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?