“Pretty Little Liars” recap (4.21): The Scarlet Letter


On the one side you’ve got Emily and Paige doing the exact same horrible thing to each other, which is: Taking away the other person’s agency in the name of safety and love.

After everything Paige has been through with being emotionally tortured by Ali and then physically tortured by ol’ Lyndon James, she needs to have all the facts in front of her and make her own decisions. And by refusing to tell Paige the truth, Emily is blowing up their relationship because Paige can’t trust her and Emily’s guilt is causing her to avoid Paige — but more than that, she’s robbing Paige of her right to have jurisdiction over her own life. Which is never a fair thing, and is especially unfair when Emily’s secrecy one time led to Paige being kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, and bound and gagged in a murder cabin, with a knife pressed against her throat by Emily’s ex-girlfriend’s fake cousin.

And Paige is doing the exact same thing to Emily. Sure, it makes perfect sense that she’d write that letter to the police in a little while, and that she’d grab that money and start demanding things. It makes sense for a billion reasons, some of them motivated out of burning love for Emily and a frantic fear for her safety, some of them motivated out of emotional PTSD and straight-up self-preservation because of her past with Ali, and some of them, surely, are born out of the knowledge that Alison was Emily’s first love. But Emily says to her, very specifically, “Do not take this out of my hands, Paige.” And Paige nods and kisses her on the cheek and takes it right out of her hands. And, like a mirror, she does this to a girl whose agency has been violated in a myriad of horrific ways over the last two years.


OK, and one the other side you’ve got Emily and Allison, whose love for each other was born out of a toxic soil of closeted codependency and emotional manipulation, but was watered with a genuine affection and admiration for one another. Ali also stole Emily’s agency from her, for lots of reasons. Ironically, she wanted to teach her little mermaid to claim her own power. Not so ironically, she wanted to keep her little mermaid in a cage where she could be comforted and strengthened by her golden love.

The common denominator of those equations is Emily and the variables in those equations hate each other’s guts. And not in some catty “Make no mistake, she’s mine!” kind of way (although, admittedly, that’s got to be part of it), but in a “She keeps me warm” “Well, she keeps me safe” kind of way. And so then: Now what, Emily? Keep your Hufflepuffness intact while honoring the girl you love, the girl you promised to share a future with; and saving the girl you’ll always love with a piece of your true self, the girl who made and broke you in a hundred ways in the past. Gain the world; don’t lose your soul. Wrap your arms around everyone and make them all OK.

For me, you can shake every single Pretty Little Liars thing down to one core idea. Jenna is the one who said it, back in season three, when the Liars found out she had her sight again and were trying to coerce her into making their lives easier by making her life infinitely harder. What she said was:”This is the new deal: I feel a lot safer when I am in charge of what happens to me.”

This show is a commentary on a lot of things. Surveillance culture. Fight vs. flight responses, both socially and physically. The psychology of identity. The abuse of authority. Toby and Caleb and Paige have never been wrong for wanting to save their girlfriends’ lives; nor have they been wrong because their altruism was muddled with their own self-preservation instincts. But what they keep doing is violating the one thing the Liars are fighting so hard to wrap their hands around, which is the real thing this show is about, at the end of the day: a group of young women battling their way through a culture saturated in rape and victim blaming, pulling each other and pushing themselves to a place where they can stand up and say what Jenna said. “This is the new deal: I am in charge of what happens to me.”


Other people’s secrets give you power. Ali figured that out very early in life. And now everyone she touched is trying to reclaim themselves, including Paige and Emily. And their secrets, right now, their sources of power, are at complete odds with each other. And that shit is the opposite of black and white.

So, I mean. Wag your finger, if you want, and fall into that #Paily vs. #Emison trap that oversimplifies this glorious story to an absolutely insulting degree. But I’m not going to do that. Watching Paige drop off that letter last night, it felt like a physical punch right in my heartspace. But not in a way where I felt violated by the story or the writers. That right there was a total Paige McCullers move. In fact, it exhibited a level of McCullers-ness that I frankly worried was gone from her forever. She’s a gay girl who almost took her own life because Alison hurled so much shame and hate at her. But she won! She accepted her deal! She came out! And she got the girl! Not just any girl: Paige McCullers got the girl!

She’s a beautiful, competitive, cupcake-eating, trash can-smashing, tender-smoochin, insecurity-pummeling firecracker of a human being, who came face-to-face with the knowledge that her torturer is alive and putting her girlfriend’s life and her relationship in danger. What the heck did you want her to do? Paige McCullers isn’t going to roll over and play dead. She’s going to do the opposite of that in the way that causes the most collateral damage. She’s not going to stop until she finds a coconut one!

The reason this episode is so devastating is because it makes perfect sense. Emily and Ali, individually, drove Paige to do something that of course she was going to do, and in going there, she’s going to drive Emily right away from her. Shipping wars are predicated on the idea that whoever does right and is right gets the girl and whoever does wrong and is wrong loses the girl, but that’s fucking ridiculous because that’s not how life works, even a little bit, and if the totality of a relationship can be boiled down to something you can shout in 140 characters, it’s not a relationship I care about investing myself in, emotionally.


This was always going to happen to Paige and Emily if Ali really was alive. In my perfect world, we’ll get to see Paige and Ali battle it out like lightning next season, and I don’t just mean in a fisticuffs for Emily’s heart. I mean, we’ll get to see Paige take her victorious journey even further, conquering ghosts and zombies and echos of shadows she never knew she’d have to fight. And we’ll see Ali taking back what was stolen from her by whomever has been stalking her like prey, while she continues to challenge our Madonna-whore complexes. We’ll get to see Paige form alliances with unlikely Liars, or find solace with Toby or Caleb or (god-willing) Mona. I love Paige McCullers and you know exactly how much. I love Emily, too. I don’t love Ali, but I want to know her story, for real. Give me Katsa. Give me Sansa. Give me Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, and Susan Pevensie. I’ll take Lisbeth Salander and Scarlett O’Hara. I’ll take Lyra and Eowyn and Hester Prynne. Shit, man, even this show’s ubiquitous red “A” is a play on The Scarlet Letter.

Right now, though, I feel heartbroken because of how organic this catastrophe is, and really lucky that Emily and Paige are the kind of gay characters I’ve been dreaming about watching for my whole grown-up life. I feel lucky that their heartbreak is as anchored to the ethos of Rosewood as Aria and Spencer and Hanna’s. You know how the people you love best can make you the most angry and the most sad because life is is a prism of a zillion different colored motivations? It’s like that, coming and going in two completely different directions.

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