As I’ve elaborated on in the first post of this two-piece analysis, Pretty Little Liars is coming to an end. And isn’t that the best possible moment to take a look at the show’s biggest mistakes? Yes, it is. And Pretty Little Liars has a bunch of them, from an illegal and predatory relationship to the concerning and harmful portrayal of mentally ill people as crazy and violent to character development making someone deeply unlikeable.
The four mistakes I elaborated on last time around are unfortunately only the beginning. There are four more that soured the show for me to no small degree.
V: Making Toby and Yvonne marry and immediately killing her
Toby Cavanaugh is also introduced in the first season of the show. He’s originally cast as a sort of outsider/bad boy who is suspected of having murdered Alison but clears his name and befriends first Emily and then Spencer. They grow closer over the course of the first season and ultimately start a relationship that becomes an on-off thing for the rest of the series. The midseason finale of the sixth season ends with them still together before the time jump as Spencer goes away to college, but it is revealed that they broke up during that time because they ultimately wanted different things in life.
Yvonne is introduced in the sixth season as Toby’s new long-term girlfriend with whom he got into a relationship during the time jump. She and Spencer work on opposing political campaigns, but the show never descends to making them catfight over either their work or the fact that Yvonne is dating Spencer’s ex-boyfriend.
Although it’s not clear how long they’ve been together, Toby and Yvonne have a serious and committed relationship with one another. They are even building a house together. When Spencer ropes Toby back into the fight against Uber A/A.D, it causes tension between Yvonne and Toby, but they get engaged by the beginning of the seventh season. As things become more dangerous, they decide to leave Rosewood, sell the house they built and move to Maine, partially to get out of A.D.’s reach. When Toby reveals this to Spencer, they share a last kiss as a good bye.
However, in the midseason finale of the seventh season, it is revealed that they were in a car accident on their way out of Rosewood that was supposedly caused by a deer. While Toby is recovering well, his fiancee is in a medically induced coma. When she awakes from it, Toby asks her to immediately marry her, to which she agrees. Immediately after and while she and Toby are talking about their honeymoon, Yvonne goes into cardiac arrest and dies.
Apart from the fact that it’s an immensely cheap way to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewers, the main reason for Yvonne’s death seems to be that it would allow Toby and Spencer to get back together again. There’s been continous tension between them over the sixth season, so much so that Yvonne questioned whether her relationship with Toby even had a future. Then there’s the goodbye kiss that Toby and Spencer shared during the midseason finale of the seventh season and the fact that Toby broke down and cried in Spencer’s arms after Yvonne’s death.
However, the final piece of evidence is the fact that only five episodes after Yvonne died, Spencer and Toby have gone back to sleeping with one another. Toby essentially disappared after episode 13, when Yvonne died, as he’s gone to a cabin the woods aka off screen to grieve, but reappears in episode 18 with an impressive new beard. He invites Spencer to said cabin and after a short conversation, they started making out. Judging based on the trailer for the series finale, it wasn’t a one time occurrence either.
Killing of one character to allow her love interest to get together with someone else is a pretty bad way to resolve a love triangle in the first place, but in case of Pretty Little Liars, there’s an ugly racial dimension to it as well. The show is incredibly white: Emily is the only person of color among the five main characters. Most of the recurring characters of color were killed off over the course of the series: Maya St. Germain, Lyndon James, Shana Fring, Emily’s father and, of course, Yvonne. Yvonne’s death is even more annoying because women of color are rarely allowed to be love interests for white men and characters of color are often killed to further the story arcs of white characters.
Another annoying aspect of Yvonne dying and Spencer and Toby reuniting is the fact that it means that Spencer is throwing herself into yet another relationship. None of the main characters have ever been single for an extended period of time, but as Troian Bellisario pointed out, this is especially true for Spencer. She also expressed concern about the message the show was sending with this, asking
“Why don’t we have any characters on the show that are able to be single and be happy? Because otherwise what kind of message are we sending out? Like you have to be with someone, whether it be a man or a woman, in order to find happiness?”
Much like killing of Maya St. Germain, a bisexual black woman, in season one, killing off Yvonne was pointless and part of a problematic pattern for Pretty Little Liars.
VI: Implanting Emily’s fertilized eggs into Alison
Yes, you read that right. That is indeed a thing that happened.
There has essentially been tension between Alison and Emily right from the first season, when it was revealed in a flashback that they kissed before Alison disappeared. However, Alison rejected Emily’s later advances and explained that the kiss had only been practice for “the real thing”. When Alison disappeared, Emily was able to come to terms with her feelings for her and her own lesbianism and started dating Maya and then other girls, including Paige, another member of the swim team.
After Alison’s return, Emily and Alison grow closer again and even kiss, but ultimately don’t get together as Emily finds it hard to trust her and still has feelings for Paige, who was bullied intensely by Alison. Over the course of the fifth season, Emily continuously goes back and forth on her feelings for both of them. At the end of the season, Paige moves to California because Rosewood, Alison, and Big A are draining her too much. Emily and Alison grow closer again over the sixth season but when Emily moves away before the time jump, their relationship comes to an end.
After the time jump, it is revealed that Emily dropped out of college without obtaining a degree after her father died and is in financial trouble. She decides to finish her college degree after all and sells some of her eggs to be able to do so. A.D. steals said eggs and uses them to blackmail Emily, who’s simultaneously working at a coffee shop and getting involved with a coworker. Ultimately, Emily applies at her old High School to become the school’s swim coach where she meets Paige again who is applying for the same job.
At the same time, Alison, who’s an English teacher at Rosewood High, has gotten into a relationship with Elliot Rollins, the psychiatrist treating Charlotte before her release. They grow closer after Charlotte’s murder and even get married, but Alison feels like she is slowly losing her mind as she begins to see both her dead mother, Jessica, and a deceased detective. Alison admits herself to the same facility Charlotte had been treated at and it is revealed that Elliot and Alison’s aunt and Charlotte’s mother, Mary Drake, had dressed up to make Alison believe she was going insane to get their hands on Alison’s money and avenge Charlotte’s death. While she’s hospitalized, Elliot repeatedly gives Alison drugs that give her hallucionations and isolates her from her friends.
At the beginning of the seventh season, Emily and Alison’s other friends become suspicious and try to contact Alison. They ultimately discover Alison’s predicament and try to rescue her. When Rollins becomes aware of this, he decides to drive away with Alison but she escapes. As he tries to recapture her, Hanna and the other girls accidentally run him over with their car, killing him and bury his corpse in the wood. It is then revelead that he was a con man whose actual name was Archer Dunhill.
Over the course of the seventh season, Alison then struggles to come to terms with what happened to her while Emily is torn between her feelings for Alison and Paige, who has become the supervisor of the athletic department at their old school. Alison and Paige clash multiple times, partially out of jealousy and partially because of Alison’s bullying of Paige when they were teenages.
In the midseason finale, Alison reveals to Emily that she is pregnant with what is presumably Archer’s baby, something Emily tries to help her deal with despite Alison continuously pushing her away. Ultimately, Alison decides to have an abortion. Shortly after, Paige tells Emily that she has been offered a job at the University of Iowa as assitant coach of the swim team and can’t decide whether or not to accept the job. The two women decide to race each other on their bikes to make a decision, but Paige ultimately realises that she wants to stay in Rosewood and with Emily. They kiss.
In the same episode, Alison is sent on a scavenger hunt in a baby store by A.D. that ends when she is given a necklace by one of the store employees. It’s meant for the person who donated the egg to Alison and reads ‘Emily’, making Alison realised that someone took one of Emily’s stolen eggs, fertilized it and implanted it in her. When she tells Emily this, Emily decides that she wants to raise the child with Alison. Although she asks Paige to stay in Rosewood and find a way to be together despite this, Paige decides to go to Iowa after all, and Emily and Alison pick their relationship back up again and decide to get married.
There are many, many issues with this entire story line. For one, forced pregnancy storylines are inherently deeply misogynistic, as they take away a women’s agency about one of the most important decisions in one’s life. In the context of Pretty Little Liars and Alison’s story line specifically, it’s especially gross because it adds another violation to an already pretty big mountain of violations. Alison has previously been tricked into marriage by someone lying to her about his identity, then gaslit into committing herself and then been heavily drugged there. Is it really necessary to add another horrible experience on top of that?
There’s also the fact that this is a massive violation of Emily, too. Selling her eggs did not mean she consented to just anyone using them and it certainly didn’t mean she consented to having them fertilized and implanted into her friend and on-off love interest.
Additionally, this is a bad way of bringing Alison and Emily together. The two have gone back and forth on their relationships ever since Alison came back for good reason: ultimately, Emily doesn’t feel like she can trust Alison and Alison wasn’t clear about her feelings on Emily either. Those issues are not going to simply go away because they have decided to raise a child together. To make things worse, Emily was literally kissing another woman before she found out that Alison’s baby was also hers and even after the revelation originally wanted said other woman to stay with her. That is not a healthy basis for a relationship.
Unfortunately, I. Marlene King, the showrunner, seems to disagree. She described the surprise pregnancy as “a really organic way” to bring these two women together. But the thing is that something doesn’t become organic just because it happens to involve the usage of one’s reproductive organs.
VII: All of the girls essentially ending up with their season 1 love interests
Yvonne’s death and the whole fiasco surrounding Emily’s eggs and Alison’s pregnancy are ultimately related to what seems like the decision to keep all of the girls with the love interests that were established during the first season. Hanna and Caleb, Aria and Ezra and Spencer and Toby all got together during the first season. And even though Emily’s main love interest at that time was Maya St. Germain, her crush on Alison was first introduced in that season as well.
To a certain degree, I do get why the showrunners made the decision to essentially let all of the main ships end up together. As much as Pretty Little Liars has been about the mystery, the relationship drama and romance has always been a major aspect of the show, too. And many of the fans have been very vocal about their preferences in terms of ships and the couples that they want to be end game. There’s a very real chance that many fans would have been vocally angry if their favourite ships had not gotten a happy ending by the end of the series.
At the same time, it’s just not realistic. Very, very few people end up with someone they started dating in high school and for good reason. We all mature and grow as people, and as the second half of the sixth season showed, that’s supposedly true of the Pretty Little Liars characters, too. Most of the couples broke up over the time jump for that very reason: they had matured and realised that they wanted different things in lives than the person they were dating. And that is not a bad thing.
Of course there are ways to still make it work, but Pretty Little Liars didn’t find them. Take Hanna and Caleb, for example. When Hanna came back to Rosewood, she and Caleb had been broken up for multiple years, and Hanna was in a relationship to Jordan, with whom she had also been engaged for a year. Caleb and Spencer had worked together in D.C. and Madrid and had hooked up once before coming to Rosewood, where they grow closer again as Caleb starts to work on the political campaign of Spencer’s mother. When Spencer realizes that she has feelings for Caleb, she asks Hanna for permission to date him which she gives and which makes Hanna realize that she wants to move forward with her relationship with Jordan and finally get married.
However, when Hanna decides to set a trap for A.D. with Caleb’s help, she gets nervous. Caleb comforts her and the two of them kiss which leads to Caleb and Spencer and Hanna and Jordan breaking up. He and Hanna getting back together thus seems a lot like both of them falling back into old patterns because they’re back in a familiar situation rather than both of them having grown and found a way to work out the problems that ended their relationship over the time jump. This gets especially obvious when Hanna starts working on her own fashion brand in the second half of the seventh season and Caleb is worried that it will break them apart again. Instead of actually talking it out, the two of them just get married almost immediately after getting back together.
Something similar is true of Spencer and Toby. After Caleb and Spencer break up, Spencer feels understandably alone and sad and nostalgic for her relationship with Toby with whom she has gotten closer after she and the other girls involved him in the search for A. D. When she realises that Toby is moving on and away for good with Yvonne, she asks if she can kiss him one last time. Then, during the second half of the season, Toby hides away in a cabin after Yvonne’s death and Spencer’s relationship with Marco Furey, a police officer investigating Archer Dunhill’s disappearance, becomes rocky as it looks more and more like Spencer is somehow involved. All of this leads to the hookup between Spencer and Toby in 7×18 feeling a lot more like a grief hookup than their relationship progressing to a point where it can actually be picked up again.
I’ve already written about the problematic nature of Ezra and Aria’s relationship and about why the way Emily and Alison became a couple bothers me, but it ultimately, it fits into the same trend. The showrunners have decided that the couples they originally decided on and that a majority of the fans seem to like best are the ones will be together by the time the final episode of the show airs. To reach that goal, they’ve sacrificed the quality of the show.
VIII: The time jump
As you might have noticed, many of the decisions made on Pretty Little Liars that I consider the worst have been made after the five year time jump that occurred in the middle of the sixth season. That’s because I ultimately consider the decision to pick the show up again after time jump instead of letting it end after the “Charlotte is A” reveal to be the absolute worst – and ultimately wrong – decision made by the showrunners.
The show was renewed for two seasons before the fifth season started to air, but ultimately it would have been better if it had only gotten one more season. That way, the first half of the sixth season, which ends with the Charlotte reveal, could have been strechted to cover an entire season which would have meant that it wouldn’t have felt so incredibly rushed. It also would have allowed the writers to solve some of the mysteries that were unsolved by the midseason finale of the sixth season – like the murder of Jessica DiLaurentis – over the sixth season instead of in the seventh season which had decidedly odd pacing.
Of course not all of the problems with the show would have been fixed if it had ended after the Charlotte reveal instead of going on for another season and a half. Maya St. Germain would still be dead and the show would still have demonised mentally ill people as evil and violent again and again. Charlotte DiLaurentis would still be a stereotypically evil and deceptive trans woman, but at least she’d probably be an alive one. Pretty Little Liars still would have spent six seasons normalising what is essentially a low-key pedophilic, deeply messed up relationship but Aria and Ezra would have ended the show by going their separate ways instead of probably getting married. Yvonne wouldn’t have been introduced only to be ultimately killed of to bring Spencer and Toby back together. Emily and Alison’s relationship wouldn’t be based on a massive violation of their bodily autonomy.
Oh, if only.