PLL Episode 6 is incredibly effective--but at what cost? (Review)

Episode 6 (Hell House) really made the audience feel the Liars' trauma, but Pretty Little Liars: Summer School struggled to respectfully approach sensitive topics.
Pretty Little Liars: Summer School episode 6 on Max
Pretty Little Liars: Summer School episode 6 on Max /

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School has now released six of its eight episodes, which means it should be about time for some secrets to be revealed. While the first three episodes were incredibly uneven, the pacing and thrills have been slowly improving ever since.

How does episode 6, "Chapter Sixteen: Hell House" hold up? Honestly, it's the most successful episode all season. There are several incredibly well-written scenes, and the characters have fairly independent plot arcs. Best of all, the depiction of Redemption House is one of the most horrifying things to happen in either season.

But I have to wonder what cost the successful elements might have come at. During Original Sin, every episode opened with a trigger warning. Not so for Summer School, and this episode desperately needed it.

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School episode 6 on Max /

The writing is more effective than ever

I will be the first to admit that I have been harsh on this season of Pretty Little Liars in my earlier reviews. But it's because season one was so good, and this episode showed just how great the writing can be when done right.

For this episode, there were three key plots: Noa's relationship drama, Tabby's relationship with Wes, and the repercussions of Redemption House. These were drastically different plots and brought back the individuality of the characters that was missing in episodes with overly-repetitive plot lines.

On top of that, this season has been plagued by recap scenes, where the characters talk about things we've already seen, adding little more than padding to the run-time. But this episode showed how to cover old information properly. Imogen talked to Johnny about her mother's death, but we got details about how it impacted her and a gutting story about her cleaning her mother's blood herself.

This scene did more than just reminding viewers of what happened last season. It helped develop Imogen's relationship with Johnny while giving her character more depth. She has done some concerning things this season, but it makes a lot more sense with the context of how much trauma she faced in a place that used to be safe.

On top of these structural improvements, it would be impossible to deny how effective Redemption House is. It is genuinely hard to watch it without feeling revulsion toward the church and horror at how the previous season's events were being portrayed. The season has frequently failed to make me feel for the characters, but "Hell house" definitely did.

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School episode 6 on Max /

As long as you don't look too closely

Despite its many successes, it's hard to ignore the details that just don't make sense. When Redemption House was first introduced, we heard about a "sex before marriage" scene that was then portrayed in a more recent episode. Kelly was originally cast as the Virgin Mary. Yet neither of those scenes were depicted in this episode, nor would it make sense for them to.

On top of that, there are a lot of characters acting inconsistently. Previously, the shrine room in the Beasley house was depicted as a punishment, but now it's a chosen refuge for Kelly? Bloody Rose had been going after the Liars, so why would she suddenly attack Pastor Malachi?

Finally, there are the frustrating comments, which take the viewer out of the story. Every time the characters say someone is off the suspect list, it feels like the writers are yelling at the audience that they're not. (Looking at you, Jen). Similarly, Greg's comment about his gay cousin Kevin in Riverdale feels unnecessary and is obviously for the audience, not the characters.

It's nitpicking, yes, but it's precisely because the other parts are so good that these weak points stand out so much.

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School on Max /

The Bloody Rose mystery is at its best point yet

Technically speaking, this episode reveals who Bloody Rose is. But is that actually true? Imogen believes that the killer is her mom, but her body was shown far too often for this to be a fake death. Imogen had to cut into her mother in Original Sin's finale. She would certainly know if that wasn't actually her.

So where does that leave us? We could be going with the tried-and-not-so-true PLL classic of an identical twin. Or this could be precisely the proof needed for my theory that Bloody Rose is actually a manifestation of the Liars' trauma. After all, Imogen said that an earlier hallucination featured a woman who was simultaneously her mom and Bloody Rose.

The good thing is, the reveal actually makes this mystery more intriguing than it had been in earlier episodes. With a much more active confrontation this episode, I want to know who's behind the mask more than when Mouse and Noa were in relatively distanced situations.

One major fan theory is that there is more than one Bloody Rose, and this episode certainly seems to have given more evidence for that. After all, the version of Bloody Rose who is killing people seems very different from the one who is haunting the Liars.

The killing version attacked two teenagers (Nick and Sabrina; we see you Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) who investigated the cabin in the woods, Sandy, and now Pastor Malachi. At least two of those were figures at Our Mother of Holy Grace, which might be a hint at who is behind that mask. The other version just seems concerned with the core five survivors.

Despite theoretically answering who Bloody Rose is, this episode successfully makes me curious, eager to learn more about who (or how many) people are under the mask. After all, the opening credits shows blood on the keyboard highlighting "As".

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School episode 6 on Max /

But Redemption House is the epitome of exploitative trauma

However, I can't help disliking this episode. In Original Sin, there were a lot of traumatic moments, but it felt like it was being done to shine a light on real issues that women face. This episode, though, missed the mark. While I should feel like Our Mother of Holy Grace was using the Liars' trauma for entertainment, it actually felt like the show was doing it.

There was obviously a message of Pride being better than hateful religious displays, but the way that the Redemption House scenes were intercut with clips from season one was legitimately traumatizing. I couldn't stop thinking about the scenes from 13 Reasons Why that faced criticism for causing harm to precisely those it was supposed to help.

Part of why this felt so wrong was having Kelly be the one at the heart of it. Yes, there was an implication that she was brainwashed, but having her eagerly portray someone who committed suicide didn't feel right. She had a major plot about self harm last season, but now it's something she openly mocks?

On top of that, the depiction of vaguely gay teenagers reading pornography was an incredibly weak room in comparison to the others at Redemption House. It gives weight to arguments that LGBT+ people are making a big deal out of nothing, because projecting some flames around them is nothing compared to having Kelly lampoon suicide in the bedroom of a woman who took her own life.

For an episode that trades on Pride as much as any corporate rainbow logo, it ignored both the inspiring resistance inherent in Pride and the genuine issues still facing the queer community.

There is also currently a theory making its way around the fandom that Ash is Bloody Rose, and theorists are welcome to their interpretations. But one of the reasonings is based on the idea that Ash is 'really a girl' and that would be a good gotcha moment for the writers.

Sadly, this has been a plot point in Pretty Little Liars before. But using a trans character's assigned sex as a way to surprise fans is horrible, and the fact that viewers think these writers might do it again does not speak highly of them.

This episode juggled some of the show's most serious topics, but it frequently felt like it was being done by people with little personal experience of those issues. Yes, I felt horrified by the church. Yes, I felt horrified for the Liars. But there is a way to do that respectfully, and this just did not feel respectful.

VERDICT: Episode six has the most effective writing so far this season, from the structure to the individual speeches. But the overall effect felt more exploitative than illuminating, which is a bad look when discussing self harm, drug addiction, and sexual assault.

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School releases new episodes Thursdays on Max.

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