Did ‘Pretty Little Liars’ Screw Up Its Teacher-Student Love Storyline?

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In the years since Gossip Girl locked itself into a Chuck-and-Blair death spiral and Skins sent its final cast packing, no TV series has taken hold of the teenage-girl — and, clearly, adult-woman-who-can’t-resist-a-teen-soap — imagination like Pretty Little Liars. A murder mystery about a quartet of high-school girls tormented by an unseen villain known as “A,” it has maintained its audience’s rapt attention through four seasons (with a fifth scheduled to premiere in June) by constantly changing the game and juggling its ever-evolving whodunit with typical teen-drama storylines: academic pressures, family strife, and most of all, romance.

Much of Season 4 revolved around Pretty Little Liars‘ most controversial relationship, between Aria Montgomery and her sometimes-English teacher, Ezra Fitz (or, as fans know them, “Ezria”). For a while, it even looked as though viewers had been wrong to assume the show was endorsing teacher-student romance, and were in for a long-game cautionary tale about it. But in last week’s season finale, the Ezria story came to what looked very much like an abrupt, unexpected ending — one that seemed like a slap in the face to fans who have questioned the show’s portrayal of what might amount to statutory rape.

I say “might” because throughout the series’ run, the level of intimacy between the characters and the legality of their relationship has been murky. In Pennsylvania, where the show is set, the age of consent is 16 — but that only applies if the adult isn’t the minor’s teacher. At the time of their first sexual encounter, at the end of Season 2, Ezra wasn’t working at Aria’s school. But Ezra has left and returned to Rosewood High — and the couple has broken up and gotten back together — so many times since the show began that you could get whiplash trying to figure out when the relationship was and wasn’t legal.

That barely matters, though, because the game of technicalities and omissions that PLL is playing isn’t the final word on the morality of “Ezria.” The most extreme critics of the storyline insist that, no matter how carefully the writers frame it, the relationship isn’t a relationship at all but a series of rapes that are normalized within the context of the show. At The Toast last fall, Jessie Lane-Metz wrote,

[T]he ongoing sexual assault of Aria Montgomery by Ezra Fitz in PLL both reinforces a narrative that blames victims, and forwards the idea of consent in situations where it is impossible for an individual to give it. It feeds into a culture that silences survivors of abuse, lest they invite more shaming. And it romanticizes the rape of a minor by an adult exercising control over that individual. It asks viewers to see a terrible, ongoing cycle of abuse as a relationship to both envy and aspire to.

Whether you agree with Lane-Metz’s clear-cut diagnosis of Mr. Fitz as rapist and Aria as rape victim or locate their relationship at a less extreme point on the moral and/or legal matrix of sex and power, there’s no question that he — an adult man — has taken egregious and inexcusable advantage of her — a teenager and, at various times, his student.

For most of Pretty Little Liars‘ run, the show’s writers seemed committed to withholding judgment of Ezria. Any opposition to the relationship, from parents or school administrators or friends, was seen through Aria’s eyes as an obstacle or a failure to understand their unique bond. The show never forced fans — many of them Aria’s age, or younger — to acknowledge that there could be something very wrong with a man who could rationalize dating a girl in his high-school English class.

Certain viewers found this hands-off approach most infuriating of all. Not me, though. In the context of PLL, where a seemingly creepy neighbor can come into focus as a caring boyfriend (who, OK, happens to do a little bit of freelance work for the mysterious figure tormenting the Liars) and your shopping buddy turns out to be a murderous psycho, it seemed premature to judge the storyline. I figured the show, which has included moments of jarringly perceptive commentary on love and gender roles in the lives of teenage girls, would dig deeper into Aria and Ezra eventually. I even had faith that it would make a point to jar viewers out of their complacency towards such a disturbing relationship.

And it did, for a few episodes. Season 4’s cliffhanger midseason finale placed Ezra in “A’s” lair, suggesting that he was the real leader of the conspiracy to make Aria and her friends’ final years of high school a living hell. As it had done with so many “A” candidates in the past, PLL started to show Ezra spying and sneaking around and having tense meetings with suspicious characters. He even had a creepy cabin in the woods that he was always trying to get Aria to spend weekends visiting, with a trap door leading to a terrifying surveillance setup.

Was Ezra the one and only “A” — the man behind the curtain, manipulating minions and plotting the girls’ demise? Faithful PLL viewers knew he probably wasn’t. The identity of “A” is the show’s Holy Grail, so it’s highly unlikely that revelation would come without a series finale in sight. But finding out that Ezra had at least some part in the conspiracy against them would have sent him firmly into the Bad Guy camp, dispatching with any romantic ideas viewers had about him and Aria, and classifying his interest in her as unquestionably wrong.

As it turned out, Ezra was never on the “A” team. When Aria confronts him with her friends’ suspicions, the budding writer confesses that he’s actually working on a true-crime novel about the murder in question, of the girls’ friend Ali, with whom he had a bit of a flirtation years ago. That’s what originally brought him to Rosewood High, and into Aria’s life. He knew who she was, and how old she was, when they met in a college bar. Oh, and although he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to protect the Liars in the past, he has a few theories they might want to hear about.

This doesn’t make Ezra the villain in any sort of murderous way, but the triple-whammy revelation that he knowingly went after an underage girl, failed to step in at times when her and her friends’ lives were in danger, and spent years lying to Aria about all of it paints him as a scummy enough character. In one of PLL‘s all-time most emotional scenes, Aria raids his notes and thoroughly trashes his apartment, smashing valuables as she cries and screams. It’s clear the writers put this scene in because they wanted to make us understand how deeply Ezra hurt her. This would have made a fine resolution to their storyline, I think; it wasn’t Aria pressing statutory rape charges, but it underlined how damaging his behavior towards her had been, since the beginning.

But Aria and Ezra’s story wasn’t over — it continued in the season finale. First, he shows up in Ali’s (she’s alive, by the way) flashback tale of her long last night in Rosewood, as a nice guy who keeps his hands off her as soon as he realizes she’s in high school. And in the final few minutes of the season, he’s a full-on deus ex machina, showing up to save the girls’ lives by fighting (a still-masked) “A.” When the villain escapes, it’s revealed that Ezra has been shot — perhaps fatally. Aria sobs as he loses consciousness.

So, Ezra dies a hero? Or, as this interview with PLL executive producer Marlene King suggests, survives to reunite with his one true student-love?

Among other conclusions, this leaves little room to hope that PLL will ever get it “right” with Ezria. The show, it seems, just isn’t interested in teaching its young viewers any real-life lessons about the kind of teacher who dates high-school girls (or, for that matter, the kind of guy who’s willing to lie and scheme his way through a years-long relationship). Like the aforementioned Skins and Gossip Girl before it — not to mention just about every TV show whose primary audience is adults — PLL exists not to educate but to tell a provocative, addictive story.

So, here’s the question I’m left with: Does the show’s young, female viewer base mean it has a responsibility to adequately vilify Ezra? Does it owe its audience the reality check of taking all the romance out of this relationship? The answer seems clear, from a certain perspective: of course Pretty Little Liars should be careful not to fill its impressionable fans’ heads with dangerous misapprehensions about teacher-student love affairs. But on the other hand, I can’t bring myself to entirely get on board with the idea that — as they read classic, complex literature in their high-school classes and go about their own complicated lives — entertainment meant primarily for them must be sanitized or policed for morally upright messaging. I’m torn, is what I’m saying. Neither conclusion seems entirely adequate.

So, readers, PLL fans of all ages, what do you think? Did the show fail its viewers, or were critics of Ezria expecting too much of a soap opera that just happens to be about teenagers?