‘Pretty Little Liars’ Finale: How a Mystery Hid Its Villain

Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead, so any readers who don’t want to know the identity of A.D., the latest “A,” — or why the show’s sex scenes became more revealing, or which plot points provoked the angriest viewer reactions — should turn back now. These are edited excerpts from the interview.


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The final “A” turned out to be Alex, Spencer’s twin, which aligns with a prominent fan theory. Were you concerned about people guessing the answer in advance?

I got a little nervous about a month or two ago, because it seemed to be the most popular theory, but then it just became one of many theories. I hoped we dropped enough Easter eggs so that people are either like, “Oh, I had it right,” or, “I almost had it right.” In Sara Shepard’s books, Allison was a twin, and it played such a big part of the books that we always wanted to do at least one twin on the show. It worked out great to have Mary Drake and Jessica DiLaurentis be twins, and then now, Alex Drake and Spencer Hastings. We started playing with the twin theory early on. We didn’t know who the twins were going to be, until about Season 3. It runs in the family. They say it skips a generation, but they just got lucky.

How long has Alex been insinuating herself into Spencer’s life? How often has she impersonated Spencer?

When Hanna thinks she’s dreaming [in the Season 7 premiere, during her kidnapping ordeal], and Spencer comes to her and asks her about Charlotte, that was Alex Drake. Alex Drake was the person prodding her. Alex Drake was “A” then. She was basically trying to find out if Hanna knew who killed Charlotte. Then there was the time she was in the Hastings’ living room, wearing an argyle sweater, looking at the family photo album. And the airport. That was Alex Drake in the airport, with Wren, when Ezra stumbles upon them. When she kissed Toby goodbye after Yvonne is dead, and he’s leaving town, that was Alex Drake. And then when Toby comes back and he has the beard, and they have sex? That was Alex Drake. And the sex in the finale.

Which means it’s more revealing on multiple levels, because it tells us something about who she really is.

Troian [Bellisario], because she knew she was going to be both Spencer and Alex, started working a year ago with a dialect coach, because she wanted a very specific accent for Alex. And there were other choices she made as an actress, when she was playing Alex, that were subtler, like fidgeting with her hair. So when it came to having sex as Alex Drake, she’s probably more take-charge than we would ever see Spencer be — less tender, more aggressive.

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I. Marlene King

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Jay Goldman/Freeform

When did you come up the idea of Spencer’s twin being A.D., and what would you have changed if you had thought of it sooner?

If I had known in Season 4 or 5 what Season 7 ultimately was going to be, it would have been great to see Alex Drake in our world a few more times. If you lined up the timelines, Alex was aware that the Pretty Little Liars existed, but Charlotte wouldn’t let her come to Rosewood in Season 5. It was too dangerous. I think for us just to stay sane, we did one “A” at a time. As we knew one “A” was coming to an end, yes, we would start to think about the next. For me, it was a very clean mythology just to say this “A” stole the game. Our big “A,” Charlotte, stole the game from Mona, and then “A.D.” came and started the game all over again, to punish the Pretty Little Liars for Charlotte’s death. It felt very clean to me to say they are separate games, for very different reasons.

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The DiLaurentises messed up these kids royally, including Allison, who started out as the meanest person you can imagine. That cyberbully was created just out of Allison being your typical mean girl. She’s since redeemed herself, but this is a dysfunctional family which created these children, who are really looking for unconditional love. And you really understand why they were motivated to play this game. They’re well-rounded villains. They all have souls. They all have pain. And Mona really did win the game. She wins it back from Alex Drake, which is fun.

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Was there ever any concern about making the wedding of Aria and Ezra, her former teacher, the endgame, considering that their relationship started out as statutory rape?

It was such a big part of Sara’s first book, and that book became the pilot, so we just sort of owned it. I wanted to be true to the characters that Sara created, and it was the biggest part of Aria’s story. It is what it is. I think they’re meant to be, and that’s that. Yes, there is some criticism about [the relationship]. We got a lot more pushback on Emily being gay than the Aria-Ezra story. ABC Family was really a conservative channel, spun out of the Christian Broadcast Network. And so, yeah, I got a lot of angry letters from conservative Christian moms who couldn’t believe that two girls kissed in the pilot. They didn’t care that Aria and her teacher were making out — they cared about two girls kissing. It says a lot about our society, for sure.

And yet that was one of the more nuanced story lines, Emily’s coming out, and her relationships.

It was important to me. There were two things I wanted to establish in the show and maintain as a recurring theme. One was, these girls — at the time they were girls, then they became young women — are going to be unconditional friends no matter what. It was a great opportunity to model what friendship looks like, and women treating women positively. Equally important to me was that Emily is a Pretty Little Liar, just like the rest of the characters. She just so happens to be gay. And when she comes out to these characters, they are going to accept her unconditionally. I’m still very proud of that. I’ve gotten so many letters about what a positive influence this show has been on their lives.

A transgender villain, Charlotte, however, was a little more divisive.

Oh, absolutely. We were not expecting that. The overnight reaction to that finale surprised me, because just like being gay, I thought we were making a statement about transgender. I think of transgender characters the same way I think of gay characters and straight characters — as if we’re all equal. Yes, she’s “A,” but she just so happens to be transgender. If we had more seasons to come, I think I would do everything I could to promote positive gay role models, people accepting people being gay and transgender. I would feel like that was my responsibility, to just promote kindness.

You make a cameo during the wedding scene, when your phone interrupts the proceedings.

I didn’t want to do one, but the fans were so insistent. And the Pretty Little Liars. They were like, “Do it. Do it.” It wasn’t until we were in prep for the finale, two days before we were shooting that scene, and then I was like, “Okay, this will be it.” Also, my son Emerson is in the classroom with Allison. And my wife and my younger son Atticus were in the French doll shop. So it was a family affair.

“Pretty Little Liars” could get pretty convoluted, so much so that you developed a shorthand for how to dump story lines that were just too over-the-top, by saying they belonged to an imaginary alternate show you call “Strawberry Patch Lane.” How did you decide what belongs and what doesn’t?

Usually the true test would be a 72-hour hold. Charlie Craig, who was an executive producer on the show, it was his idea to do the pregnancy plot with Ali. We all kind of loved it, like right off the bat. “Oh my God, that’s amazing, that’s amazing.” We all thought everything this season should be bigger than we’ve ever done, really push the boundaries. But we said, “Let’s wait 72 hours, to see if it belongs on ‘Strawberry Patch Lane.’” So we literally just didn’t talk about it for a couple of days, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. We pitched it to the network and the studio to get their reaction, and they loved it. Nobody thought it was “Strawberry Patch Lane.” That’s how you know.

Most of the things that went to “Strawberry Patch Lane” were soap things. It’s a heightened world, but the day-to-day lives that the girls live are not heightened.

Except for their hair. Who has perfectly curled hair crawling out of a grave? Or going on the lam?

[Laughs.] Except for their hair and their clothes and their jewelry. I always look at the earrings. Like how can Aria even be thinking with those nine-inch feathered earrings in her hair?

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What’s next? Could there be another spinoff, or a movie?

We could. We always say that “A” has unlimited resources, so if we had a movie budget, it would just be so much fun to see what “A” could do — yachts, helicopters, big set pieces like that. I just love that it’s a full-circle moment with Addison. The mythology of the town will continue. Even though now our Pretty Little Liars have escaped, the Rosewood mythology continues. The town stays alive.

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