clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pretty Little Liars broke out a camp staple for its final twist. Here’s why it worked.

And why it didn’t.

The main characters of Pretty Little Liars Freeform
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

“You know, I saw the evil twin twist coming,” I remarked as the series finale of Pretty Little Liars drew to a close Tuesday night, “but I never thought she’d be British.”

Pretty Little Liars has always been a minor camp masterpiece. It’s a show in which multiple characters have slowly and dramatically reached up to peel back their faces, revealing that it wasn’t Dead Detective Wilden lurking in the shadows — it was Archer Dunhill in a rubber mask all along! It’s a show in which a teenage girl became a Machiavellian super genius because she lived in an adrenalized state of hyperreality that made her omniscient. It’s a show in which a masked supervillain named “A” painstakingly replaced every letter in a box of alphabet cereal with the letter A, resealed the box, and planted it where her victim would be sure to find and purchase it, just to freak people out.

But Pretty Little Liars never executed its reveals with the winking self-awareness of a more grounded show like Jane the Virgin (also a fan of the rubber mask move). Pretty Little Liars always remained deeply committed to its camp, which it took extremely seriously.

Fittingly, the secret evil twin trope has been a beloved camp staple ever since Bewitcheds Samantha and I Dream of Jeannie’s Jeannie had to face off against their evil brunette twin counterparts in the ‘60s. So when in its series finale, Pretty Little Liars revealed that the archvillain was a secret evil twin whose existence we technically didn’t know about until the very last hour of the seventh and final season, it felt right. And when the series revealed that the secret evil twin had a comically overdone British accent? Well, that was just icing on the cake.

Secret evil twins are a cliché because they’re so good at driving stories

People have been writing stories about twins for about as long as they have been writing stories. Twins show up in classical drama and in Shakespeare; they’re all over the canon. That’s because twins make for fantastic narrative engines: For the non-twin characters who can’t distinguish between the two, they’re agents of chaos, wreaking havoc on the status quo. For the twins themselves, having a double creates a way of thinking about the boundary between the public self (the good twin) and the private self (the evil twin).

Evil twins became a TV trope in the ‘60s, when everyone who was anyone had to face off against their secret double. Usually there was a single telling detail to distinguish one twin from another: Mirror Spock had a goatee, Samantha’s evil twin Serena had a black wig and a beauty mark, and evil Jeannie was a brunette.

Daytime soaps got in on the trend in 1969, when The Secret Storm’s Dr. Ian Northcoate battled his evil twin Owen, and they never looked back. Soaps found that the twin trope worked for them on multiple levels: Not only did the evil twin trope drive the plot, but it also provided a good way of keeping around actors you like after you’ve killed off their characters. Now, the evil twin trope is a staple of the genre.

Pretty Little Liars was always going to draw from the evil twin well. The only question was when.

Troian Bellisario and Ashley Benson on Pretty Little Liars
No bangs? Gotta be an evil twin sitch.

Pretty Little Liars has been teasing the possibility of deploying the evil twin trope for years. In its source material, a series of books by Sara Shepard, the archvillain “Uber A” was the secret evil twin of the girl whose mysterious disappearance kicked off the whole story to begin with. (The main characters all thought the girl who vanished was Alison, but it turned out that the missing girl was Courtney, Alison’s secret twin who lived in a mental hospital and had managed to switch places with Alison. The real Alison had escaped from the mental hospital, murdered Courtney and decided to torture the main characters to get revenge on them for lowering her social status by befriending Courtney/Alison; it’s a long story.) Every so often, Pretty Little Liars likes to throw out a spooky Halloween episode about twins, and most of its major mysteries have involved a few doppelgängers here and there.

And twins are a perfect fit for Pretty Little Liars’ particular brand of camp. It’s a show that does plot by throwing one absurdity after another at the wall, which means it thrives on the chaos the secret twin trope produces. Thematically, it’s always been devoted to the question of what it feels like to be a teenage girl constantly under surveillance from the rest of the world. For teen girls who are hyper aware of being watched, the question of how the public self diverges from the private self — the question that the twin trope naturally lends itself toward investigating — is paramount.

So when Spencer (the Pretty Little Liars protagonists’ de facto leader, played by Troian Bellisario with unnerving intensity) appeared in what seemed to be a dream sequence at the beginning of season seven without her signature bangs, fans leapt on the moment. Everyone knows what it means when you see a main character with different hair: It means it’s time for a twin. Clearly, fans declared, the scene was no dream sequence. It was the introduction of Spencer’s secret evil bang-less twin.

Spencer’s evil twin makes no sense on a plot level, but she’s great for thinking about theme and character

Troian Bellisario as Alex Drake on Pretty Little Liars
Do you get what Pretty Little Liars is doing with the mirrors here? I realize it’s subtle.

Spencer’s secret evil twin, we learned in the series finale, is named Alex Drake, and she makes 100 percent no sense. In a flashback that is a blatant ripoff of/homage to Orphan Black, we learn that Alex grew up in London, where she managed to fall in with one of Spencer’s previous arch-nemeses (Charlotte, now dead), and then devoted herself to carrying on Charlotte’s legacy and destroying her twin.

On a purely narrative level, Alex is a completely unsatisfying cop-out of a resolution. Her motivation for torturing Pretty Little Liars’ titular Liars is incoherent at best, and offensive to the mentally ill at worst. (“She has some problems,” her mother explains vaguely.) She leaves dozens of mysteries unsolved. (Why was Spencer’s sister Melissa always so sketch if she wasn’t involved in the Alex thing?) The audience didn’t even technically know Alex existed until the last episode of the series, which breaks all Mystery Writing 101 rules. Her accent is the worst thing I have ever heard the preternaturally talented Bellisario produce.

But as the resolution to a committed piece of camp horror/teen soap that is devoted to what it feels like to be a teenage girl, the evil twin resolution feels inevitable.

Spencer is the most tightly wound of the Liars. She’s a high-achiever in a family of high-achieving WASPs, and most of her early plot lines focused on her crippling need to win at everything: to be a field hockey champion and an academic star, and to finally be better at something than her older sister. When she snapped under the pressure of her own enormous expectations, she snapped spectacularly: Her downward spiral involved a brief addiction to a drug that Pretty Little Liars referred to only as Study Aid, followed by time in a mental hospital. The distance between public self and private self has always been at its greatest for Spencer, who projects a winner to the world and thinks of herself as a pathetic loser.

Alex, like all evil twins, is a version of Spencer who has given into her id. We learn via flashbacks that she had an affair with and then murdered the most inappropriate of Spencer’s love interests (he was her older sister’s fiancé and nothing much ever happened between them, but wow did they have chemistry). She turns out to be the one who was hooking up with Spencer’s longtime ex-boyfriend after Spencer had declared him officially off-limits. She revels in building the bunkers and prisons that have always fascinated Spencer as much as they terrified her. In the finale, she kidnaps and imprisons her and Spencer’s birth mother, whom Spencer longs to get know. And she develops her entire elaborate plot to get close to Spencer’s most beloved friends, the people who motivate Spencer throughout the course of the show. Alex is Spencer’s most private and hidden self, let out of her cage.

Plus, she’s British. So that’s fun.

Rest in peace, Pretty Little Liars, you frustrating and delightful show

The titular liars on Pretty Little Liars
Aw, friendship!

Pretty Little Liars’ series finale is a microcosm of everything that made the show charming and likable and infuriating. The episode’s plot mechanics are so nonsensical that the show seems to be daring its audience to try to interpret it in a way that makes literal sense. It’s not afraid to go there with one of the hoariest old tropes in the book, and then it tosses in “and the evil twin is British, too!” like a cherry on top. It’s frustratingly unsatisfying on a plot level, but it’s so blatantly absurd that it loops right back around to being charming — like the time one of Pretty Little Liars’ characters got locked into an empty school which transformed itself into a death trap and blared “ACT NORMAL, BITCH!” at her through the PA system.

And as absurd as Pretty Little Liars is willing to get, it never loses its thematic focus. It remains devoted to exploring the deepest and darkest fears of teenage girls, to making them concrete and terrifying — and, ultimately, it remains devoted to destroying them in a single cathartic act. That’s what made Pretty Liars such an important and consistently compelling show, and that’s why I’m going to miss it, no matter how frustrating and clumsy it could be.