This week on Pretty Little Liars, a lack of sleep and pill popping combine into the perfect storm for Spencer, causing her to imagine Rosewood as a 1940's film noir where every dame has a secret and every man wears a fedora. Damn, even Spencer's drug-induced hallucinations are classy.
This is an amazing episode and a beautiful work of art, using costuming and period details to turn the familiar Rosewood haunts into vintage black and white classic cinema. Writer and director Joseph Dougherty does a knockout job on this one.
These gimmick episodes can often go the wrong way, especially if the gimmick isn't in keeping with the show. For every great Buffy musical episode, there's a Grey's Anatomy musical episode. The gimmicky waters can be tricky to navigate.
The key to a great gimmick episode is twofold. One, the conceit should make organic sense to the show's universe. Pretty Little Liars has always been heavily influenced by the universe of film noir, even before the show switched over to black and white. Like film noir, on Pretty Little Liars every beautiful dame is hiding a killer secret and danger lurks around every corner.
The second key to a great gimmick episode is genuine love. The creative team really has to love whatever theme they've committed to, whether it be film noir, paintball as action movie or those ever-popular musicals. You can't pay homage to a genre if you don't love and understand it, and thankfully the creative team behind Pretty Little Liars has never been shy for their love of Raymond Chandler and his ilk.
When these two things come together, an episode becomes more than its gimmick. It becomes truly great television, like this black and white outing. Not only is the episode visually stunning, it's also just good fun to watch.
It's brave for a popular show aimed at teens like Pretty Little Liars to go out on a limb and take a chance. But one of the great things about the show is that it never speaks down to its audience.
In summary: this is a good one. Ezra gets to be menacing under a fedora, Hanna continues morphing into an honest-to-goodness gumshoe and Emily gets a seriously steamy love scene.
Most important, the whole framework of the episode allows the audience to jump into Spencer's headspace while she works out an important clue, confronts her fears about telling Aria some bad news and works through her own complicated relationship with the ever-complicated Alison.
Adderall: it's a helluva drug.
Alison's Diary and Aria's Story
Spencer, Emily and Hanna are rifling through Ezra's classroom, looking for clues. On the blackboards are the following quotes: "You start a question and it's like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill and away the stone goes, starting others." "You must suffer me to go my dark way..."
Mona was not kidding about Ezra being really transparent with his reading list. "Next week, class, we're going to be reading I'm Always Watching: The Story of One Teacher's Dark Obsession and Bad Taste in Pie. It's autobiographical."
The girls find Alison's diary, causing Emily and Hanna to quietly freak out as it lands that Ezra really is 'A'. They also see Mona head into Fitz's class and leave with some papers.
Back home at Casa de "What is Parental Supervision?" aka the Hastings house, Spencer sends Emily off to find out more about Shana from Paige. "Aw, hale no," Emily says, moments before completely backing down. When Hanna and Emily head out, Spencer goes into a pill-induced film noir coma.
After coming out, her black and white psyche has helped her crack an important clue. Namely, that the diary was left for them to purposely find and that important clues in the book have been changed. Since Spencer took cell phone pictures of the original, they can compare to see what 'A' found important enough to change.
Coming home from their terrifying yet romantic weekend at the murder cabin, Aria tells Ezra she's thinking of changing the protagonist in her creative writing story into a villain. It feels like Ezra and Aria are playing a weird game of chicken here, except apparently Aria doesn't know anything.
Or does she know more than she's letting on? Is Aria actually involved somehow? I've long since thrown away any theories about Aria being on the 'A' team after she almost got tossed off a moving train, but maybe I was being too hasty. Maybe Aria's more devious than she lets on. Somehow, though, I very much doubt it.
Feeling secure in the knowledge that Ezra is definitely involved, they run over to Aria's house to tell her the bad news. Yet when they show up, they're shocked and dismayed to see Aria kissing Ezra in her living room. Awkward!
And that's just about all of the plot-momentum part of the episode. I'm glad the show isn't going full film noir the entire time and still gives the audience a little of the main storyline to chew on. Things this season have been moving at a breakneck pace, and my biggest fear about the film noir conceit was that it would bring that momentum to a grinding halt. While the episode doesn't dramatically pass the ball down the field in terms of the overall story, there's enough plot action that it doesn't feel like the series has taken a week off from the main story.
Pretty Little Gumshoes
"Down these mean streets a girl must go who is not herself mean," and so begins the film noir portion of this episode.
Spencer goes from watching black and white movies while popping pills to old Hollywood glamour. To say all the actresses look amazing in costume does a real disservice to just how incredible they look in period attire. I'm not sure I could possibly pick a favorite, although there's something about Sasha Pieterse which lends itself to that screen siren look.
Costume designer Mandi Line really outdid herself here; all of the outfits are period-specific, amazingly tailored and to-die for. Personal standouts are Spencer's dressing gown (can floor-length dressing gowns make a comeback? I don't care how impractical they are), Hanna's little beret and Aria's checkered coat in the final showdown. But really, all the clothes are fantastic and do almost as much as the cinematography to set the mood of the episode.
Suddenly Spencer is in another world, one where coffee is 15 cents, men wear fedoras and Toby once more lives in her bushes waiting for an opportunity to pounce into her house and save her from garbage disposing her own arm.
In this version of reality, Mona is a femme fatale, Ezra is an evil mastermind, Emily needs to keep her relationship with Paige secret and Hanna is Spencer's man-hating Girl Friday. I'm glad that even in Spencer's hallucination, Hanna's James Patterson training is still paying off.
Unfortunately, Hanna still needs a little sleuth training, because when she follows Mona she ends up kidnapped in the process. Ezra threatens both of the girls, but Spencer isn't about to stop. She sends her Girl Friday to be a switchboard operator in order to find out who Alison was calling at the Fitzgerald Art Institute. This leads them right to Alison hiding in plain sight as a showgirl at Club Tocambo.
Meanwhile, Emily's storyline is a little less exciting and a little more romantic. She talks to Paige about Shana and doesn't really find out anything of value, other than the fact that Paige is crazy about her. Because it's the 1940's, Paige worries about what the world will think of them.
"They'll be insanely jealous," Emily says, and then things get decidedly sexy. I love that the show gives the dramatic and romantic kiss in silhouette with the billowing curtains to Paige and Emily. I do wish, however, they had given Paige a less stupid hairstyle. It looks like she has two coke cans on either side of her face.
Being Spencer Hastings
This amazing foray into film noir is also a window into Spencer's glamorous, classy and downright terrifying mind. Ezra isn't the only boogeyman Spencer is wrestling. She, like Emily, is also trying to come to grips with her own complicated relationship with Alison.
We've seen the Alison-related emotions run high this season as the girls realize their once-former friend is still alive. But most of these emotional moments have focused, as they should, on the impact this is having on Emily.
Emily aside, however, Spencer had perhaps the most complicated and fraught relationship with Ali. While Emily loved Alison enough to be knowingly emotionally manipulated, Spencer was the one most likely to stand up to Alison, meaning the two were often at loggerheads.
Alison is prevalent throughout Spencer's dream as both someone who needs to be protected and someone she needs protection from. Down at the precinct, Toby wonders to Spencer if Alison is just using all of the girls for her own purposes.
In their confrontation at the nightclub, Alison wonders if she can trust Spencer, while Spencer wonders the same. Alison says Spencer doesn't want to be demoted back down to second place in their group because she loves calling the shots. Spencer claims she's different than Alison, but the idea that Spencer is more similar to Ali than she'd like to admit is certainly an interesting one.
Spencer's other internal dilemma revolves around telling Aria the truth about Ezra. It's notable that she never manages to do it, even in her dream state. In the Brew, Aria admits to Spencer that she's back together with Ezra. Her lines about always seeing her relationship like a big, dramatic story are so Aria it hurts. Before Spencer can spill the beans about her evil boyfriend, they're sent racing toward the nightclub.
As the girls are chased through the nightclub and into a convenient warehouse, Spencer still can't manage to break Aria's heart, even when it could protect her. Alison is disgusted, pointing out that while she might not be nice, she can at least do the hard things.
"Are you going to tell her or is that my thing?" Alison asks. When Spencer and the girls still can't bring themselves to do it, Alison is even more disgusted. "No guts."
Spencer and Aria have always been close, and Spencer is obviously struggling with the horrible news she has to deliver. Even in her dream, Spencer can't bring herself to say the words. But let's hope she can find the guts in reality, or Aria's going to end up underneath the floorboards in Ezra's murder cabin.
Elsewhere in the Noir Version of Rosewood...
-- "My parents are out of town being lawyers," Spencer says to explain the absence of any parental supervision. It's hard work being the only two lawyers in Pennsylvania.
-- "True love, honey, you just can't kill it." Ian Harding is having so much fun playing this version of Ezra, it's a delight to watch.
-- "That was the last carrot stick," Mona says sadly as Hanna walks out. Hands-down, that has to be the best line of the episode.
What did you think of the episode? Did you love it as much as I did? Which character wore your favorite outfit? Will they ever tell Aria? Sound off in the comments!
Pretty Little Liars airs Tuesdays at 8pm on ABC Family.(Image courtesy of ABC Family)