Pretty Little Liars: Summer School has a much-needed boost in quality in episode 4 (Review)

Almost halfway through a largely-disappointing season, the fourth episode manages to have more high points than low ones, despite its flaws.
Courtesy: Max
Courtesy: Max /

The newest episode of Pretty Little Liars: Summer School marks the halfway point for this season, so how well does it do at setting up the climactic episodes to come? The episode, titled "Chapter Fourteen: When a Stranger Calls Back," is actually the best one of the season so far.

At the end of episode 3 (recap here), Mouse was attacked by the newest PLL villain: Bloody Rose. Their confrontation felt like a critical tipping point for the season, where the plot has to properly focus in on the fight for survival. And episode 4 does put much more emphasis on the threats against the Liars.

There are great moments here, including plenty of tension and horror movie references. However, many of the problems from the last three episodes still stand. It's a mixed bag, but I'm happy to say that there was far more good than bad. Let's get into the review of episode 4 below!

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Summer School is missing the moral complexity of season 1

I have been pretty harsh on this season of Pretty Little Liars, but it took the events of episode 4 for me to understand the most frustrating part. In Original Sin, there was an intriguing moral struggle because the protagonists and antagonists were on the wrong sides. But in Summer School, everything has become much less sympathetic.

As the secrets from 1999 were unveiled in season one, it was easy for audiences to get invested. Angela Waters was an innocent girl who was abused by everyone around her, and there was a part of me that felt A was justified in seeking vengeance for her. However, it was also possible to see how much the mothers had changed, especially by seeing Davie through Imogen's eyes.

This made each episode more engaging, because fans cared about what happened. Archie might have been ready to kill innocents, but he was primarily driven by a desire to punish the guilty. It felt good when he forced Noa to turn in her mom, and his kills at the end of the season felt like justice.

This season, everything is much simpler. Because nearly all of the parents randomly left town, there's no opportunity to see the girls learning to forgive their mothers for their part in the ordeal. Likewise, all of the morally-grey antagonists from the first season died, while the solid villains were locked away. There may still be trauma responses, but there are no complicated relationships left to explore.

Beyond that, Bloody Rose is (thus far) a completely empty villain. Audiences know nothing about her motivations and because her true identity is still a secret, they know little about her at all. Everything is just stories on SpookySpaghetti, a plot device that wore out its welcome a long time ago. All in all, Bloody Rose functions as a cryptid in human form, not a real character. While that can be interesting in a horror movie, it doesn't work well in this series.

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Episode 4 finally remembered how to create tension

Despite the lackluster season villain, this episode actually did a great job creating tension-filled situations. Throughout the episode, slasher conventions were depicted to put the audience on edge, similar to fake-out jumpscares in the traditional horror genre.

The end of episode 3 (combined with the season's poster) suggests that each episode will show one of the Liars facing their "Final Girl Test." Knowing that, every slasher set-up made fans wonder if it would turn deadly.

Just looking at the plot, it's easy to follow classic slasher rules. Sex=death, so Faran and Kelly were both in danger after deciding to go to the pool after hours for romantic encounters. Similarly, babysitting is a fatal job in many horror movies, making Imogen a good target. Noa had a similar risk to Faran and Kelly, with the added bonus of being at an isolated location where nobody could find her.

The only question, then, was which of these set-ups would end in bloodshed. That sense of impending doom was strengthened by the soundtrack, which included the Scream franchise's favorite song, "Red Right Hand." With that music on, there must be a killer on the prowl.

Much of this season has felt directionless, so this added tension was a welcome surprise. There has always been a whodunnit element to the PLL franchise, so having a question to ponder helps keep the audience more engaged.

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There are still troubling weak points in the writing

While this was, undoubtedly, the best episode so far this season, the complaints from previous reviews still stand. Once again, we gets scenes of characters telling the others things we've already seen. Once again, Imogen and Tabby had incredibly similar episodic plots. Faran and Kelly's plots were so similar, they literally ended up in the same place for their respective romantic reconciliations.

This fought against the tension of the episode, because many of the scenes felt expected. After the first several characters received unknown calls, it became a question of when the others would, not if. When new information was learned, it was practically guaranteed that we'd get a scene of the Liars recapping it.

Ultimately, this made major events feel over-done. Despite how much plot was shoved into the episode, there was little that felt fresh. Because of that, there is a growing sense that a person could skip most of the episode and only watch the last ten minutes of each episode, since that's where the action is.

VERDICT: With the loss of emotional and moral depth, the normal events in the Liars' lives were less compelling. With the repetitious structure, the episode felt formulaic in the worst way. The saving grace for episode 4 is that the 'filler' was more interesting than the other episodes so far.

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

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