You can’t escape every Dollhouse, it seems. At least, not completely. Innocence fades away, experience sets in and with it, the idea of who you should be. It’s not always your idea, but it’s the one that the world doesn’t want to forget.
For example, there’s Toby laying his judgements on Alison. Now that his girlfriend and her friends are purple prom dresses at msdress.co.uk, Toby chooses to believe that Ali is the same girl she was before: the girl who died but never truly left. The girl who was under every stone anybody turned over. The queen bee that collected traits in friends like dolls and made people into something they weren’t before (but maybe made them better in the process). The girl who once blinded his controlling and abusive stepsister (and whom he later thanked for allowing him to be “free at last”). The girl whose own legend was so tenacious that it refused to stay dead. The girl who was notorious and infamous and loved and hated everywhere she went. The girl who didn’t go into the Dollhouse, but instead went into the Big House. The lightning rod for trouble. And the girl that Toby turned to when he and the other Significant Others needed help rescuing the Liars.
But instead of pondering the idea of her being the girl who walked through all of that and came out different on the other side, Toby chooses to believe that she’s the girl she was before. Because it’s convenient, or because it’s easy. But the saddest part is that partly because of Toby’s judgement of her, Alison now has to view herself that way.
Which has to remind us of the OG Alison herself, Sara Harvey. She’s a mystery to everyone, including herself — and a walking wounded. Once upon a time, she ran away from home because something was so wrong that she couldn’t pretend it was right anymore, and along the way someone bonked her over the head and she woke up in hell. She’s the one who went through the real-life version of the story that Alison told the cops last season, and she’s what it looks like to walk out of that place. At home, she finds that her mother preferred the version of the story where she was dead and gone, and in the news she reads that she’s “feral,” so what’s a girl to really think of herself?
That kind of confusion is hard to wash off, no matter how many showers you take.
These story lines aren’t surprising, because PLL has always been good about dealing with issues of identity, in both how we see ourselves and what the world tells us to be. From the Liars trying to figure out who they are in a world without Alison all the way to Spencer’s effacement after being betrayed by her boyfriend and safe place to land, Toby, to even Hanna last season when she had to confront the idea that she was just another version of Alison, as if she was molded in clay by Mona.
That’s why it’s fitting that it’s Hanna who takes all the first steps to having the group come back together as a unit, first by trying to unite everyone back at school, to walk back in with their heads held high in the face of any and all judgement in the halls of Rosewood High, and then by speaking to Dr. Sullivan. And when those attempts at reconciliation ultimately fail, she forces them to finally start speaking to each other about what really happened.
From this discussion, it’s both a relief and even more insidious that we learn that no one was actually shocked in the torture sessions in the Dollhouse, and that Charles really studied the Milgram experiments and only made the Liars think that they tortured themselves. He made them attack one another, to tear at their own bond, and then made them carry that shame with them afterward.
As discussed last week, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. So, it was especially interesting that in the last episode, the Liars crawled out of the wreckage of the Dollhouse, where they were trapped and tormented in simulacra of their own rooms, and found themselves right back in their own actual rooms. The formerly familiar suddenly turned unfamiliar, and all of them having to work their way through a different kind of guilt and trauma.
Charles didn’t need to hurt the girls physically — just bind them in isolation and crush their spirits. Villains these days don’t need to tie girls to train tracks, not when they can do something potentially even worse: steal your power from you.