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Saying goodbye to the tech of Pretty Little Liars

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The underdog of tech shows

Image by Byron Cohen / Freeform

Pretty Little Liars’ final episode aired on Tuesday, marking the end of five teenagers trying to unmask their stalker by fearfully scrolling through texts, cringing at every ring of a cellphone, and elaborately tracking down lair after lair. At its high points, the show gave us culturally defining moments about technology, transcending the usual Mean Girls in spite of its girly pink facade. And even at its low points, it offered up zany plot points, like evil twins. To say goodbye, here’s a last look at how technology was encoded into the show’s DNA.

Spoilers ahead for the series finale of Pretty Little Liars.

Outlandish tech is central to the fabric of Pretty Little Liars, and it’s part of the motor that kept the show compelling over seven seasons. Even after a host of previous stalkers were exposed, killed off, or tamed in past season finales, the show still managed to keep the stakes high by showing that the stalker, revealed as (finale spoiler!) Spencer’s evil twin Alex Drake, has the best gear, and the best idea of how to use it. In theory, the stalking victims — the “Liars” of the title — could just turn off their phones to avoid the latest threats and demands from their latest adversary. But in keeping with the themes of out-of-control technology, the stalkers could just turn them right back on — or in one case, cause a phone to erupt in flames after a call gone bad. Even though most of the stalkers’ threats are digital rather than physical, the Liars couldn’t go to the police or their parents, who are all incompetent, clueless, and unsympathetic, with little character progression through the series. If the teenagers tried to bring evidence to any helpful authority, the stalker just deleted everything ahead of time.

Image by Eric McCandless / Freeform

None of this keeps the authorities from dismissing the Liars’ concerns through a bit of sardonic social commentary. When the police are looking over the Liars’ internet search histories, a detective remarks disapprovingly, “It’s amazing how some people don’t make use of the privacy settings.” In the same episode, one of the Liars, Spencer (Troian Bellisario, who also plays Alex) smashes an iPhone with a rock. Another says, “Why didn’t we think of that earlier?”

The show has always made it clear how technology can be scary and overwhelming. When one of the Liars enjoys a night out alone, or scouts out an enemy’s hideout in a service dead zone, her friends bombard her with texts asking where she’s been. With the stalker in play, the immediacy of technology translates into the feeling that someone is always watching, ready to punish any wrong move. After seven seasons on the air, the show was still exploring technology through social commentary. As Hanna (Ashley Benson) comments about an archaic flip phone in episode 18, “Do you remember when these used to be our phones, like a million years ago? They were so much less to worry about.”

Image by Byron Cohen / Freeform

Toward the latter half of season 7, the main vehicle Alex used to deliver threats was an elaborate device, part map and part board game, loaded with weapons and augmented reality tricks. The show’s prop master, Chris Vail, recently talked to The Verge via email about the process of making the gadget. Vail also said that making interactive phone apps that work well on television is a specialized process. To get predictable, repeatable results, his special effects team developed interactive apps that made the phones “look like they are really doing what they’re doing, but are still controllable by us. No lag time, easy resets, that sort of thing.”

Vail said the board game device was like a “physical incarnation” of the Liars’ stalker problem, which sounds poetic. But Pretty Little Liars does get poetic sometimes. episode 18 of season 7 opens with an iPhone getting delivered to a hotel room by room service, with a decorative piece of lettuce and a slice of lemon. It’s a threat from the stalker, saying, “Just one plea, you all go free, if no one steps up, you all go down.” It’s delivered through the interactive app designed just for the show. In other words, Alex wants one of the Liars to sacrifice themselves and go to jail for their part in an earlier car accident that they covered up. That menacing smartphone on a silver platter is a metaphor for the entire show and its weird combination of glamor, humor, and insane technology.

Image: Freeform

It’s disappointing that Pretty Little Liars never explains how Alex designed the board game / map trap, or generally addresses how an Orphan Black-esque evil twin raised in a British orphanage came to be so tech-savvy. The show just offers up a view of the apocalyptic underground bunker she somehow built underneath a house, which contains a maze-like prison and a false room made to look exactly like the outside trees and houses.

Once the show’s final stalker is successfully captured, the Liars think they have nothing left to fear. But even if all the stalkers are out of the picture, the iPhones and other gear, and the anxiety they produce, still remain in the picture. Old instincts emerge during the beautiful endgame wedding, when the marriage officiant asks if anybody has any objections, and a cellphone ominously rings. Everyone flinches and glances around nervously, expecting yet another round of technologically driven mayhem. “Sorry,” a random woman says. “Forgot to turn off my phone.” It’s a punchline for the scene and the series, but it wouldn’t play at all if Pretty Little Liars hadn’t spent seven years teaching viewers to be afraid of every new intrusion from the technology we’ve mostly learned to take for granted.