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Pretty Little Liars: The Softening of Alison DiLaurentis

Does she still deserve to be punished?

Nick Campbell

Thousand-mile stares have become commonplace with Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse), the blond catalyst of Pretty Little Liars, as she wrestles with how she got here: two murdered family members, an estranged father and brother, a grifter for a husband whose real name is impossibly silly, and constant suffering as a magnet for (at best) ne'er-do-wells and (at worst) raging psychopaths. In "Along Comes Mary," in one of her now-trademark states of disillusionment, Alison wondered how, with all of Archer's lies, she didn't see him coming a mile away.

And we're left to question that, too. The fact is that the legacy Alison created in the flashbacks of the first few seasons and her pre-Winter's Ball resurgence to high school queen bee has been poked full of holes. She was capable of anything. Keeping a whole school under her thumb? Check. Whipping up a dust devil of drama so tight that she could come out of the eye unscathed while everything else is wreckage? Yep. Wooing a college boy while she was only fourteen? Well, Ezra (Ian Harding) wasn't exactly a difficult mark.

But all the times we flashed back to Alison body-shaming Husky Hanna (Ashley Benson) or blue-balling Emily (Shay Mitchell) or encouraging Aria's (Lucy Hale) darker impulses or flat out challenging Spencer (Troian Bellisario), not to mention all the times we saw her tease kids mercilessly or smirk in the face of someone's demise, made the case that Ms. DiLaurentis she deserved all the punishment that befell her. (Assuming that any amount of torture is deserved. Which, typically, it isn't. Even for mean high school girls. Who, we can all agree, are some of the worst products of human civilization.)

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It's Just Mortality, My Darlings

Something changed once Alison returned to Rosewood. First, we learned that her being buried alive was probably the best thing that could've happened to her. Ali's adventures in keeping two steps ahead of A weren't exactly luxurious. And her return to high school would eventually peak with a murder trial that found her guilty of a crime when she wasn't even in the same neighborhood in which it was committed. It's no wonder the Liars are constantly taking matters into their own hands. The Rosewood justice system has about as many sharp legal minds as a colony of meerkats.

It was around that time that the redemption of Alison DiLaurentis began. She attacked less and apologized more. She consummated Emison. Her interactions were no longer fueled by contempt and rebellion. And, maybe most importantly, she took a back seat in the clique. She may still be the nucleus around which most of this town orbits in some way or another, but she's objectively meeker than she was when she was a terror.

Seasons 6B and 7A have worked very hard to define Alison's remaining driving force. Long gone are her ambitions of manipulating people into oblivion. Instead, it's all about why she stuck around Rosewood, even with the threat that A would find her. It's why she made amends with the woman that tortured her for years and basically ruined her adolescence. It's why she believes Mary Drake (Andrea Parker) despite having every reason to burn her super bad. Alison just wants a family.

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Her Family Has the Worst Apples

More specifically, she wants normalcy. Drama still swirls around her, and she doesn't always opt for the best path toward a comfortable life behind a white picket fence (i.e. maybe don't date your sister's lover/fake doctor), but she yearns for it all the same. She wants her friends to stay a unit. She tries to collect relatives where she can. The girl who used to pine for a mysterious death and a good-looking corpse eschews immortality, my darlings, in pursuit of the suburban life Rosewood is supposed to represent. You know, if it wasn't full of perverts and ex-Radley patients.

It is the solution to a narrative issue with Alison. Before, the rule of understanding Ali's perspective was to see the world as threatening. Decimating peers, bending friends to her whims, and charming men were all ways of neutralizing her threats. Trust was a premium and, in fact, could only be guaranteed through mutually-assured destruction. Which meant she had to be vulnerable. Which didn't happen. So it was a pretty lonely existence.

None of that really benefited Alison at all. As good as she was at manipulating the world, Mona (Janel Parrish) and Charlotte (Vanessa Ray) used that against her. Ironically, it was the only true threat in her life -- the unseen, untouchable malevolence that hunted her -- that eventually showed her that what she really valued was a close-knit family that she could assemble from parts whom she could really trust.

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Never Look Back. There Might Be Karma Gaining On You

When you consider all of the missteps Alison has taken over the last season or so, either perceived or proven, that has to be in the back of your mind. The Alison you're watching may have the tools to do some villian-level mind-wrecking, but the reason she's tried to establish a relationship with her sister, marry an obvious creep show, and keep her heretofore-never-seen aunt in her house is the same reason Mary mentions in "Along Comes Mary." They're tired of burning their blood. They both have so little family left, it's time to come together and make something new in this spooky little town.

In fact, the episode makes a grand effort to compare Alison to this mysterious, shady, probably-red-herring. Mary mentions she's made some mistakes that've resulted in some of the same trials her niece is going through. They both yearn for some kind of family and will do some ridiculous things to get that and defend it. It might be that, by looking at each other, they're looking at the woman in the mirror. And they're asking if they'll change their ways.

The redemption of Alison DiLaurentis has been a slow process and one that the show itself slows down purposefully. There never seems to be an end in sight for the amount of punishment and torture Alison endures for her crimes as a child. Her karma from her past life never seems to cease haunting her new life. At what point do we as an audience and the show on the whole forgive Alison and accept her new path toward a quotidian life that doesn't involve burying smash-faced abusers?

Mind you, this is a season that basically started by blaming Alison for her sister's murder. The family she's assembled was prepared to burn her (and did). Which is what makes the last note from A.D. near the end of the episode, where the collective get tattled on by this weird bully, that much more impactful. Alison may not be in the driver's seat of this little clique anymore, but she's happy to be a part of it. What will become of her if she can't trust that family anymore either? Will she see through the ruse and discover the reasonable explanation behind it? Probably not. If any of these characters were capable of that, what power would A even have? A would have to stop blackmailing people and just start triple-dog daring people to do weird stuff.

Do you think Alison has paid her debt to society, or do you think she still deserves everything that's coming to her? What about the note A.D. left on her red jacket? Is this the time where Alison becomes Alison again? Let's talk about it in comments!

Pretty Little Liars airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on Freeform.