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Pretty Little Liars Goes Down the Rabbit Hole in ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’

Posted on the 14 April 2015 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
Pretty Little Liars Goes Down the Rabbit Hole in ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’
When I was about eleven years old, one of my aunts gave me a book for Christmas or my birthday: House of Stairs, by William Sleator. As far as dystopian YA fiction goes, this one is particularly terrifying. A group of sixteen year old orphans wake up in a seemingly endless construction made entirely of stairs, and a weird machine with lights gives them food if they perform increasingly elaborate dances. As times goes by, they start to torture each other, a behavior that the weird, unseen system seems to encourage. It was a story about a control state, about the things that people are willing to do to each other under duress, the terrible group dynamics of being trapped with no way out, and about how quickly random rules develop incredible power when hunger is used to discipline and control. I later found Cube (which adds to the horror by removing the raison d’être of its house of stairs: it is because it is, because it can be) so fascinating exactly because I had House of Stairs in the back of my mind, and arguably, Hunger Games follows some very similar patterns, even if it is much more optimistic about the ability of people (teenagers) stuck in a seemingly impossible situation to still follow a moral code and ultimately meaningfully voice their opposition. I’d never really thought of that book before in connection to Pretty Little Liars, but it provides some interesting parallels. The most obvious one, in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the fifth season finale, is that the four main characters of the show find themselves trapped in a very similar prison – even though the stairs are replaced by rooms eerily resembling their own, the disembodied airport voice uses the same method of arbitrary rules and severe punishment to force compliance. Four chimes means it’s game time. Follow the lights. If the siren sounds, run back to your room. If you don’t make it back in time, it keeps you trapped in the hallway, tortures you with noise, and starves you. But, back to the beginning. Hanna, Emily, Spencer and Aria have just been arrested as accessories to Alison DiLaurentis, now convicted of the murder of Mona Vanderwaal. They are on their way to prison. Something attacks the van, overwhelms the guards, uses poison gas to put the girls to sleep and carries them off to its lair. They awake, one by one, and one by one, they realize that they are not in their homes, but in a an eerie prison; the details are, very likely intentionally, wrong, their personal touches are missing, picture frames come with the shop place holder, the art on the walls is rudimentary, wrong. Hanna calls for her mom and tries to use the phone, Emily calls for the others, Aria discovers that the books are fake, Spencer tries to escape through a window only to discover a solid wall, no outside. When they stumble outside and find each other, they find someone in a mask, playing the piano – the mask is of Alison, but the girl underneath isn’t, she’s Mona Vanderwaal. 
Mona? I know it’s been a while but I haven’t changed that much, have I? You guys, it’s me: Alison!
Pretty Little Liars started with a missing girl who had left a whole town scarred in so many ways. The missing girl later became a discovered body that was torn apart, piece by piece, and toyed with, disappearing and re-appearing. Then, the girl came back – the ultimate twist. What if Laura Palmer hadn’t died? What if Lilly Kane wasn’t just a ghost, haunting everyone from the grave? Alison came back and struggled to get her place back, but there were people already where she had been before, who were very hesitant to give up their spot. And there were mechanizations in place against her, trying to kill her off a second time, or in a different, perhaps more effective way (taking away any kind of social standing – Mona’s idea was, what if she came back but nobody remembered her and she didn’t recognize the place anymore?). The four girls realize that Mona Vanderwaal thinks that she is Alison DiLaurentis. She has her hair, she knows her inside out, well enough to copy her behavior (she sits by Emily and touches her knee – as Alison would – while Hanna is the one most affected by Mona not being dead). This is what the person running the doll house wanted her to do. Being Alison was encouraged. Being Mona was punished. Except of course – for the same reason that Mona Vanderwaal could not have been dead – Mona Vanderwaal could not have been brainwashed. She created herself out of the ashes of Alison DiLaurentis (and she created Alison, created the dead Alison by telling her to leave, so that space would be free for her to fill – they made each other). She spent two seasons becoming a supervillain because she felt she was losing the most important relationship in her life. She was planning to fake her own death only to finally be rid of Alison for good, the only way that it would stick (not death, but complete social exile). 
The doll house in this episode of Pretty Little Liars has always existed. It is a literal expression of something that has been happening to the girls ever since Alison disappeared. A – A in all his forms, whoever he may be (I still insist that his ultimate identity doesn’t matter, that his function is more elementary, but some people do watch for the mystery), A in his function as the all-knowing, ever-present creature, has attempted to build a metaphorical doll house around these girls for years now. His rules are arbitrary in the sense that no behaviour, no compliance, will ever stop his attempts to control them. He is interested in control, in power itself, not in any particular outcome. The girls can never do the right thing (when they keep things secret, the secrets are used against them, when they make things open, it is twisted against them, when they trust others, their trust is betrayed, when they don’t trust others, they lose possible allies), because A is only interested in keeping them constantly under his control. The only way to do that is to not have a fixed game, a written set of rules. The only rule is: A is watching, and A knows. But here is why Pretty Little Liars is the more important and more interesting story. In spite of this, the girls constantly win. They win, because unlike the kids in the house of stairs (greedy scientists watching them, taking notes), they have effectively and successfully refused to be pitted against each other, to allow anything or anyone to divide them. As all-powerful and all-knowing A seems to be, the girls continue to fight, and they do so together, because the way A antagonizes and alienates them is what unites them, and more than that, their friendship and their love for each other makes them an unbreakable unit. Even before they awake in the doll house, when they believe that their future is being in prison, they are unshakable in their belief in and love of each other. 
Spencer: You guys, they can take everything from us but they can’t take us from each other. I don’t care how far apart from you guys I am, I will still be with you.
Aria: Me too.
Emily: Same here.
Hanna: I love you guys.
Aria: Love you.
If the Liars vs A is a metaphor for the way that society treats women, all the time, then the way that the Liars constantly win that fight, and win it without any meaningful help from the outside (the police are useless, the boyfriends and girlfriend only occasionally aren’t, the parents are absent at best and liabilities at their worst with their own secrets) is revolutionary. Hanna, Emily, Spencer and Aria have been threatened, have had their deepest secrets revealed, have lost loved ones, been poisoned, put into caskets, have been blackmailed about every aspect of their personal lives, have suffered a million other abuses and transgressions, and yet they are still fighting. When they find themselves trapped in that horrible doll house, they don’t resign for a second. Instead, Spencer and Mona’s combined knowledge and all of their ability to act, and their realization that A wants to be flattered allows them to find a way out. This whole season has been very much determined by questions about the future, because in spite of being haunted and hunted, all four of them are struggling to build something beyond high school, outside of Rosewood. They are all trying to imagine a future in which they are not constantly in the cross-hairs of a sinister presence, where they can make decisions freely without worrying in what way they will come back to haunt them. Beyond Pretty Little Liars being a mystery show about teenagers, an argument could be made that this is always the constant reality of women, particularly – it may not be an evil presence like A, but being observed, constantly judged, not being able to take your rights for granted is a reality (does it not sometimes terrify you how recent many of them are, how fresh in human history the idea of equality even is, and how angrily and violently every little aspect of it is still contested?). So of course, being outside the doll house does not mean that they are out of the confining walls. There are layers and layers of them, and each of them will require a fight.
Random notes: 
And how perfect that A would choose to trap them in their childhood homes, presumably preserving them in a state of being denied the agency of adulthood forever (also in a show with so many male characters creepily fascinated and attracted by teenage women – a show in which Ezra fucking Fitz with his stash of stalker files is still a feasible boyfriend for Aria Montgomery).
And also – this is very likely not intentional – the irony of Ezra being able to say now, how good that I have stalked your every move for years rather than actually helping you gain more agency, because now my superior knowledge of your life helps me help you and makes me seem like a good guy. And nobody ever calls me out on it!
This whole episode is about resourcefulness and teamwork, about self-help, while every source that you would task with keeping the four girls and Mona safe – their parents, the police, this bloody town – fails them utterly. 
Hanna: You’re not here alone anymore. There are five of us. And one of him, her, it, bitch.
As I have mentioned before in relation to the show, to me, it is about potential, and a show living up to its potential (its darkness, its depth) – and this episode is everything that I ever wanted Pretty Little Liars to be AND everything that I ever thought it could be. It also feels like a tabula rasa of sorts, because it is hard to imagine how they could go from here back to the way things were before. 
Part of that is the fact that the most horrible part of this whole story was unseen: it’s Mona, entirely on her own, battling against A without any outside help, somehow managing to remain herself and still be strong enough to formulate an exit strategy. 
As far as theories go: Charles DiLaurentis, brother or twin (or neither), the Campbell farm (Andrew’s last name is Campbell), parent-less characters with a very vague past (Wren), the Hastings being involved in some way, the fact that it was Melissa and Ian’s prom that he replayed (from 2004? Or from seven years ago?), toying with the book’s twin theme (which might mean that it’s NOT a twin – PLL seems to have much more fun playing with it as an idea of mirrors, masks etc. than literally). 
If it is about the “why” more than the “who”, things to consider: 
The way those exact high school tropes of prom and prom queen and dating and popularity are so important to A – and the fact that he “casts” the Liars in those roles, maybe it’s not important who they are, they are interchangeable to him 
The absolute vital role that family played in the construction of the doll house, including a reference to the 1950s nuclear family – which might be the idea of an intact traditional family way pre-dating A’s birth, hinting that his trauma is connected to that conservative idea falling apart – and also reminiscent of Mona’s story about wanting a watch to stop time and control people? (and probably a lot of hints in all the personal pictures and drawings and toys).
People missing: Noel, Melissa (for the most part), Wren, Lucas, Jenna, Cece Drake, various parental units but that is not news, one Paige McCullers.

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