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”