The Epistemology of “Pretty Little Liars”
by Victoria Lavorerio
Pretty Little Liars has been crowned the most-tweeted show on television, and its general presence in social media is impressive. If you’ve never seen the show, you may think that these feats are probably due to its mostly millennial audience. But if you have watched at least one episode you’ve seen that the central mystery is the reason for the show’s popularity. Every aspect of Pretty Little Liars revolves around answering one big question: who is A?
The show follows four young women (they started as high-schoolers, now they are post-college) as they try to figure out who is messing with their lives. Well, “messing with their lives” is an understatement. So far, the various A’s and their minions have put the main characters’ (aka “the liars”) lives in danger many times: running them over with cars, setting houses on fire with them inside, running cars through their houses with them inside, trapping them in steamy showers, wooden boxes, jail, a “doll house” (long story). And when their lives aren’t threatened, they get blackmailed and humiliated; their relationships are boycotted and their friendship tested.
How does a mystery show survive seven seasons? Key to the show’s longevity is Rosewood (the fictional town where it all happens), complete with secret twins, mental health issues, hidden relatives, affairs, murders, and lies. The phenomenon of A is made possible by the sins of the neighbors. The violence and mayhem of the “A-game” grow out of the hypocrisy of suburban families.
Even though the question of who A is, is the backbone of the show throughout the seasons, there are many other smaller mysteries and questions. This is fertile ground for viewer engagement. The show doesn’t end on the screen, it lingers in your mind whether you want it or not; you just can’t avoid trying to come up with answers to the show’s mysteries.
If you are like me, theories and thoughts about the series occupy only a private space in your idle mind. But more internet-oriented PLL fans have taken their obsession and detective work online consistently over the years. It has now developed into a complex network of investigatory effort I just couldn’t resist getting my epistemological hands on.
This is not a simple “whodunnit.” It is not pointing at someone and mentioning the feebleness of their alibi. An appropriate “A-theory” must explain the whole picture. An A-theory must obviously answer who A is, but also needs to address several other questions like what is A’s motivation, who are A’s helpers and why they are helping him/her/it/bitch, what is A’s relationship to the previous lesser A’s, etc, etc. Happily, and to the amusement of millions, there are several theories out there that fit the job description.
To be clear, we don’t use “theory” in this context as we sometimes use the word loosely in ordinary life, as a guess, hunch, or conviction. A-theorists gather evidence in support of their theses, present them publicly, and systematically revise them when confronted with objections. In the PLL blogosphere, all theories are welcomed, but they usually perish in the face of new evidence. This brings me to my first methodological question: what is evidence?
“Evidence” is a term often used in the theory of knowledge, what philosophers call epistemology, but not always properly clarified. “Evidence” in the context of PLL theories consists of a multi-layer and diverse body of accessible resources.
There is the obvious and almost unproblematic resource is the show itself. Scenes, lines, expressions, plots, are all up for grabs. Not only is the show itself the main source of evidence for A-theories, but it is, naturally, a requirement for a theory to account for as much of the show as possible. This requirement, though, is only achievable to a certain point, and no one demands perfect cohesion with the entire show. (We have seven full seasons!)
The second source of evidence is more intricate, but its inclusion fascinating. The blurring of boundaries between fiction and real life is not limited to fans completing the mysteries in their minds or online. Creators of fiction tend to erase their tracks, maintaining the illusion that the fictional universe exists independently. Show creator, Marlene King, has no such intention. She frequently uses Twitter, as well as interviews to drop clues about the show. King’s clues are almost universally taken as relevant and accurate by PLL fans, though their cryptic character demands a certain degree of decoding. What I find fascinating about this phenomenon, is the permeability between fiction and real-life, in the sense that an IRL commentary of a producer is placed on the same ontological level as an actual scene of the show. If it serves an explanatory purpose, it deserves the title of “piece of evidence,” regardless of its ontological status.
It gets even more complicated, as the show is not an original idea, but it is based on a series of YA books by the same name. Obviously, the answers to the show’s questions are not in the books, as the TV adaptation has taken its own course. However, there have been interesting overlaps between the screen and literary versions. So, it is not uncommon for fans online to use the books as a source of evidence, as they provide ideas of how things might have gone. It is the fictional analogue of a nearby possible world; we know it is not equal to the actual one, so whatever is true for one cannot be straightforwardly extrapolated to the other, but since it is similar enough, we can consult it for inspiration.
Finally, we have the most speculative kind of evidence: the symbolic kind. Many books, movies, and songs referenced in the show. Fans have used these references to complement their theories, adding a symbolic dimension to the “who did what where”. Furthermore, because the PLL fanhood operates under the mantra “there is no such thing as a coincidence in Rosewood,” otherwise meaningless things, such as props or decoration, become clues in their eyes. What justifies this kind of evidence is the fact that the show has given A a rich symbolic dimension, associating it with a multiplicity of elements: dolls, clowns, masks, French music, noir films, birds, etc. The only thing not colorful about A is its black hoodie.
PLL fans have been exceptionally permissive with the evidence; it is rare that something is discarded as irrelevant. But this is a big-picture game. If you want to say that a certain movie someone saw once in the series holds the key to resolving the mystery, no one denies you the opportunity to take a stab at it. After all, restraint and realism are not the show’s strong suits, and fans know that this is supposed to be over the top and fun. However, when your far-fetched theory tries to answer the important questions it will probably crumble under the weight of the evidence. What constitutes evidence is hardly the problematic question here. The question is how we are to handle it.
The most obvious and urgent hurdle is the skeptical one. After all, this is a TV show, written by people who may change their minds along the way, make mistakes, misrepresent characters, be influenced by fans, ratings, commercial interests etc. An unengaged viewer can see the show as shallow entertainment that doesn’t really make sense. Though skepticism may be a valid position towards PLL, just as in philosophy, it usually means opting out of the game. Fans who make theories and fans who comment on them are not skeptical; they act on the assumption that there is a general coherence and that the final story will make sense and answer all the questions. But even granting the general assumption that the writers know what they are doing and that the whole story makes sense, there is still the problem of errors.
As in philosophy, the existence of errors is not in itself problematic; the realization that one sometimes makes mistakes doesn’t preclude the possibility of knowledge. The problem, though, is that making a mistake is not only making an inaccurate judgement, but also mistakenly taking it to be accurate. The problem with error is that we don’t recognize it as such.
Errors in the case of fiction are plot holes. There certainly are plot holes in PLL, after all, writers have created a complicated web of storylines and red herrings, which may be impossible to keep track of. Not to mention that many decisions were likely made on the go, some of which may have contradicted previously shot scenes. Not even the most demanding fan will expect the show to be perfect. The problem arises when something not making sense (like characters contradicting each other) is taken to be data to be interpreted, when it is actually noise to be ignored. So, how do we know if something is a puzzle or a consequence of bad writing? The answer is that we don’t, not until the whole story is told anyway.
Many have commented on how flawed Cece’s (second A uncovered) story was. That’s the thing though, the whole show is a “she-said” event. We are in the dark about almost anything important. Like the “liars,” we haven’t “seen” the crucial events. We only know them from testimony. Cece had no reason to tell the truth when she did, so why should we take anything she says at face-value? The same goes for other characters whose credibility was doubted somewhere along the series. Because we are mostly limited to what the main characters know and see, our picture is partial. The town is full of shady characters the liars don’t trust, and therefore either they don’t talk to them or when they do, they systematically lie (I am looking at you, Jenna!). So, even if the writers’ blunders are kept to the minimum, because of the ubiquity of lies and the lack of “direct evidence” we might end up with a radically different picture once all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are put together.
From an epistemological point of view, we might wonder whether the plurality of theories is justified. If everyone uses the same body of evidence, why do they come to different conclusions? Are they making mistakes when evaluating the evidence? Possibly, but not necessarily. The show relies on viewers’ investment in solving the mystery, so if all the evidence was univocally pointing to the same conclusion, the answer would be obvious and interest in the show would disappear. It is the abundance of evidence, pointing to different directions, which makes the guessing game, and thus the show, addictive. Even if we stick to the scenes of the show as the potential evidence, there is so much material, that selection is inevitable. And what your selection is will determine which theory your evidence points to.
There is yet another twist. The show is fully-aware of its life outside the screen, and it references this often. In this last season, all the popular A-theories are getting a weird shout-out. For example, a popular theory from the beginning has been that Aria (one of the liars) is A. The theory claims that she has a multiple personality disorder, so she is both the perpetrator and the victim without realizing it. We have recently seen Aria communicating with A via video call. To conceal identity, A digitally altered their face with the face of Aria. This is not evidence that the ‘Aria is A’ theory is right, but it as a blatant wink to fans. The subject-matter, the show, is not a passive immutable element to be analyzed. There is a loop of influence: the theories change in the face of new evidence (a new episode), and in turn, the phenomenon studied (the show) also reacts to its being studied.
I hope I’ve made my case that A-theorizing is a serious business (even if fans don’t take it to be). Don’t be fooled by the typos and poorly edited videos, there is complexity to this fandom. The body of evidence to analyze is massive and multi-layered. The object under analysis is an absurdly intricated web of actions throughout the timespan of decades (because which twin sister Mr. Hasting slept with back then is important). The perspective from which we experience the events is very limited, as the liars are not the best investigators and the show is plagued with false testimony and false memories. There are human errors in constructing the story, which the theorist must discriminate from “actual” evidence. Finally, the object to be studied is actively elusive, reacting to the investigation to remain mysterious.
And yet, even with so many hurdles, thousands of fans online engage in this investigatory endeavor just for the fun of using reason to get to the truth. The series finale will air soon. So questions will be answered and the show will end, but hopefully the fun and discussion will continue.
Victoria Lavorerio is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Vienna working in analytic epistemology. Her current research is focused on the epistemology of disagreement, particularly deep disagreements, and the connections to skepticism, relativism, and the later Wittgenstein.