Pretty Little Endings: Ranking the PLL Finales

After 130 episodes, 10 previous finales, an untold number of secrets, and more people accused of being a stalker and/or murderer than even Spencer could keep track of, Tuesday night’s “Game Over, Charles,” the Pretty Little Liars sixth season summer sendoff, promises answers about A, Charles, Red Coat, Black Widow, and hopefully any other lingering concern that feels significant enough to warrant an answer.  Did it ever really matter who Board Shorts was?  Did Emily even apply to that college where Hanna tried to bury a gun in the woods at a sorority party?  Is it too late for Aria to get with Jake now that she’s done with Ezra?  So many questions, and only an hour to answer them all!

Part of the beauty of the Pretty Little Liars finales is that they tend to focus on the preoccupations of the season that preceded them.  Revelations that can ultimately turn out to mean nothing feel incredibly significant when you first learn them.  But do they hold up in the long run?  Action, suspense, and high drama are always on hand to make the viewing experience an enjoyable one, but whether you’ll remember every twist and unmasking when the next season rolls around is another story.  Behold, a (totally subjective) ranking of every summer and spring PLL finale, based on the strength of the episode itself and the significance of what happened therein.  Which finale just keeps reminding us, “I’m still here, bitches?”

10.  Season 3 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – The Lady Killer

Season three begins an era of unending confusion and many incorrect assumptions about who is or is not a part of the A team, which is roundly reflected in this summer finale.  The two most memorable developments of this finale were Emily having to kill Maya’s murderer Nate, which did provide some closure to the season’s most consistent storyline, and Toby being a part of the A team, which was shocking but ultimately not as it appeared.  I don’t even remember Aria, Hanna and Spencer trying to prove that Paige was A, but that happened, too.  Despite the devastating Toby reveal, most of what happens in this episode is too far removed from anything that feels important now to rank any higher than last place.

9.  Season 5 Spring Finale (Episode 26) – Welcome to the Dollhouse

While this episode feels a little light on actual information, or at least information that is particularly new or useful, it is horror-movie-level creepy.  We do find out that Mona is, in fact, alive, and being forced to pretend to be Ali for her obsessed captor.  But by then, Mona was the third character who had been thought dead but wasn’t, after Alison and Toby.  Instead of the dollhouse plot being resolved, all of Spencer’s great escape planning only leads to old home movies confirming that their captor (and likely A) is “Charles” DiLaurentis, a person they never knew existed.  The open-ended ending made this one of the least satisfying finales to date.

8.  Season 4 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

At this point in the show, shocking finale reveals had become par for the course, whether the revealed information would actually stick or not.  Despite the apparent reveal of Ezra being A, the impact was greatly mitigated by the viewer skepticism over the next few months and the explanation during the spring season that Ezra was, in fact, not A.  The episode also gets demerits for being mired in Ravenswood muck, but did feature Cece being identified as Wilden likely murderer, Ashley Marin finally being cleared of said murder, and, most importantly, Mrs. Grunwald telling the girls that Ali was alive.  Even though Ali not being dead had been a very gradual development starting back in season one, the confirmation here marked a huge shift in the dynamic among the girls and the focus of the show.

7.  Season 5 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – Taking This One to the Grave

The season-long battle between Mona and Ali – for domination of the halls of Rosewood High, biggest crew of minions and being in the PLL’s good graces – comes to a head in devastating fashion when Mona is murdered just as she was uncovering some truth about A and Alison.  The girls have made Ali their newest accused in their game of pin the black hoodie on the psychopath, and their feeling of powerlessness only escalates with Mona’s murder and Spencer’s arrest for murdering Bethany Young.  The combined trauma of Spencer being arrested and Mona being killed made this finale a strong one, even if Mona did turn up alive 12 episodes later.

6.  Season 1 Summer Finale (Episode 10) – Keep Your Friends Close

Ah, the first finale.  Parts of this seem like a lifetime ago, like the police thinking that Toby murdered Alison, Emily being Toby’s point of entry into the group, Emily’s mom wanting to get her away from Maya, Ashley Marin stealing money from clients at the bank, Aria and Mr. Fitz feeling a degree of modesty about their relationship.  The episode ends with a bang as Hanna, after being uninvited from Mona’s birthday glamping party, is hit by a car after almost catching A.  We also get the sketchy return of Melissa’s ex Ian, who promptly becomes the frontrunner to be A and Ali’s killer, back in a simpler time when it was just assumed those were the same person.  Even though nothing here compares to some of the shock and awe of later finales, everything that happens is legitimate, and important for what came before as well as what comes after.  Hanna’s accident also signals everyone that A was about more than humiliation and exposing secrets.

5.  Season 3 Spring Finale (Episode 24) – A dAngerous gAme

In this time of great turmoil for the Liars — everyone try trusted turned out to be lying to them; people were joining the A team left and right; no one knew how or why anyone was connected to anyone else — this finale had just about everything.  Toby is alive!  The Liars catch Spencer working for Red Coat!  Melissa has secret meetings with Jenna and Shauna!  Various teams of villains!  By the end, the Liars are reunited and even have Mona, who is now also getting texts from A after the trap they tried to set ends in them nearly being burned to death in the Hastings cabin.  We also get Hanna, Mona and Spencer all claiming to have seen Ali, who was at that time not only still dead but having her supposed corpse moved from place to place.  The “What’s in the trunk?” ending was also a classic.  The episode nicely closed some of the threads of the third season, as plot points were either resolved or, more often, totally deemphasized in favor of a new set of problems.

4.  Season 2 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – Over My Dead Body

This was probably the only finale where the pretense of getting closer to solving the show’s larger mysteries is mostly dropped in favor of character drama with damaging repercussions for the girls, as A orders Aria, Hanna and Spencer commit some awful acts in order to save their shrink and confidante Dr. Sullivan.  It makes for an exciting episode that largely holds its own consequences, and then there is another instance of one of the Liars being visited by Ali, who appears to save Emily from carbon monoxide poisoning.  In the end, the girls are left holding a shovel that turns out to be the alleged weapon used to murder Ali.  This would not be the last time the girls are tricked into touching an object that later is implicated in a crime.  Like the first season’s summer finale, the action in this episode is legitimate, and rather than smoke and mirror progress in finding A, those actions have real and lasting effects on the relationships between the girls and those around them.

3.  Season 4 Spring Finale (Episode 24) – A is for Answers

The Liars seem to spend most of season four’s spring half stumbling around with bits of information that never add up to anything worth knowing, but in this finale they finally get Alison to recount what happened to her the night she disappeared when it was assumed she was murdered, including interactions with various characters that will make for some interesting dynamics upon Ali’s eventual return to Rosewood.  And while the cops questioning Cece about Wilden’s murder feels so last season, Ezra takes a bullet trying to help the girls escape from A and Mrs. DiLaurentis is murdered before she can share a reunion with her daughter.  The clarity of actual answers feels like a refreshing change of pace four seasons in, and Mrs. DiLaurentis being murdered in Rosewood while A is also after the girls in New York begs the question, can A possibly be stopped?

2.  Season 1 Spring Finale (Episode 22) – For Whom the Bell Tolls

There’s a lovely focus to this episode, as the girls spend much for their time trying to resolve the show’s central mystery, and, in what had been the main focus of the second half of the season, seek to prove that Ian is A and Ali’s killer.  Even the distractions in this episode feel more focused than the ones to which we’ve become accustomed, as they feel more like the distractions of real people rather than endless love interests and red herrings.  This has one of the strongest endings of any finale, with Ian appearing to confirm that he is A by attacking Spencer at the bell tower, being pushed to his apparent death by a hooded figure, and then disappearing just as the girls get a text to let them know they’ve been after the wrong guy.  This was thrilling, and set the show’s basic formula for finales: startling discovery, life-threatening danger, game-changing twist.

1.  Season 2 Spring Finale (Episode 25) – unmAsked

And that formula was never better than in unmAsked.  Considering this episode contains by far the most satisfying reveAl we’ve ever gotten, it’s pretty much unbeatable.  Tense, suspenseful, exciting and ultimately revealing, this finale was the last and really only time we got an answer to who did anything as A that really held up.  Despite Mona’s insistence that there was a larger conspiracy at work and the appearance of Red Coat at the end, Mona was in fact responsible for almost everything the Liars thought she did as A, and the build on Mona’s final rantings were the basis of almost all A-related plot since.  As if that wasn’t enough, this episode also had Emily learning the police found a body they thought was Maya’s, adding a devastating emotional depth to the finale.

"I'm still here, bitches. And I know everything.  -A"

“I’m still here, bitches. And I know everything. -A”

What We Watched: 2013-2014 Season

The Emmys have come and gone, and we are poised to begin the television season all over again, with new and returning shows hitting the airwaves over the next month.  What better time for a final look back on how we felt about the season that was?  Here we present a comprehensive ranking of every comedy series, drama series, reality series, variety series, miniseries, made-for-TV movie, talk show, game show and daytime drama we watched last season.  Just kidding, we didn’t watch any talk shows.  (For more on the process, see the notes below.)

 

 Top Notch!

Game of Thrones   The show has everything I love — exceptional production values, careful character development, plots with payoffs in both the short term and long term, people getting it on, moments that somehow continue to be shocking even when the audience knows to expect them to be, brilliant acting on a regular basis.  MVP: It’s impossible to pick just one, so I’ll say Lena Headey and Pedro Pascal, two opposing forces of misery and joy, wrath and vengeance, hatred and love.

Veep   So sharp and funny, I love this show even when I’m worried half the jokes are going over my head.  MVP: There’s no denying the mighty comedic prowess of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The Mindy Project   The second season found a 30 Rock-like vibe and pacing that revved up the hilarity even more, while becoming even more heartfelt and lovable.  MVP: Mindy Kaling is everything here, but honorable mention to the other half of the pair that really makes this show sizzle, Chris Messina.

The Americans   This severely underrated drama is methodically brilliant and never boring, while never resorting to histrionics or stunts.  MVP: Matthew Rhys has gotten a lot of well-deserved praise, but Keri Russell is still the most captivating performer on the show.

Hannibal   As underrated as The Americans, but that’s about where the similarities end. There is no way to expect the unexpected twists with every stunningly grotesque episode of this masterpiece.  MVP: Hugh Dancy’s work as Will Graham in this second season was exceptional.

Trophy Wife   That this endlessly charming ensemble never caught on is one of the greatest tragedies of the 2013-14 season of television. Every episode made me not only laugh, but also smile.  MVP: It’s tempting to pick the adorable Albert Tsai, but the most standout in this terrific group is Michaela Watkins, who breathed such life into wacky Jackie.

Survivor   What a thrilling season it was, which is not easy for a show that’s now had dozens of seasons and seemingly already tried every trick in the book. A triumph of casting for sure.  MVP: Perennial underdog Spencer, who everyone wanted to believe in even though there was no reason to.

Days of our Lives   I’m not even grading on a curve here. The show had a fantastic 2013-14 season, and the quality of every episode is a real marvel considering the show airs five days a week, year round.  MVP: Eileen Davidson, aka Queen Eileen, whose Kristen DiMera left a trial of destruction to entertain us for months after she was gone.

Pretty Little Liars   Season four may not have been quite the pinnacle achievement that was season three, becoming a smash hit and needing to draw out your central mystery for seasons longer than anticipated will do that, but it continued to be thrilling, exciting, frustrating, edge-of-your-seat viewing.  MVP: Ashley Benson, whose Hanna had it pretty rough from start to finish.

Looking   This under-the-radar gem about gay friends San Francisco felt like a new concept, despite not really being one, by keeping the drama toned down enough to feel honest and relatable.  MVP: Do I have to pick between Murray Bartlett and Jonathan Groff? Both great.

Project Runway   Like Survivor, this old dog learned a few new tricks in its summer/fall 2013 season, producing an entertaining season from a talented group, with a winner the audience could get behind.  MVP: The oft-imitated but completely irreplaceable Tim Gunn.

 

Also Good!

Scandal   Almost made top notch just for being so damned entertaining, but a little too heavy on predictable melodrama and over-the-top twists. Just a little.  MVP: Sorry, Kerry, but Bellamy Young made the character who is easiest to root against the show’s most sympathetic.

So You Think You Can Dance   Another great installment in summer 2013 (and even better this past summer), but the lack of a proper results show hurt the proceedings.  MVP: Endlessly adorable winners Amy and Fik-shun.

American Horror Story: Coven   The series’ strongest installment to date, kicking girl power aside to take woman power to a whole new level.  MVP:  Angela Bassett as the deliciously wicked Marie Laveau.

The Normal Heart   Another take on the 80s AIDS crisis could easily have been boring, but this was far from it, filled with righteous indignation and glorious speechifying.  MVP: Matt Bomer spent the movie’s second hour just tugging at the heartstrings, and without his character I’m not sure I would have cared.

Sleepy Hollow   Everything old is new again, but this solid re-imagining of the legend feels more like the heir apparent to Fringe, but based in the out-and-out supernatural rather than extreme science.  MVP:  I have to give Tom Mison the slight edge, but he and Nicole Beharie absolutely sizzle together.  Both excellent.

Supernatural   It’s impressive how consistently entertaining this show continues to be, striking the perfect balance of high stakes and humor to make it perfectly addictive. Plus Sam and Dean are television’s hottest brothers.  (Sorry, Property Brothers.)  MVP: Jensen Ackles, who gets all the best lines because he delivers them perfectly.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine   Consistently funny and enjoyable, though it would probably be even more enjoyable if it strayed from making main character Det. Jake Peralta right all the time.  MVP: Andre Braugher does a remarkable job with a character who is almost completely expressionless.

Louie   Louie has one of the strongest and most distinct voices of any series on television, allowing for some extremely hilarious highs but also perhaps a little too much dwelling on some of its more morose themes.  MVP: Louie CK, clearly.

Community   After a “gas leak season” that was a shadow of its former self, the show returned to some of its former glory. Despite a good season, though, it’s hard not to feel the show hasn’t outgrown itself in many ways.  MVP: No one and everyone. The ensemble works so well together, but no one stood out in season five.

Hart of Dixie   Charming and delightful as always, Dixie did fall short of the standard set with its stellar second season, and seemed to spend much of this one wondering where most of its characters should go next or retreading plots that should be settled.  MVP: Kaitlyn Black, whose character Anna Beth is, outside of Zoe Hart herself, the show’s biggest draw for me.

Parks and Recreation   This is an example of what can happen when a sitcom doesn’t try to keep its characters static. The show is still quite good, but we feel at the point where things are changing too much or the changes feel unnatural. I miss the days of simple Pawnee park problems.  MVP: Amy Poehler still rules.

Jeopardy!   Another fun season of answers and questions! The Battle of the Decades was great, though it might have had more punch if not scattered across the season so much.  MVP: “Jeopardy Julia” Collins, the lovable champ whose winning streak is now second only to that of Ken Jennings.

The Crazy Ones   I actually loved this show, but it felt more like a light half hour drama than a proper comedy, and while the late great Robin Williams shined, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the big draw for me, was generally the straightwoman or sidelined.  MVP:  Williams is obviously great, but Amanda Setton made the somewhat aimless role of Lauren must-see.

The Killing   The first half of the season was very strong, but I never got around to watching the second half, despite my love of homeboy Det. Holder, so obviously not that strong.  MVP: Peter Sarsgaard is killer. Literally?

The Goldbergs   Another strong new offering of the past season, this frequently funny piece of 80s nostalgia was just overshadowed a little by the seasons other new shows.  MVP: Overbearing momma bear Wendi McClendon-Covey should have been an Emmy nominee for her work here.

Dallas   While Dallas hardly even aspires to be more than just your average primetime soap, the intricate and well-planned plotting makes it feel totally worth watching.  MVP: Linda Gray runs the emotional gamut as the boozy former Miss Texas whose family is constantly falling apart.

 

Eh . . .

Cougar Town   Like Community and Parks and Rec, this show, despite still being enjoyable to watch, feels like it should be finished by now, which is probably why half the season is still sitting on my DVR.  MVP: Josh Hopkins, whose Grayson feels like the only character that still has all of his original zing.

Camp   Did anyone else even watch this show that felt like a camp movie extended into a series? I love it because I love camp movies, but it had its issues.  MVP: As Kip, Tom Green was the show’s most relatable character.

Girls   Girls always has its moments — Beach House was a stellar episode — but the show and the characters largely went off the rails in season three.  MVP: Alison Williams as Marnie is my guilty pleasure, but Andrew Rannells really stole the show.

Nashville   After playing out what seemed like every plot imaginable during the first season, I was pleasantly surprised the show paced itself in the second season rather than just going completely insane. That said, some of the stories and characters were as dull as dishwater.  MVP: Hayden Panettiere is the reason to watch this show.

Revolution   Revolution was a mess from the get-go, but found an identity that kind of worked during its second season. Too bad it continued to be obsessed with the scifi artificial intelligence aspect of the storyline.  MVP: To my surprise, David Lyons, as Monroe somehow became the writers’ favorite character in season two.

The Sound of Music Live!  This wasn’t so bad!  MVP: Audra MacDonald.

The Soup   Sure, it’s a production mess, but it’s always funny and a great way to get the gist of all the even worse shows on air the previous week.  MVP: Who wouldn’t happily spend a half hour watching Joel McHale grin devilishly?

Super Fun Night   This wasn’t so bad, either!  It was disappointing, for sure, but the show started to find a groove that worked for itself and its characters by the time it ended.  MVP: Even not as funny as she could be, Rebel Wilson is still really funny.

White Collar   Maybe it’s that the show ran out of cool tricks to show or that the Neil/Peter bromance can only go so far without nullifying the show’s premise, but the season was less fun than usual and a little frustrating.  MVP: Matt Bomer, especially since the show’s whole selling point is that we love Neil no matter what he does.

New Girl   Talk about disappointing. The return of Coach should have helped the season soar higher than before, but the Jess/Nick pairing and the characters’ intensely selfish behavior tanked it.  MVP: Lamorne Morris, as Winston was surprisingly the season’s best character.

The Carrie Diaries   It’s hard for any show to live in the shadow of a television legend, and the more time Carrie spent in New York, the more this felt like a Sex and the City knockoff. The high school drama that made me like the show in the first place was replaced by teens having real world drama, way less fun.  MVP: Donna LaDonna (Chloe Bridges), who should have her own show.

The Millers   Not terrible, but it’s hard not to resent the show when a better comedy airing after it languished in terms of viewership.  MVP: Margo Martindale’s character is just okay, but she really makes the most of it.

Saturday Night Live   Some of the past season’s changes worked, while many did not, but at least they kept trying things, and keep trying things.  MVP: Overall, probably deserving Emmy nominee Kate McKinnon, but it is impossible to forget Cecily Strong’s epic performance in that Blue River Dog Food commercial parody.

Mom   Halfway through the season, I couldn’t see the appeal and just stopped watching.  MVP: No offense to the performers, but none of them had any draw for me.

Glee   A frustrating season of a frustrating show. Just when they seemed on the verge of making it work by moving the show to New York, those storylines either went off the rails and into snoozeville.  MVP: Lea Michele totally owned the season, and stepped up her comedy game.

 

The Dregs

True Blood   The summer 2013 season of the show did some good things, but not enough to make up for just general attrition of interest in the show’s central plot or some of its character blunders.  MVP: Making her triumphant return as Sarah Newlin, the lovely and talented Anna Camp.

2 Broke Girls   This show almost didn’t make the list at all, because I completely forgot I watched it, which means I won’t miss it when I stop.  MVP: Jennifer Coolidge is at least reliably amusing no matter what stupidity she’s being made to say.

Revenge   The show fortunately cast aside its nonsensically convoluted conspiracy plot, but replaced it with pure nonsense and WTF character choices.  MVP: Madeleine Stowe is still the best thing about the show’s ridiculous storylines.

How I Met Your Mother   Never again will I stick it out with a show I’m not enjoying just to see how it ends. I wanted to punch myself for not stopping this two seasons ago.  MVP: Cristin Milioti’s addition might have been the only good thing about the season.

America’s Next Top Model   And somehow this was even worse.  Adding men into the mix should have made the season of Top Model fun and exciting, even if messy and a bit of a trainwreck, but unlikable contestants and ridiculous eliminations helped render the season rather joyless.  MVP: Johnny Wujek (sorely missed on the current season) and contestant Phil were by far the season’s most enjoyable aspects.

 

Notes:

This is merely a completely subjective ranking of shows I watched for all or a significant part of the 2013-2014 season. A show qualified if I saw at least half of its airing, which means half the episodes of a series, or for a movie or special, at least half of that movie or special. Shows which I’ve enjoyed in the past but of which I have not yet seen the most current season, like Breaking Bad or Homeland, could not be ranked. The rankings do take into account expectation and standing in the public arena. For example, if hypothetically an acclaimed series like Girls was, in my opinion, equally enjoyable as its less-buzzed-about lead-out Looking, Looking would be ranked higher. You know, hypothetically. Also, when selecting MVPs, a performer’s standing within the show was taken into account. For example, Scandal revolves around Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, so she’s obviously going to have a big impact. If someone in the supporting cast were to make anywhere near that impact, that person would likely steal the MVP prize from the main star. This is not to diminish the contributions of the main star, but rather to put the acknowledgement of each performer’s contribution into perspective. Feel free to voice any strong agreements, disagreements, additions, etc. in the comments!