‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’ keeps terrible mystery writing alive

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Photo: Creative Commons

Creative Commons

By Shannon Garrido, Content Managing Editor

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, abuse, murder, and suicide.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column on the 2010 hit show “Pretty Little Liars” and the masterful consistency of its Halloween episodes. Since then I have embarrassingly indulged in the HBO sequel, “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,” and it seems the show is making no effort to correct past mistakes. 

“PLL: Original Sin” had an incredibly strong start to the season, combining creative and entertaining story lines. However, like its predecessor, the show becomes too convoluted to produce a compelling story and messily ties its strings with bad writing.    

The events of the first season take place days before Halloween, and I can say with absolute certainty this is not the Pretty Little Liars we knew. The mystery at hand and the demons the characters face are much more serious. Marlene King, the original showrunner and executive producer for “PLL: Original Sin,” is known for glossing over serious topics—such as eating disorders, drugs and alcohol abuse, and predatory relationships. 

Through Marlene’s writing, the characters experiencing these hardships are not perceived as victims. Their problems become plot devices used to move the story along instead of developing their characters. 

However, “Original Sin” makes no attempt to quickly move on from the trauma its characters endure. Whether they do a good job is up for interpretation. 

The main character Imogen is by far the most developed character. She has recently lost her mother to suicide and is pregnant at 16. We find out later in the season that her pregnancy is a result of rape, and she does not know who the father is. Having gone through all this, her character is not hardened or ‘bitchified’ for the sake of television. She is sociable, vulnerable, and is actively trying to make the best out of her very difficult situation. 

In the midst of all this, Imogen along with the rest of the crew, Noah, Faran, Tabby, and Mouse, are being blackmailed by an unknown antagonist, ‘A’. ‘A’ attacks them physically several times in the first episodes and threatens to spill all their secrets—and these girls have many. 

Noah—recently out of juvie and doing community service—took the fall for her mother’s drug possession. Faran, a self assured ballerina, has a strained relationship with her mother, who puts an immense amount of pressure on her. We later find her mother paid for an unrecommended surgery to straighten Faran’s spine at the age of six due to scoliosis, which left her traumatized and in pain. 

Tabby, an obsessed film buff, deals with the trauma of being sexual assaulted by an unknown assailant. She makes many attempts to find her attacker by hiding a camera in the boys changing room and listening in to their conversations. Marlene and her writers justify this behavior as some form of investigative journalism, even though this is assault as well—indicative of how lazy their character writing is.

Finally we have shy and tech savvy Mouse, whose backstory is not really clear. All we know is that in an attempt to find her father, she meets with men who have lost children and pretends to be their child for a few hours. I wish I could make this up, but unfortunately Marlene King still has a flair for the absurd. 

The show adequately allows the girls’ secrets to spill gradually. We are not aware of them right off the bat, but find out the closer the girls get to cornering ‘A.’ The problem is that mystery cannot be built just through revelations. Writers should not simply introduce new characters to fill plot devices, and they cannot suddenly decide a character is the villain just because no one would suspect them. 

The whole point of a mystery is the challenge of solving it. The clues are in plain sight and the audience should have some chance of figuring it out. A good writer would hide those clues well enough that even in plain sight the audience cannot solve the mystery. The original show made this same mistake by parading a bunch of very plausible suspects in front of the viewer and then going for… the road less traveled. 

In the original show, ‘A’ is a mysterious entity who sends threatening texts and leaves beheaded dolls in the girls’ lockers. ‘A’ is a ‘mean girl.’ The threats always carry a snarky and immature tone, referring back to examples like “Lucky you, Aria! Other girls have to do their homework. You get to do the teacher. –A”. 

This new ‘A’ is semi-introduced from the get-go. I say semi, because what we see is a giant Michael Myers type, with no eyes and stitches all over its face following the girls around with a knife—yes, you heard correctly. 

‘A’ is not some social outcast like Mona in the original. ‘A’ is a full on slasher-movie serial killer giant burlap baby, that—respectfully—scared the living shit out of me. However, because the figure has no face, we still don’t know who it is. Seems compelling enough, but the reveal of the masked killer, not so much. 

During the first three episodes the girls chase their prime subject, Karen. However, clues also indicate that the girls’ mothers might know more about this ‘A’.  

Karen, the school bully that perfectly encapsulates the 90s blonde bitch trope, is eliminated as a subject when she is brutally murdered by ‘A’ at the school dance, leaving the moms to be the only connection to ‘A’s motives.

This is when things get murky. The audience discovers that over the course of the first season, these girls have uncovered the long-buried mystery of Angela Waters. This takes the audience back to 1999, where the main characters’ mothers were in high school. Angela was assaulted by Tom Beasley—town sheriff, local sleazeball and Karen’s father—who happened to be dating Imogen’s mother Davie at the time. 

After Angela accuses Tom, Davie turns on her and encourages the other girls to do so as well. They bully Angela relentlessly, the worst being Davie convincing the entire school to pretend Angela doesn’t exist, silencing her amidst her accusations against Tom. Erasing her. 

This, along with dealing with an abusive and mentally ill mother, drives Angela to commit suicide at a Y2K-themed rave, so everyone would finally pay attention to her. It’s brutal and horrific, definitely a motivation for ‘A’ to make these mothers, and their kids, suffer. Definitely a motivation to torture their kids. In the case of Imogen’s mother, the guilt became too much and a single threat from ‘A’ led to her suicide. 

However, as these clues continue to pile up, the same questions are circling. Who would take revenge for Angela? Imogen spearheads the case. At 16 and pregnant, she is doing more extensive investigative work than the actual sheriff—who is busy cheating on his wife with high school boys.

Imogen discovers Angela’s mother was mentally ill and that the father is estranged. There are not given clues as to who the father could be but there is a clear indication he could be the culprit. After this is revealed, the show becomes less compelling because there are virtually no clues to tie in suspects. None of the leading men on the show are perceived to have any connection with Angela other than being in the show. 

At the end it is revealed that ‘A’ is actually… the school principal. Yes, you heard me… the principal. 

In the very last episode, the killer and his entire backstory is revealed. A backstory that was given no indication through the entirety of the season. Imogen was doing all that work for nothing—and still pregnant. 

The principal is the killer and Angela’s father. However, he is not the faceless Michael Myers, that would be his hidden and abused son. Angela’s mother kept him in a cage and abused him for years, because according to his father “he has a face only a mother could love.”

Sure.

What made this reveal particularly insulting is how terrible his plan actually is. After using his ugly son to stalk, scare and attack the girls—and also kill random side characters—his endgame was to kill them all and frame Tom. How, you may ask? No clue since Tom was stabbed by his wife and he planned to kill them—the five girls and their mothers—in the school gym. With HIS gun. Where HE works. 

Don’t get me wrong, cheap thrills and high stakes will get you far. Having a pregnant 16-year-old girl escape her serial killer principal, only to have his giant, faceless, burlap son go after her is fun. Immediately after she stabs the killer, her water breaks. Personally, I lived.

However, those cheap thrills border on tacky when you can’t tie your main story together and hype the audience for a crazy reveal that amounts to nothing special. Not to mention adding the very extensive traumas these girls seem to be working through only to create more drama is exploitative and adds  nothing to the main story. The story is heavily saturated with little payoff.

“Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” had the opportunity to stray from the mediocre storytelling that plagued the original. Yet Marlene King continues to revert to old habits by making the audience jump through hoops of convoluted storylines, unsolved and unnecessary murders, and poor character development, only to provide no payoff at the climax. There is a lack of respect for the audience’s comprehension skills that ultimately lumps the show in with other mediocre teen dramas.