"How many times do I have to save all of you before I'm finally part of the group?"
It's a fair question that Mona (Janel Parrish) poses during this episode of Pretty Little Liars as she stands in front of Hanna (Ashley Benson), willing to let her life and sanity erode away for the sake of her friend. She's just announced that she's ready to play A.D.'s Liars Lament game, despite the fact that it will probably resurface an addiction that addled the very existence of every young woman on this show and set into motion the grossly macabre and manipulative version of the game they're being forced to play now. This is Mona throwing her life away for the sake of the group. And the group won't even let her in.
I mean, from the Liars' perspective, Mona is also, at a high level, responsible for their predicament and it might be hard to trust someone that orchestrated their systematic torture and then helped the next person that stole the game raise the stakes. You tend to be a little wary of someone that has the mental capacity and fortitude to reduce your lives to smoking piles of rubble using mostly dolls and cupcakes.
So I get it. But how many times does Mona have to prove she has what it takes to be in the crew? What loyalty tax does she have to pay? What virtue must she exhibit for the Liars to deem her worthy of being with the cool crowd?
The thing is, even though Mona thinks she wants to team up with the good guys, those lines are a little blurrier in "The Glove That Rocks the Cradle." We're in the part of the season now where any amount of good intentions that started the season (Let's cooperate with the police! Let's never turn on each other!) are erased by a survival mode. A.D. may be moving pieces around on a board, but the poor hapless fools that choose to associate themselves with a weakened Liar find themselves as pawns, including the Liars themselves! What a twist!
Let's start with Spencer (Troian Bellisario), a woman that's suffers psychological travesties like the rest of us suffer political Twitter. They come fast and furious and there doesn't seem to be an off switch. Season 7B started with the small confirmed fact that Spencer hails not from the monogamously-troubled Hastings, but from the brain-troubled Drakes. It's Spencer that kicks the game off in order to seek her own answers and, by doing so, condemned the rest of her friends to a new life of torment. It's feasible that A.D. would've found some way for the game to start without Spencer caving to the possibility of learning where she came from. Perhaps a well-placed dolly under a rug so Emily (Shay Mitchell) could trip over it and fall on the start button. Crazier things have happened.
But Spencer's selfish act to kick off the game was just the beginning of self-service. While she's helping Emily put together baby products, she comes up with the grand idea to turn her budding romance with Rosewood's Greatest Detective, Marco Furey (Nicholas Gonzalez), into an essential cog of a grander machine to retool the murder investigation away from her and, you know, just somewhere else. Doesn't matter where. As long as it's not on her. Emily has good advice for her ("don't do it"), even if it's wrapped in a callous shell. Emily doesn't say to not do it because toying with someone's emotions is bad thing to do. She says not to do it because you shouldn't overestimate someone's feelings. It's fine to use a poor sap's lovey-doviness against him, but you better be sure he's into you enough to really get manipulated. It's not the method she fears, but the backfire. But if Spencer's ever been sure of anything, it's that adult men are super into her young maiden steaze.
But it backfires. Turns out that Marco, as super into young maiden steaze as he is, is very much also into criminal justice. It's a weird feeling in that apartment with Marco and Spencer standing there, glaring at each other. The show has done a good job of setting up this stand-off. In the aftermath of Haleb Minus Spencer and the suspension of any amount of Spoby, you kind of want Spencer to find some sort of happiness. If there's anything you can accuse Nicholas Gonzalez of, it's having instant chemistry with whomever he's casually sitting at a bar (see Jane the Virgin). So while Marco can't figure into any fan-service end games, the show did a good job of lulling even the most cynical audience members into believing this could be a good thing.
But now Spencer is blackmailing him. She stole evidence from his apartment and is now threatening to stoke a police misconduct sentiment. A.D. didn't make her do any of that. That's all Spencer. So what does Spencer demonstrate here that makes her better than Mona?
Aria (Lucy Hale) is even worse off. In a fit of "that's so Aria"-ness that transcends anything she's ever done, the littlest Liar finds a back channel to A.D. and accepts terms to be a member of the A Team. And while it provides a moment or two of comedy that a laugh track would serve nicely behind, it's worth noting how easily Aria is able to do bad things in the name of A.
The show didn't provide any time for Aria to really reflect on the terrible thing she was about to do to her friends. There was no moment of hesitance, no opportunity for Aria to argue with A.D. about what she was supposed to do. We go straight to wrecking the nursery, destroying Emily's childhood mobile in favor of an on-the-nose A.D. version featuring gloved hands controlling marionette Liar-likeness dolls. I mean, she sprayed blood all over the place. It's messed up. And while Aria shows a bit of remorse at the end of the episode as she weeps over a scrape she got for her trouble and for missing Ezra's event, it's survival-mode Aria that rips the heads off toys.
The worst part is that Aria turned on her friends. Spencer's betrayal was only to the man that she was sleeping with (and, you know, to justice). But Aria is now torturing the very people that are supposed to be in on this with her. It's juxtaposed with the rest of the Liars engaged in acts of trust and risk that are embarrassingly good-natured. The reason that Mona is appealing to Hanna at all is that she trusts both Mona and Lucas (Brendan Robinson) implicitly. She defends them both as people that wouldn't turn their backs on friends. Because who would do that? Who would be so cruel as to pretend to be someone's friend and then dabble in the arts of psychological warfare? This is where Mona and Aria meet. Mona's been there, done that, got a t-shirt, hopefully learned from her mistakes, and has been instrumental in the Liars' greatest victories. Aria is starting down that path. How far will she walk?
And then, of course, there's Emison attempting to be the matter to Spencer's anti-matter. In the same episode that Spencer manipulates her latest beau by appealing to his feelings for her (at first by begging him for the sake of how he feels for her and then twisting his feelings for a lead suspect into poor policemanship), Ali (Sasha Pieterse) finds a way to tell Emily what she didn't say to Paige (Lindsey Shaw) before Paige disappeared from Rosewood (allegedly). Ali told Emily that she loves her. Alison has never had a big coming out episode, never had an arc where she wrestled with society and coming to terms with how she feels about women, possibly has never said the word lesbian since the time jump. Because it's not about women. It's about Emily. Her sexuality is Emily. And while I reserve an amount skepticism and doubt because of my personal characterization of Alison, that is a beautiful sentiment and a risk for both of them to go into this baby thing together with open hearts.
So what do the Liars have that Mona doesn't have? They're all just a bunch of flawed humans trying to make it in this world against an unseen monster that seems to arbitrarily punish them with, at best, obscure-to-us contrappassi and, at worst, chaotic flights of evil fancy. They're all trying to survive. They've all done bad things in the name of self-preservation and/or sacrifice for the collective.
So why not just let Mona in? Why would you want to challenge a person who trained herself to be an eidetic? It's not like you've been doing so hot by yourselves. And no Liar has any amount of moral superiority these days.