Friday, August 29, 2014

Character Appreciation Post: Mona Vanderwaal ("Pretty Little Liars")

I like my villains the same way I like my Starbucks order – complex.

And I like heroes, too. In fact, I like both heroes and villains. I like antiheroes. I like characters who are diabolical, who are too intelligent for their own good. I like characters who are redeemable, who grow and change and develop over the course of their journey. I like characters who are humanized, who are fallible, who make mistakes and atone for them, who urge us to feel something be it compassion or anger or admiration. I like characters who constantly surprise me, too.

I like characters like Mona Vanderwaal. No, I love characters like Mona Vanderwaal. From the moment that she arrived on screen, I was instantly drawn to her. She's a dynamic presence, an unassuming character in the first and second seasons, and utterly brilliant. She is probably the most complex character to ever exist on Pretty Little Liars and in "Taking This One to the Grave," we saw the fatal end of Mona. It was sad (I knew that someone would die and had the distinct feeling that it would be between her and Melissa) to see this character depart from PLL but to be honest, she went out with a bang and in the best way she possibly could have.

So, in celebration of Mona's life on the series and her characterization, I thought I would take some time throughout this post to discuss the many facets of her and her characterization over the course of the last five years. And it's as much of a celebration of "crazy Mona" as it is a celebration of Janel Parrish who did some utterly fantastic work with portraying this character and her journey from "loser Mona" to queen bee to "A" to "crazy Mona" to redeemable genius.

If you're ready, let's take a deeper look into some of Mona's best and most interesting character traits.

Mona Vanderwaal enters Pretty Little Liars as an extremely unassuming and one-dimensional character. She is Hanna's shopping buddy, best friend, and reigning co-queen bee of the school. She tortures classmates like Lucas and plays the spoiled mean girl charade extraordinarily well. Throughout the entirety of the first season, she appears to be an ordinary teenage character. She gets into petty arguments with Hanna over boyfriends and Hanna's decision to befriend Lucas. We learn that Hanna and Mona used to be outcasts, no one more so than Mona who was teased and tormented by Alison when she was at Rosewood. It's clear that Mona is resilient but also determined to never return to her "loser Mona" persona again. Her friendship begins to fracture slightly when The Liars begin to band closer together and exclude her. But that's what happens, right? Friends sometimes become distant and gravitate toward new people... except that this is completely unacceptable to Mona.

See, a pillar of Mona's characterization is her determination and self-reliance: she rebuilt herself from "loser Mona" to cool Mona – to FUN and admired Mona. She went from the girl that others shunned to the girl everyone wanted to be. And she helped to establish Hanna as a force to be admired and reckoned with at Rosewood as well. Mona essentially reconstructed herself and Hanna and she does not take either of those reconstructions lightly. We don't see how intense Mona can be until later on in the series. In the first season, she's unassuming, non-threatening, and kind of one-dimensional and superficial. We believe, as an audience, that all she cares about is popularity, boys, and maintaining her social status with Hanna beside her.

What I loved about the introduction to Mona was that while I completely underestimated her, I also understood her. I felt bad for her -- for this girl who was once an outcast and without Hanna seemed rather lost and scared. I remembered what it felt like when your best friend suddenly became too busy for you, too preoccupied with new friends or a boyfriend. I understood Mona's frustration because Hanna dismissed her a lot in the first two seasons. And though Mona did some bad things to her ("bad" being a relative term at this point in the series) like hiding Caleb's letter, I also felt like Mona deserved to feel accepted somewhere, by someone. And when the series introduced us to the romantic pairing of Noel Kahn and Mona Vanderwaal, I presumed that they were made for each other because though Noel was kind of smarmy, Mona seemed like the type of girl who would want to date a boy like that -- a boy who she would have never been able to get as "loser Mona."

I think that my first step toward Mona becoming one of my favorite characters on the series was that I understood her and felt bad for her. The brilliance of PLL was that it set up this completely earth-shattering way for us to build up and then lose trust in everything we thought we knew about the series and a character. I liked that, to be honest, and I still found myself really liking Mona after "unmAsked." When I began my marathon of the series, I remember vividly texting my sister to tell her about how much I loved Mona. And without spoiling me, she warned me that I might not feel that way after I finished the second season. "unmAsked" demolished everything we thought we knew a bout Mona Vanderwaal and who she was and it was utterly brilliant. Instead of despising the character, I became even more intrigued by her. She was now not just a one-dimensional, ditzy, self-absorbed former-loser-turned-queen-bee. She was a sociopath. And maybe she was a LOT crazy. But she was even more intriguing BECAUSE of that.

As I said above, I like heroes. I like villains. And I like antiheroes. But what I really need in order for a series to captivate and astound me is an array of characters who toe the lines between hero and villain, between crazy and sane, and between unassuming and dangerous. Nobody likes an angelic character. Angelic characters are boring because they have no flaws. When you introduce a flawed character, you open your audience up to a world ripe with possibilities and complications. When the series unmasked Mona Vanderwaal as the first "A," and told us that she had been the one behind the text messages and the plotting, when we saw her lair and her in the black hoodie, we were aghast. And I was compelled, at the edge of my seat wondering what might happen to this obsessive, brilliant sociopath.

I have to pause in order to give a lot of credit to Janel Parrish because she was good as queen-bee-Mona, you know. She played that damaged, self-absorbed, superficial archetype with such effortlessness and then managed to brilliantly flip a switch within herself as an actress and channel this utter hatred, sociopath Mona that we saw at the end of the second season. Mona got dark and Mona got crazy and it was amazing. How many actresses could have pulled off such a layered, complex character? Not many, and certainly none with as much poise and attention as Janel did. Everything about Mona at the end of the second season was cold and calculated – every move, every facial expression, every twisted smile – and Janel tapped into that side of Mona's characterization and conveyed it beautifully.

Mona survives a fall off a cliff at the end of the second season, and season three finds her at Radley Sanitarium because... you know, crazy. I think that season three featured some of the most stellar work for Janel as Mona and Troian as Spencer because they were able to tap into previously unearthed facets of their characters and it was truly stunning. Mona may or may not be crazy in season three, but that matters little to me because crazy or not, Mona Vanderwaal was compelling in the third season of PLL. Admit it: you were fascinated by her. You wanted to know if she wasn't pulling the strings and calling all of the shots as "A," who WAS. You were creeped out by her fascination with dolls. You wondered whether or not her friendship with Hanna was ever genuine or if she was befriending her to enact her diabolical plans.

I was curious and I admit it. I liked Mona before season three, but I really fell in love with her complexities and her utter genius during that year. Because nothing amazes me more than the fact that Mona – this popular, flaky, seemingly  normal teenage girl with high heels and bright earrings – was actually a genius. Like, a Spencer Hastings-level genius. It's brilliant because it demonstrates the fact that everyone in Mona's life totally and completely underestimated her as a human being. I find that just so intriguing. And I find the fact that Mona spent YEARS hiding that part of her personality beneath designer labels and petty, surface-level conversations so amazing. Is it as amazing to you as it is to me?

Mona Vanderwaal was never more terrifying and compelling than when she was in Radley. And it's really a testament to the writing of her character and Janel's portrayal that she became one of my favorite characters at this point in the series. I loved how I was able to transition from feeling affection and sometimes ambivalence toward a character to being genuinely afraid of how unhinged, sociopathic, and brilliant she was. It was like I was meeting Mona Vanderwaal for the first time and in many ways, I WAS. I was meeting this entirely new side of her and rather than be off-put by it, I was intrigued because I felt like Mona could be crazy. She could have been driven to the brink of insanity by the torture she endured through Ali for all of those years. It didn't feel out of character for Mona to hide her intelligence behind the mask of a superficial teenage girl in order to simply survive from day-to-day. Imagine the torture she would have endured if she had remained "loser Mona" and then added "geeky Mona" to that label.

No, Mona was interesting when she was a "normal" teenager but she was downright compelling, complex, and layered as "crazy Mona" who gets sent to Radley after torturing and nearly killing Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer for two years. And when Mona is released from Radley, she becomes more interesting because she embraces the intellect within her. She doesn't have to hide who she is anymore and while that terrifies... well, everyone, it also gives Mona a sense of identification and purpose. The way that Ali ran Rosewood High School was through instilling both admiration AND fear into the student body and Mona was subjected to that. When she returns to Rosewood, she finds that she has very few allies but that everyone seems to be afraid of her. Being feared in Mona's mind is better than being shunned, but she attempts to reconcile with both the Liars and the remainder of the student body and prove that she is truly sorry and willing to help.

I think that what is so fascinating about Mona as a character is that she's like an onion with a new layer every season: she's superficial, she's crazy, she's intelligent, she's diabolical, she's compassionate, she's afraid. And I think that characters on television shows often get relegated to certain boxes too easily (Spencer is "the smart one," Emily is "the loyal one," etc.), but forget that character – much like people – are complex and layered. Just because a character is defined by one character trait one season doesn't negate the significance or existence of another seemingly contradicting character trait the next. So while Mona begins the series as a normal teenager who then becomes "crazy," it does't mean that everything she did or said in the first two seasons is moot. Mona is a person who is driven and controlling; she likes order and plans and she's calculating which is what made her the perfect "A."

It also makes her the perfect partner, as the girls learn at the end of the third season. Though Mona likes to pull strings and call shots, she is and was not the one pulling those strings: Red Coat was. And she is just as desperate to know who that girl is as the others are. You see, being a strong character – being a DYNAMIC character – doesn't mean that you are flawless. It doesn't mean that you don't have weaknesses or fears. Mona may be the most dynamic and complex character to ever exist on PLL, but the problem is not that she is many things; the problem is when people try to put her into a box and slap one label on her.

The beauty of this character was that Janel Parrish played the layers of Mona Vanderwaal so well: we saw every nuance, every growth and stumble, every fear and triumph. And that was not only brilliant because it was done so well but because we SAW it as an audience. The writers gave us a character who we loved and hated and felt bad for and felt ambivalent toward and felt afraid of and ultimately mourned.

I think that the beauty of Mona Vanderwaal really boils down to the fact that the show peeled back, slowly, all of Mona's layers. We trusted her until we didn't. We were wary of her involvement with Ezra and how she was "helping him," because we were wondering whether or not she had returned to the dark side. We questioned her motives when she began dating Mike and actually felt for her – really felt for her – when she has to break up with Mike in order to protect him. We saw everything about this character, every nuance and every moment of weakness and strength. We watched her become bonded to the Liars whether either party liked it or not and most recently, we saw that "loser Mona" timidness resurface when Ali returned to Rosewood.

I think that Mona's final arc was probably the strongest she could have ended on. Fearful people do things to protect themselves before they can be hurt. If you back an animal into a corner, it will attack you but only because it doesn't want to be attacked first. Ali's return sparked fear within Mona – a fear we had, admittedly, not seen in a long time. One of Mona's final quests is to build an "army of losers" against Ali in order to protect herself and protect them all from the return of the girl who bullied them. Ali returns with fake smiles and plastered-on apologies, but Mona sees the true Ali: she sees that Ali is a sociopath, a girl who enjoys playing with people and their emotions as if they were dolls. Ali and Mona challenge each other and are afraid of each other, but Mona is resilient. Unfortunately, Ali is too good of an actress to remain the enemy and wins favor back from those Mona turned against her.

Mona's final two episodes are filled with fear but also determination: she tells Aria that it would have been better had she died the night she fell off the cliff and Aria is adamant that Mona never speak words like that again. The Liars may not totally and completely trust Mona but I think the characters in PLL decide is that it is often better to align yourself with someone you know you cannot occasionally trust than wholeheartedly devote yourself to someone who will stab you in the front. And Mona's final act on the series is to help the Liars discover the truth about Ali and unmask her for the manipulative, cold, villain that she is.

But like any series, Mona learns too much: she uncovers information that leads to Alison being "A" and calls Aria with this news. Unfortunately, this leads to her demise as a hooded person (possibly Alison but that would be way too easy) attacks and kills the young woman. There are signs of struggle and blood evident throughout the house and the Liars know that Mona put up a fight against her attacker. Isn't that, truly, the only way Mona could have been taken down?

She was a resilient, compelling, determined character who would put up a fight until her last breath. She would not lay down easy. She would hold her head high at Rosewood when people called her a loser and when people thought she was crazy. She would soldier on when Lucas was the only one to stick by her army – Lucas, the person she, herself, made fun of for years. She would trust herself to care about and love another person even if she didn't believe she was worthy of receiving love. She would be strong, she would be brave, and she would be defiant until her very last breath.

That was who Mona Vanderwaal really was: she was a character who was layered – insecure, crazy, diabolical, intelligent, passionate – but when you peeled away all of those layers at the very end, the core of who she was could not have been more evident. She was a fighter. And I will miss her.


  1. Wow, I could not say this better. I loved you review about Mona, first because I think that is really accurate and second because Mona is one of my favourite characters ever; she is (was?) so... human.
    Good or bad?, brave or afraid?, genuine or manipulative?, backstabber or loyal? She was the two sides of the same coin, like the most of people are.
    A compelling character like the most and a brilliant actress, Mona was a fighter, she fought for the life that she wanted and died fighting for her life.
    I loved her like a shallow Queen B, like the adorkable geek, like the manipulative bitch, and like the lonely girl that wanted to be loved (or feared) for her peers.
    Her relationship with the Liars (particulary Hanna but I have to admit that I liked most her interactions with Aria and Spencer), Mike (I really loved their relationship, I think that Mike was one of the few that really loved and cared for Mona - I want to believe this), Lucas (the fact that he was the most loyal to her from her army is sweet and ironic knowing their history), and Noel (I would like to see more of them after their breakup because I think that the pain that Mona felt was real and I always felt curious about the status of their relationship -aka if this was fake, real or what- plus I never know what to think about Noel) were -to me - compeling too because there was the doubt if she was sincere or not, if she card for them or not (to me, she did -at least in Hanna and Mike cases) and I would love to see her with her mom but I think that this wouldn't be possible anymore, right?
    Ok, just to say that I feel better now that I read your review (I felt trully upset after the latter episode, even if she appears later in flashbacks or something like that, that don't be the same) and my best regard for Janel Parrish, I don't think that I could fell in love with Mona the same way that I did if not was for her great performance.
    And Mona... she was a flawed and beautiful character that I always will love.
    Reast In Peace, Mona Vanderwaal.
    We'll miss you.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! And you're exactly right: Mona was such a human character with flaws. She was just so complex and realistic because PEOPLE aren't black-and-white. We all have our moments and I think that they really exemplified that through her characterization.

      (And honestly, YES Mona/Spencer interactions were always my favorite because of how much they challenged each other post-secret and pre-secret how much Spencer snarked at her.)

      Janel certainly did Mona justice and played her beautifully. I will miss her, too!

  2. Honestly I couldn't have said it better! You literally wrote everything down of what I was thinking of Mona. She was one of my favorites in PLL. I always loved her but since the beginning of season 3 I absolutely fell in love with her especially since her Radley times...when she sung 'will the circle be unbroken?' which gave her a creepy touch while playing with the dolls. From Loser Mona to popular girl to mastermind Mona, but no matter what she did - you could tell that she had a heart, she just wanted to protect herself - from Ali and from becoming Loser Mona again. She truly was sorry for all the things she did to the liars and wanted to make it up.
    Mona was the most unpredictable and interesting character and her death is a very big loss to the show. Janel Parrish really did an amazing job by portraying Mona. #RIPMona ...btw I always thought that she looked so cute as Loser Mona in flashbacks and it broke my heart when Alison put her down

    1. Thank you so much, anon, for reading and commenting! I absolutely love the Radley saga of Mona. Janel did such an amazing job portraying her as creepy during those scenes. But you're right -- no matter what Mona did, she had a heart and always did everything she could to protect herself. She was a fighter to the very last breath and consistently the most, as you said, unpredictable and interesting character. Janel was exceptional and I will miss Mona terribly.

  3. I love that there are people out there who feel the same way i do about mona when I say that she is my fav character ,ever like in the history of pll of any show or movie ever for that matter, people usually look 61st me like i am insane so in glad I'm not the only one who see exactly who she was and her strength and intelligence and why she does the things she does i cant imagine this show without her thank god for flashbacks but still of don't be the same i Will miss her oh and shout out to janel parrish she conveyed her perfectly and of was amazing