son. Ezra gains and loses a son within a short space of time. And yet the Liars react with the same surprise every time a new identity is revealed, or a familiar one destabilized. The only stable identity on the show belongs to A, but who is A?
On the one hand, we never know who A is. On the other, Toby was A, for a time; Spencer, briefly, was A; Mona was A for several years; Ezra was A, we felt sure; at the time of writing, Charles is A -- but who is Charles? We hardly know.
The Liars’ efforts to unmask A are frustrated and derided by these twists of identity, which they meet without ever losing faith in the possibility that the mask conceals a person whom we might know. A possesses the autonomy of the puppet master, and treats the Liars like dolls. We are led to assume that A’s autonomy is the product of superior computer skills and an ability to orchestrate various elaborate stunts involving snow globes, Christmas lights, dead pigs, fireworks, and Chinese food deliveries, which inevitably contribute to the Liars being framed for murders that they sometimes did not commit.
We suspect, however, that A’s autonomy is the boon of existing only at the level of reality at which allusions function, the unrepresented dance of the dead that underlies and subverts the structured, conscious, and moral world in which the Liars are confined. On account of this half-existence, A is subject to an endless range of interpretations and reinterpretations. We might say that the Liars are possessed in two regards. At the level of represented, material reality, they’re toys, A’s possessions. At the level of unrepresented reality, however, the Liars are possessed by the ghosts and spirits invoked by the allusions that circumscribe their actions and restrict their autonomy.
One allusion springs to mind as being particularly relevant here. In the penultimate episode of season three, Spencer is collaborating with A, at this point Mona. Wearing A’s trademark black hoodie and posing as Ali, she abducts Ezra’s son, and takes him to a carnival, where either they see or she performs for him Faust with marionettes. The scene is unrepresented, and the coexistence of these possible interpretations is vital. When Aria arrives, frantically searching for the child meant to be in her care, the puppet tent is empty except for the boy sitting in front of the stage. He tells her how much he enjoyed the show. As they depart, the marionette Mephistopheles waves goodbye.
Spencer seems to assume the role of puppeteer: she’s acting as A, wearing the costume, and controlling the puppet with her own hand. Her scheme, however, is subsumed by A’s master plan. A -- as distinct from Mona -- has already arranged outcomes that Spencer does not foresee: in the next episode, she, Mona, and the other Liars are almost killed in a suspicious fire. Neither Mona nor Spencer can fill A’s shoes. Spencer’s attempt to assert her autonomy results in her being possessed by the letter. She fails to make its power conform to her plan.
In a later episode, she states that by working with A, she struck a deal with the devil. Still, we can pursue the implications of this allusion further by asking which role Spencer plays at the carnival: Faust or Mephistopheles? Does she manipulate the puppets, or do she and the boy watch the show together? In the famous adaptation by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mephistopheles allows Faust to witness the demonic celebrations of Walpurgisnacht, but forbids him to be involved. Spencer appears to be playing both parts. By wearing A’s hoodie, she assumes the authority of Mephistopheles, but cannot hold herself apart from the demonic dance that the allusion invokes. As soon as Spencer steps into the role of A, A vanishes, and she immediately slips into the play of ghosts and spirits.
A is for Authenticity
A is the dark centre of the Liars’ danse macabre, a centre that consists in equal measure of the prospect of a face to be unmasked and the certainty that the mask conceals only emptiness. We may observe that the dance consists of lies, but what constitutes truth in such a world? Pretty Little Liars invites us at every opportunity not only to imagine an array of potential, conflicting futures, but also to forever re-evaluate what we thought we knew. No information that we hold can be counted as secure.
The allusions, moreover, open an endless chain of signification, expanding an event’s range of potential interpretations by always pointing elsewhere, to an external authority that resides somewhere back in the past. The original event for Pretty Little Liars was Alison’s murder, an event that suffers from a twofold complication: firstly that it did not occur, and secondly that it references an event that already happened elsewhere: on Twin Peaks, as well as in countless other narratives. Because of this constant deferral of originality, one can never hope to arrive at the true interpretation of an event such as Ali’s murder. Pretty Little Liars implicitly acknowledges as much by embracing the openness and endless opportunities for interpretation and reinterpretation that allusion offers. While the show inspires and nurtures an increasingly vast collection of intricate fan theories, it paradoxically undermines any basis we have for ascribing truth value to any aspect of the world it describes.
Moral and epistemological dichotomies are disrupted. Even the distinction between life and death is unclear. Mona was dead. We saw her corpse in the trunk of a car, colourless, its eyes staring upwards. We saw her as a ghost. Ali, too, was dead, and is not dead.
The line between sanity and insanity is no clearer. Mona, while incarcerated and presumed insane, proffers coded messages. How authentic is her insanity, and how are we to know? Consider, moreover, the case of Jenna Marshall, Toby’s stepsister, who is blinded by Ali, regains her sight, feigns blindness, can openly see for a brief time, and then loses her sight again. How can we ever trust in her blindness? Spencer’s parents, too, lie to their daughter as often as possible, purportedly to protect her, until she finally forces them to admit the truth: Ali’s brother is her half brother, and her sister mistakenly killed a girl whom she thought was both Ali and already dead by burying her in a grave from which Ali had escaped only moments before.
Are Spencer’s parents to be the arbiters of truth? By what standard do we evaluate the veracity of the tales they tell? What the disruption of these dichotomies presents, however, is not the failure of a character or event to fit into one epistemological or moral category or another, but rather the inadequacy of the categories themselves.
A is a letter emptied of signification. Pretty Little Liars prevents us from wholeheartedly accepting a seemingly simple statement like “Charles is A” through its continuous deferral of meaning, epitomized by its catalogue of allusions. The show portrays a moral world in which moral categories are granted the status of authenticity, but it delights nonetheless in the ruses, games, ironies, false doors and windows, and mysterious unexplained occurrences that give the lie to this elementary morality. This unrelenting play re-inscribes the world of Pretty Little Liars as one in which truth and lies can be determined only in relation to one another, with neither category holding any absolute value.
“Liar” is perhaps not the best word to describe the Liars, who serve rather as quixotic champions of the possibility of truth in a world that ridicules their efforts. A’s identity must remain a mystery, not only because he or she must not be unmasked, but because he or she can exist only as a sly, backhanded promise of truth.
The many ruses of Pretty Little Liars whet our appetite for certain knowledge, but simultaneously erode any criteria by which we might recognize the truth. The Liars tirelessly chase the revelation, and we with them, but how will we know the truth when we see it? I have no doubt that one day we will learn the answers to all our questions, and will be told A’s true identity. By consenting to the truth of this final identity, however, we will be lying to ourselves about the nature of the world that A inhabits.
Ryan Stafford is a PhD student in English at the University of Toronto. His interests lie in classical literature, popular culture, and everything else.