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Pretty Little Liars Recap: Killer Instinct

Take out your No. 2 pencils, close your notebooks, and please read these directions silently while I read them aloud to you, because it’s time for the final exam in Mona’s School of Deception, Lies, and All-Around Subterfuge. I hope you were paying close attention; your life may very well depend on it. Game on, people. And you might think this isn’t a game, but of course it is:That’s why they use the words winning and losing. And as long as we’re talking wins and losses, let’s see who took home the top spot and who didn’t know what him them (spoiler alert: a car) in this week’s Pretty Little Power Rankings.

1. Spencer (last week: 6)
Spencer immediately points out that “‘A’ really likes throwing cars at people.” Aria, Girl Genius, asks, “Isn’t there a chance that this could have been an accident? And maybe unicorns did exist once, it’s just that they didn’t make it to Noah’s Ark on time and that’s why we only have regular horses and ponies roaming the Earth today?” Spencer’s are you kidding me? face wins all the points.

Then again, Spencer is wearing a necktie. It’s … not her greatest fashion moment. Aren’t those Gryffindor colors? Didn’t we establish that Spence is obviously a Ravenclaw?

Spencer’s reaction upon meeting Beckett: “Sam or Frye?” Is this girl BFF material or what? Now, I’d say it strains credulity (“WHAT? Something that strains credulity?” you are probably asking yourself right now. “On this program, which is practically a documentary, so gritty and authentic is the drama that unfolds?” I know, I know, bear with me) for Spencer to have unearthed what is likely one of the only useful documents in the tidal wave of paperwork under which opposing counsel hopes Mamas Marin and Hastings will drown. But Spencer’s ability to locate this document may just be further proof of her intellectual superiority to everyone in the Rosewood universe. So, pass.

Spencer goes back to Radley, hiding the file in that nifty tin of baked goods and — this is really where she wins the day — moves the mystery forward in a way that actually makes sense. Wilden’s report said Toby’s mom jumped off a roof; Spencer knows she jumped out a window. Wilden’s been crooked for his entire career and, presumably, his entire life. I’m sure there’s a telling anecdote, à la Mittens Romney and the haircut, just waiting to be revealed from Wilden’s past. While Wilden’s douchey personality has long been a sign that anyone who met him might have fantasized about killing him, Spencer can now narrow this down to a list of plausible suspects who could have wanted Wilden dead for a specific reason, not to mention a reason that draws some of the disparate threads of this season — Toby’s mom, the old man doctor and the mysterious “blonde girl” who visited Radley, Wilden’s murder — in a way that, I really cannot stress this enough, is reasonable within the logic of this show’s internal universe.

They said this day would never come! They said my sights were set too high! But on this night, at this defining moment in history, coherent plot progression has come to Rosewood!

2. Mona (last week: not ranked)
I’d complain that Mona vanished from our screens with the sort of lousy explanation that more befits a cheating boyfriend than an MIA main character — “I had to go check out what happened with the RV that time that it went missing, okay?” — but her sassy, smoky-voiced return is too delightful for me to dwell on pesky details like plot continuity and reasonable character development, or the fact that she is wearing a shirt she probably stole from a Jackson Pollock exhibit and earrings someone made her from a Jazzy Jewelry set.

“What if I’m the one who set up your mom?” Mona asks, and I’m sure that is going to be my favorite thing she says all episode. But then Hanna tells her that the police “took all the heels from my house” and Mona says, “And left you with nothing but flats? That’s barbaric.” This girl.

Let’s review what we learned in Mona’s School of Deception, Lies, and All-Around Subterfuge:

  1. Motive matters: “You can’t just keep repeating that you did it. You have to explain how you did it and why you did it.”
  2. Pay attention to detail: “There are bugs in your hair, the lake smells like something died in it.” Umm, something did die in it, right? I’m losing track of whether we’ve dragged human bodies out of the lake or just empty police cars.
  3. Wait, maybe this is actually Inception, because it seems as if Hanna believes all of this really happened. Holy shit, Mona knows how to incept others! People like Mona are the reason I never fall asleep on planes.

3. Hanna (last week: 8)
Under ordinary circumstances, I’d be making a “what a tangled web we weave” joke to compare Hanna’s plotline with the hot mess that is her wig. But these are no ordinary circumstances because ASHLEY BENSON’S HAIR IS BACK! Let’s just take a second to remember the veritable crime scene that was living on top of Hanna’s head for the first stretch of this season.

[Moment of silence.]

Moving on: The biggest problem with Hanna’s plan for confessing to a murder she didn’t commit in order to save her mom from a lifetime behind bars or death (this is where we are, you guys; we can’t go back now, we’re all in this show together) is also the only thing that makes it possible: the inclusion of Mona. Hanna makes the same no-duh mistake as every Bond villain ever by spelling out her plan to her mortal enemy and giving that mortal enemy plenty of time to react.

Even after an entire day of lie training (and even after spending the past four years of my life on a TV show with the word “Liars” in the title) Hanna still can’t come up with a better excuse for why her dad isn’t around than “He had… a work… thing.” It’s clear that Hanna is out of her depth here. One does not simply walk into murder.

4. Caleb (last week: 1)
I thought I made it very clear to our friendly neighborhood ex-vagrant that I never wanted to see his camo-Free-People jacket again. That being said, I would so watch a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-style buddy comedy about Ashley Marin, Caleb and their life of crime. Remember when Hanna’s mom didn’t want anything to do with Caleb, just because he was vaguely homeless and having sex with her teenage daughter on a campground in an undisclosed location? We were so young then.

5. Sam Frye (last week: not ranked)
Spencer’s mom’s new intern sort of looks like what would happen if Brian Fallon from the Gaslight Anthem underwent some greaser-to-soc transformation. Not sure yet if I’m giving him credit for knowing Spencer stole a file, but I’m always excited for yet another age-inappropriate potential male suitor to be in our midst.

6. Aria (last week: 3)
Aria is wearing — let me see if I can find a way to do this justice —an, ahh, outfit made entirely of comics. Shoulder pads are happening. These sort of jutting-out, Jetsons-meets-Princess-Di-meets-the-puffy-sleeves-o n-Cinderella’s-ballgown shoulder pads. There’s also this deep-v-neck mesh panel thing. Aria chooses not to tone down this disaster with something relatively inoffensive below the waist (jeans, Aria! They’re fun, try ‘em sometime!) but instead wears a skirt of the same horrendous fabric.

7. Martial Arts Jake (last week: not ranked)
MAJ offers to be Aria’s protector “without any complications.” Sigh. Hanging out with Aria and expecting there to be no complications is like sticking your iPhone headphones in your pocket and expecting the wires to not be tangled when you pull them out again. Later, it appears that MAJ has absolutely no life of his own (and is also of some indeterminate age that makes him look both too old for Aria and too young to not be in school right now) when he just swings by Aria’s on a moment’s notice. MAJ thinks Magic Mike can take care of himself and drops this pearl of parental wisdom: “If a kid’s out of control, he’ll tell you.” I know there are a lot of contenders for this prize, but that might just be, literally, the least accurate thing anyone has ever said on this show.

8. Ezra (last week: 4)
Malcolm is as terrible an artist as his dad is an English teacher, apparently.

9. Emily (last week: 7)
I’m kind of touched by Emily’s “I don’t feel very impressive” admission to Ezra. It’s so true of that college application experience, which has a weird way of making you feel amazing for doing nothing (memberships in clubs that barely hold once-a-year meetings, essays about a heritage you conveniently just starting caring about) while simultaneously making you feel worthless in spite of all your hard work.

Emily does have one in besides swimming: Habitat for Humanity, classic college bait. Her supervisor is Rumer Willis. I’m getting the distinct feeling Emily and Rumer drilled more than houses that summer in Haiti, if you get what I’m saying. (I think they hooked up, is what I’m saying.) Between this irrefutable evidence of hook-uppery and that time Julie and her Habitat instructor were shacking up (house pun!) on Friday Night Lights, I’m starting to feel like I missed a major opportunity by Habitating in high school.

10. Magic Mike Montgomery (last week: 11)
As is the way of television shows, there is only one place Magic Mike could possibly go to “be prepared” for the next time someone does something to his sister that makes him want to — but not actually — wreck said someone’s car. He goes to Martial Arts Jake. Then he’s sort of a dick to Aria on the phone. Magic Mike is Aria’s egg baby experiment writ large.

11. Spencer’s mom (last week: not ranked)
I know I’ve never pointed this out before but I love that Spencer’s mom is this badass attorney who never loses a case. Another win for Spencer’s mom is her reaction to Spencer’s file-stealing: “I should’ve warned Beckett about you.”

12. Emily’s mom (last week: not ranked)
Typically I do not associate viewings of PLL with extreme emotional resonance but when Emily’s mom broke down at the end of this episode as reality crashed down on her like a car into her living room — her daughter’s life is constantly in danger, she’s living in a motel for who knows how long, her husband is stuck in an interminable war in the Middle East or maybe just training in Texas but still, he’s our man on the front lines in this war on terror, I assume — I felt it, dear readers. Those sobs were a sock to the solar plexus. How have I never thought about just how hard her life is before? I think my life is hard because CVS doesn’t sell Life cereal. And it is! That is a real struggle for me. But other people struggle too, and this really brought that home for me. Or, I should say: this really brought that motel for me.

13. Hanna’s mom (last week: not ranked)
I’ll believe she’s out of prison when I see her back at her perch in the Marin kitchen: untouched box of Chinese takeout on the table, glass of wine in her hand.

14. That inexcusably bad product placement for Insidious 2 (last week: not ranked)
Even making a joke about this joke of a promotion is beneath me.

Lingering concerns: How does Caleb know what prison for kids is like? Is the least believable part of this show the fact that people are making fun of Aria for her sex life, but not for her outfits? “A” has an electric drill; is “A” in Haiti?

Have a cookie,

-J

PLL fans who’ve read the books: keep your spoiler-filled knowledge to yourselves! TV talk only, both below and on Twitter (@jessicagolds), please and thank you.

Photo: Ron Tom/ABC Family