(Content Note: Transphobia; Transphobic Narratives)
The best scene in “Of Late I Think of Rosewood”, the premiere for the second half of Pretty Little Liars’ sixth season, takes place in a courtroom, where the Liars are being compelled to testify as to their mental state regarding Charlotte Dilaurentis, a.k.a. Cece Drake a.k.a. Red Coat a.k.a. A, in order to determine whether she should be set free. Charlotte’s sister has asked the Liars to live up to their name and testify that everything is hunky-dory, and because the Liars are all too used to dancing to Alison Dilaurentis’ tune, they agree. Aria even has prepared script and everything.
And then, Aria says no. Abandoning her prepared remarks, the littlest liar asserts that no, she is not okay, that the scars she obtained during Charlotte’s nine-month reign of terror are nowhere near fully healed, and that she does not feel safe. It’s quite possibly her best scene in the entire history of the show, and, in a world that consistently asks its underprivileged to Get Over It and forgive and forget transgressions enacted by more privileged peoples and institutions—a world in which women are consistently asked to forgive how the Patriarchy has arrayed things against them and to “act normal, bitch” because #NotAllMen—it can be considered a rather powerful, brave statement.
Flitting in and out of the episode like the world’s most entitled moth is Ezra Fitz, former Rosewood High teacher, author, and perpetual love interest to Aria. In the show’s fourth season, it was revealed that Ezra spent years stalking and lying to the Liars, recording hours’ worth of footage of them as they were terrorized by Rosewood’s various As, stalkers and killers and doing nothing with that knowledge to protect them. Worse, he got away with it: while Charlotte is as much a victim and perpetrator, misshapen by a society that constantly and consistently denied her the right to self-determination, and was eventually arrested, prosecuted, and (apparently) killed, Ezra, who abused his position of authority as both an educator and actual adult for the sake of a book, still has his reputation and his livelihood, and is free to open coffee shops and continue being the Liars’ pseudo-ally and a viable love interest. It could almost be an astute observation about the way privilege operates, except that absolutely none of the characters or writers notice the disparity: Ezra is just a guy who did “research” once.
I mentioned in my review for “Game Over, Charles” that Pretty Little Liars, in resolving the mystery of A’s identity the way they did and attempting to make Charlotte’s motivations sympathetic, had set a trap for themselves, making her both unforgivable while at the time making it so that anything but forgiveness was unthinkable. Under most standards, Aria would have been perfectly correct in taking the stance she did: she should not feel forced to forgive the person who threatened her for her entire senior year, and for people to expect her to do it, or even pretend to do it, is terrible. On the other hand, for her to not feel safe in the presence of a mentally ill trans woman, while being perfectly fine with the white male who did comparable things, is equally terrible.
“Of Late I Think of Rosewood” is all about how the show falls into traps of its own making. The first third is largely spent on exposition, as the characters dutifully talk about things they already know happened during the series’ five year gap, but which the audience has no idea about. The time jump, which could have been a good way to refresh the show’s creative juices and ditch the dead wood (namely the Liars’ male love interests, who should not all continue to be factors five years after high school ended) is instead used as an opportunity to retread things from earlier seasons—a night spent over drinks, a disappearance, a death, a funeral, an investigation. While there’s an inherent risk in a show abandoning or straying too far from its premise, Pretty Little Liars, in sticking so closely to what it knows, risks becoming inessential, particularly now that How to Get Away with Murder is a thing that exists.
Finally, there’s Charlotte and her fate. The most egregious thing about “Game Over Charles” (which was, in my opinion, almost the best possible resolution to the last three seasons’ worth of mysteries) was unquestionably the way it resolved things by introducing the series’ first (and, almost certainly only) trans character, and have her story be made up of almost existing negative tropes about trans women. Charlotte Dilaurentis, we learn in that episode, is trans; she is also deceitful, homicidal, mentally ill, a victim, and the sort of person only her family could love—and played by a cis woman, to boot. While in many ways a fascinating character, that characters was now also in the center of a field of thorns; doing anything with her that did not further betray and cause very real harm to trans people (stories are important, after all) would require much care and delicacy. So of course “Of Late I think of Rosewood” features Charlotte’s death, as her story arc hits the trans woman narrative bingo: victim, perpetrator, corpse. Of all the possible things that could have been done with Charlotte, killing her off in order to kick-start the season’s new story arc was the absolute worst choice, and raises serious questions about showrunner I. Marlene King. And yet, here we are: once the nigh-omnipotent A was revealed as a trans woman, all her powers abandoned her, and our list of living trans characters in the Pretty Little Liars story is now back at zero.
This being Pretty Little Liars, one can argue that Charlotte’s death should be taken with several spoonfuls of salt. After all, Alison was dead until she wasn’t, as was Mona. Given who we’re talking about here, there’s every chance that this is all part of a larger plot. While undeniably true, Charlotte being alive under the circumstances isn’t much better than her being dead. After all, here are the possibilities.
1) She’s been kidnapped by the series’ new big bad, in which case she’s a victim, again.
2) She’s faked her death in order to resume her A shenanigans, in which case she’s the villain, again.
3) She–and possibly Alison–have faked her death in order to protect Charlotte.
Integral to all of these is Charlotte not being around. Even if she’s not dead, her role places her as an object, invisible and agency-less, instead of a person in her own right. In a world starved for stories affirming that trans people—and especially trans women—are entitled to be seen as complex, multifaceted people with a right to exist and be visible and respected, the show instead argues the opposite: they exist only insofar as they’re needed to prop up other people’s stories. And that’s bullshit, of the sort that Freeform ABC Family should be combating. But then, between this, the cancellation of series like Chasing Life, and the focus on purely cosmetic rebranding, perhaps that is no longer a priority for the network, if it ever was.
If one thing helps make “Of Late I Think of Rosewood” at least somewhat compelling, it’s the women at its center. Spencer, Emily, Aria, Hanna and the rest continue being fascinating characters well served by the actors playing them, and just seeing them interact after all their history and years apart is a treat, even when the story surrounding them isn’t. The scene where the four core Liars get together at the new refurbished Radley—now a fancy hotel—is as good a scene as any we’ve gotten, and for a moment, it seems like the show still has something to say more than one hundred episodes in.
This no longer seems likely.