I think Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin is going to be very well-liked. It’s clever, aesthetically self-assured, and has a crystal clear sense of which genre tropes it’s leaning into. It’s also got a killer cast, both in the “little liars” core and in the constellation of variably sus Millwood residents surrounding them. More than all that, though, as a spin-off of what was arguably the most groundbreaking teen series of the 2010s, Original Sin is already demonstrating that it understands all the weird, wild details that made the Freeform flagship a pop culture phenomenon in the first place.
Introducing Into It with Sam Sanders, Vulture’s new culture podcast.
On that note, let’s meet the new generation. Or rather, let’s meet the new old generation, as Original Sin is explicitly interested in investigating not just the simple trauma of a single set of more-or-less contemporary teenage girls in small-town Pennsylvania, but rather the compounded trauma that can be passed down from one generation to the next. Or, as co-creator Lindsay Calhoon Bring puts it in this behind-the-scenes featurette, the idea of “the sins of the mother being visited upon the child.”
To which end the pilot’s opening credits cuts straight to the first of many bold-print chyrons: MILLWOOD, PENNSYLVANIA, DECEMBER 31ST, 1999.
That’s right, besties — it’s Y2K!!! And since this is a horror-fied PLL project, it’s also a weeping, banged-up teen girl, careening desperately through a rave-like warehouse party, just begging someone to help her. Her name? Angela Waters (Gabriella Pizzolo). Her deal? We don’t know! But whatever it is, it involves the five teen girls at the center of the dance floor, whose leader, Davie (Ava DeMary), has decreed Angela persona non grata. This leads to Angela climbing to the warehouse’s rafters to scream “Can you see me now?!” to the gathered crowd before leaping to her bloody death. (SlAsh count: 1)
Cut to 22 YEARS LATER, where Imogen (Bailee Madison) and her mom, Davie (now an adult played by Popular’s Carly Pope) are eating a quiet dinner at a kitchen table whose place settings look like they were last updated in 1987. Davie’s even forcing Imogen to drink milk! Dairy milk! At dinner! To quote Imogen: “Gross.” There’s a knock at the door and Imogen stands to get it, in the process revealing a medium-small baby bump. That’s right: our lead protagonist is a(n apparently) single teen mom, with the full support of her own also (apparently) single mom.
Behind the door is Imogen’s bitchy ex-BFF, Karen Beasley (Mallory Bechtel), a snotty blonde. She’s here to collect the last of her things from Imogen’s closet before the two put the final, bitter bow on their former friendship, but first, she’s got to give Davie an envelope she (again, apparently!) just found stuck on the Adams’ front door. TO DAVIE, the front reads. Inside is a crinkled red flier for a Y2K warehouse rave and a message written in black sharpie: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. YOU CAN’T IGNORE THE PAST FOREVER. THE COUNTDOWN IS ON.
This message is a threat and a reference to the tragic Y2K warehouse party whose bloody ending we just witnessed, and Davie is shaken. Why, specifically, is something we don’t know yet (much like why Imogen and Karen aren’t friends anymore or what the backstory of Imogen’s pregnancy is), but Pretty Little Liars is a franchise known for being a slow burn — we’ll get there eventually.
In any case, it should surprise no one that this message leads almost immediately to Davie’s shocking, bloody death in the family’s upstairs bathtub (a tableau Imogen and Karen discover together after walking in terrified sync down a flooded upstairs hallway that feels like a cut scene from The Shining), nor that the officials of Millwood, PA, rule it an apparent suicide. (SlAsh count: 2)
A month later, Imogen is now a permanent guest of Davie’s old friend, Sidney (Sharon Leal), whose daughter Tabitha (Chandley Kinney) — a nerdy film buff with an after-school job at the local arthouse theater — is a classmate of Imogen’s, but one who she’s clearly never spoken to at any great length. There’s nothing ominous about this new domestic set-up, really, but suffice it to say that the mood in the house could best be described as “chilly.”
In any case, now that we’ve met two out of five of the series’ Final Girls*, introductions to the rest start rolling in. First up: Faran (Zaria), who, in breezing through Millwood High’s rusty front doors on her way to the school’s private (?) ballet (??) studio (???), completely ignores Karen, mid-Spirit Queen campaigning, desperately trying to get her attention. Next: Mouse (Malia Pyles) flips Karen off and calls her a “Basic Barbie” when Karen tries to queer-shame her for staring too long at the school’s Spectrum Club poster. Finally: Noa (Maia Reficco), on her way to the school nurse’s office — where Karen’s twin sister, Kelly (also Bechtel), apparently works as an office assistant — to get her ankle monitor checked and perform what is evidently a daily drop-off of fresh pee. Humiliating, but at least she has her very sweet, very cute football player boyfriend, Shawn (Alex Aiono), on hand to keep her sane.
By the end of the episode, Imogen, Tabitha, Faran, Mouse, and Noa will be gathered around a library table, serving a detention none of them earned, scheming a way to pay Karen back for putting them there. But before they can get to that point, they have to suffer not just the machinations of the masked killer out to ruin their lives (who I’ll be calling Slasher A) but also the quotidian indignities of simply being a teen girl in Millwood, PA.
For Tabitha, these indignities start in film class (sure!), where her mustachioed white teacher has zero patience for her attempts to negotiate the all-male, all-white syllabus he’s just handed out. Where’s John Singleton! Where’s Ava DuVernay! “On whatever screen you choose to watch outside of class,” the exhausted teacher replies. She does at least have her clearly smitten best friend, Chip (Carson Rowland), on her side, but that’s small comfort, as not even being both white and male confers on him enough power, as a teenager, to effectively push back against either their teacher or Wes (Derek Klena), their 36-year-old manager at the Orpheum Theater who also has an obvious crush on Tabby (though this one, at least, is presented as Bad).
Meanwhile, Faran’s indignities start at “ballet” and end at “Black.” Early on in the episode, it seems like things might be going her way — she’s cool enough that it’s Karen who wants to be her friend, not the other way around, and then to top it all off, she’s awarded the lead role in the performance of Black Swan her school class is about to mount (again, sure!!). But from the moment Karen confronts her after class to offer a qualified congratulations (“…I mean, they probably had to make you the Black Swan? Because, you know, you’re…”), it’s all downhill. Faran loses her confidence, and then, when Karen sticks her foot into a pointe shoe with a razor blade hidden in its toe and blames Faran for sticking it there, she loses the lead role, too.
Noa’s problems are also systemic, but in her case, it’s America’s deleterious war on drugs. We’re not told explicitly what Noa did to get an ankle monitor and daily pee check, but we do learn that a third prong of her punishment is extracurricular community service cleaning up trash and graffiti under the not-watchful eye of a sheriff (Eric Johnson) who’s somehow even more of a power-hungry sexual predator than Rosewood’s Detective Wilden was — and who, it turns out, is also the Beasley twins’ dad. On the day we meet Noa at her “job,” she sees Slasher A creeping in their herringbone boiler suit and leather murder mask inside a nearby warehouse, and in going to report it to Sheriff Beasley, accidentally catches him in the process of forcing one of the teen boys on the community service line to give him a blow job. It’s grim. Grimmer still: Slasher A spiking her urine sample the next morning with THC, which she reads as “keep your mouth shut or else” retribution.
Mouse has things slightly easier — at least, initially. An evident loner who finds more comfort in the internet than in the real world, she’s shocked into socializing when a very friendly, very cute guy named Ash taps her on the shoulder in the computer lab and personally invites her to the next Spectrum Club meeting. This casual almost-flirtation even turns into something more, Ash friending her on a messaging app later that evening, causing her to spin in her desk chair and squeal in delight. Fortunately, Slasher A doesn’t come after Ash as a first threatening gambit. Unfortunately, they do stuff a bloody dead rat in Mouse’s bag at school the next day, which somehow Mouse is the one to get in trouble for.
As for Imogen, as if it’s not enough to both be a pregnant teen and a recent (scandal-adjacent) orphan, she’s got Karen literally breathing down her neck, trying to make her feel extra worthless because of it. We won’t fully understand the reason for Karen’s ire until the next episode, but we know enough right now to understand that it has something to do with her boyfriend and Imogen kissing at some party in the not-too-distant past. Proportional responses, Karen! Jeez.
Worse than Karen’s explicit bullying, though, is the more venomous criticism Imogen finds herself weathering from “nice” classmates in the girls’ bathroom, who sweetly ask her what she’s going to do now … you know, about the baby. “Are you going to have to raise it all alone? Or can the father help? He was some lifeguard, right?” As Imogen drops into the start of a panic attack, the camera cuts to a flashback of her alone on a chilly, abandoned beach, an empty bottle of vodka at her side. And then BAM: she’s in the school nurse’s office, too-brightly trying to explain that, sorry, turns out that without her mom there to help anymore, she should probably just get an abortion after all!!! That the nurse is as gentle is she is in telling Imogen what she already knows — that at six months along, it’s too late for any option but eventual adoption — is great. That Imogen doesn’t seem to have an actual OB-GYN to turn to in private, and that the school nurse then went and told the school principal what Imogen had been asking about, though? Seems extremely bad!!!! Not least because, when Principal Clanton (Robert Stanton) calls Imogen to his office later to suggest that she consider changing schools because her presence “is triggering for other students,” this supposedly private conversation with the nurse is presented as supporting evidence.
Reading Clanton’s “other students” comment as a euphemism for “Karen Beasley,” Imogen goes on the warpath, confronting Karen loudly in the cafeteria about her bitchiness (and, as a bitter aside, her boyfriend’s cowardice), then doubling down on her own continued presence at Millwood High by vowing to run for, and win, Spirit Queen — just like her mom. Unfortunately, though, when she and Tabitha show up at school the next morning, brand new campaign posters in hand, they discover that a bunch of VOTE FOR IMOGEN posters has already been put up… and that Karen’s have all been violently defaced.
And so it is that we find all five girls sharing detention, and how, as they start complaining to each other about the unfairness of it all, they start to see Karen — who, incidentally, they all also think has been taunting them anonymously by text throughout the episode — as the common variable. This, naturally, leads to them discussing how they might get back at Karen for being such a bully. This, just as naturally, leads to Imogen saying, in extreme close-up, straight to the camera:
“We should kill Karen Beasley.”
• *While it was easy to shorthand Pretty Little Liars’ core four as “The Liars,” both the slasher framing of Original Sin and the fact that this new generation has thus far proven themselves to be almost pathologically forthcoming (knock on wood) makes “Final Girls” feel like a much more appropriate collective noun.
• A hearty welcome back to the kinds of arts curriculum and cultural events that could only happen in a small Pennsylvanian town hell-bent on terrorizing its teen girl population. In this episode, we get (1) an almost-pro ballet program at the tiny blue-collar town’s only (and decrepit) high school mounting a competitive production of Black Swan; (2) a college-level lit lecture that opens with the teacher drawing comparisons between the ur-symbols of Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter; (3) expert-level references to Ari Aster, David Fincher, Akira Kurosawa, Ava DuVernay and John Singleton; and (4) a Dressed to Kill/Body Double double feature at the Orpheum — or as Tabby would say, “Double De Palma!”
• Millwood High’s mascot is … the Steppenwolves.
• Slasher A lures the school janitor to their evil lair (on school premises, naturally) at the 45-minute mark and brutally murders him … and then it’s never discussed again! Worse, it appears as though his death (nevermind disappearance) isn’t even discovered to have happened. Just the show saying: Slasher A can have little an extra bloody murder, as a treat. Sure!
• If you want to read more from me on Pretty Little Liars Classic™, I’ve written literally tens of thousands of words on the subject. Feel free to read at your leisure!