While there might’ve been numerous changes that faced Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars over the past seven seasons — new beaus, new technology, new villains, new time jumps, you name it — there’s been one person spearheading the tumultuous tale since day one: showrunner I. Marlene King. Days before the series finale reveals one last “A” culprit, King called Vulture to discuss a few popular theories, how the show has catered to fans through the years, and the show’s legacy. They’ll never be another one quite like it, that’s for damn sure.
As much as I want to know who A.D. is and enjoy the final episode, I’m depressed thinking about one of my favorite shows ending in a matter of days.
I feel a sense of eager and dread at the same time. Maybe we need to create a new word for that.
This season has taken a noticeably darker turn with A’s shenanigans, with two Liars facing a level of abuse that we’ve never quite seen before. How did you come to the decision to heighten the narrative in that way?
Subconsciously, we might’ve heightened each season a little bit, and then I think we became conscious of that when we did the five-year time jump. Because the girls are now adults, it enabled us to tell more adult stories in a darker way. It evolved in that way, but of course being the last season we felt like we had to up the game in every way, literally and tonally and thematically.
What were the conversations in the writers room like when you began to thread together the arc of Alison being impregnated with Emily’s eggs, specifically? Was anyone ever like, You know, this might be a little too extreme, even for us?
Yeah, of course, of course. One of our executive producers, Charlie Craig, who left us in season two and joined us again last season, brought some fresh ideas to the room. I think that was his idea, he said to the writers room, I’m gonna float this crazy idea out there, tell me what you think. We were all immediately excited about it, but then I was like, You know, let’s take a 72-hour pause and return to it in a couple of days and see if this is something we want to commit to. We still thought so. It ups the game, yes, it was such a violation, yes, but it’s been handled in a way that’s not to be made light of in any way, shape, and form. It’s one of the most outrageous and vile things that A.D. has done. But I think the results of that come out in an interesting way, as all of the A’s have done — in an effort to separate the girls, something surprising happens, and it ends up bringing the girls closer together.
As a showrunner, the pressures of ending such a popular series on a good note are undoubtedly high. What story lines, besides the final A reveal, did you find the most difficult to wrap up?
I knew the ending before the season started, and I felt like the challenge was just laying in the groundwork throughout the season to be able to then wrap it up in one final two-hour episode. The real challenge all season long was to make sure we put enough Easter eggs in there and that we gave enough clues; laying the groundwork to build to that final episode. So writing it wasn’t that much of a challenge, especially with the help of the terrific writers room we have. I think it’s a beautiful path that lead to the finale.
How much of these final episodes would you say were directly influenced by fans and what they wanted to see? Do the writers, and even yourself, read popular message boards and commenting websites to see how story lines are affecting fans?
I don’t read a lot of message boards, because I feel like … it might throw me off a little bit, and my goal has always been to stay true to what my vision of the show is, because if I like it, usually the fans are pretty happy. I’m a fangirl, too! I livetweet as much as possible because it’s fun and a great way to stay in touch with the fans. I would say Twitter is probably the most influential feedback that myself and most of the writers would get as well. Yes, I do think that when you see how passionate fans get about certain things or story lines and couples, it definitely influences how you tackle breaking the season, because you want to make sure that fans stay happy. It probably wouldn’t change the outcome of the mystery, but it probably would change the outcome of a couple being endgame. I think the fans and I were pretty aligned with who we wanted as endgame couples.
What would you say fans have been the most passionate about on social media?
Probably the biggest reaction we got from fans that stayed for a while was Maya. People sent us pens to write her back into the story. Fans are still very passionate about that story line.
The most popular theory that evolved during the back half of this season is that Spencer has an identical twin. Why do you think people are so convinced by this?
I’m not sure! I’ve seen a lot of twin theories, but throughout the whole show I’ve been paying homage to Alison’s twins in Sara Shepard’s books. We’ve had a lot of fun with playing around with that idea, so I think that would be the launching point for that fan theory.
Will there be any twin reveals in the finale?
Well, we revealed already that Mary and Jessica are twins, so that’s one set of twins that’s been revealed. I’m not going to comment on the story line so I don’t get into trouble.
Are there any long-standing questions that you couldn’t tie up in the finale, either due to time constraints or wanting the viewers to make their own assumptions?
I feel like there’s just one outstanding question that we decided to let the fans ponder. And it’s more tongue and cheek and fun, not really something that’s like, Oh my god, we’re never going to know this or that.
I hope the wine moms get justice!
Well, I will say that they get a little tipsy in the finale again, so it’s definitely a recurring scene for those wine moms. [Laughs.] They’re all so much fun to work with, too.
Did you look back at any notable television series finales for inspiration, in regards with what you did and didn’t want to do?
Not really, we didn’t. I went back and rewatched the pilot and other very pivotal episodes of Pretty Little Liars, but I didn’t look at other shows. We just wanted it to be what it was suppose to be within our world and what felt right.
That’s a good perspective. I remember when David Crane and Marta Kauffman wrote the finale for Friends, they said the gold standard for them was the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I remember the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that really is iconic. Well you know, the one thing I thought about while writing the finale was how I felt when I watched the finale of The Sopranos. I didn’t want that. That was such an ambiguous sort of thing. I was clearly like, We cannot do that.
Pretty Little Liars fans would not respond to ambiguity well. You made the right call.
[Laughs.] No, absolutely not. Let me tell you though, the finale has almost three endings. I feel like each one of them gives us a little bit more closure. It’s a little booster, like two little extra moments. And we have a time jump as well. It gave us a chance to really start with a fresh breath of air, so you feel like you’re watching a two-hour movie you can see in the theater with a beginning, middle, and end.
What would you like Pretty Little Liars’ legacy to be in grand scheme of television?
It’s always been about the people. It’s about the unconditional friendship these girls had throughout the course of all of this turbulence in their lives. That spills into the relationships that people have made while watching the show. That’s really special in a way — we’re so divided right now, but something like this can bring people together from all over the world. Those are my favorite stories, when I run into fans and they’re like, “Oh, I’m from England and I’m from Brazil and we became friends over this show.” It’s amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.