A late night viewing of The Narrow Margin (1952) combines with Spencer's newfound hobby of being a drug addict to create a wonderful experiment in film noir that rides the line between fantasy and reality, making predictions and hinting at future developments in a way that only deepens the various mysteries our Liars are confronting. Old-school sounding music, intense noir visuals and some intriguing period performances abound.
While I am usually not one for gimmick episodes -- look no further than the monstrosity that is most of Community's last few years -- this one did it right by staying true to the show, and focused on the nature of storytelling rather than the nature of pandering to the audience. We've always been watching a perilously sexual noir movie about a Hopper painting, this episode just enjoys demonstrating how rich that retro history actually is. (Compare to Ravenswood's hearty attempt to revive 1800s Gothic Romance, for an even more ambitious genre hybridization from Team King.)
The basic setup is that Spencer uses Hanna's job as a switchboard operator -- and Toby's Lodge-based friendship with Ezra Fitz -- to track down Alison, who is working as a dancer in a gin joint downtown. Once they find her (leading A to her, as usual) Toby knocks Ezra out, and they all escape together. The real point is that Spencer is terrified of accusing Ezra in the real world, whether she's right or not, but also that he modified Alison's Diary before they stole it back so easily. But when the Liars hit up Aria's house to tell her the truth, Ezra is already there.
The dream story, though, is just fantastic. Everybody's doing something great: Paige is having Well Of Loneliness stress about being an old-timey lesbian and threatening to leave Emily for some other, more laid-back time period. (They also have some hot damn sex, which is even more elegant in black and white.) Aria's got the mad-hottest Deco/Bacall stripes rolling the whole time, and plays a convincing wide-eyed ingénue. Mona, Spencer and Hanna play out the shifting roles from The Big Sleep in a fraught (momentary) kidnapping scenario. Mona plays the genius/moll she was born to be. Ezra and Toby play variations on a tough guy theme. And greatest of all, Hanna rules the world as the gum-cracking, smart-ass single gal.
Alison's a backstage bitch who pushes Emily into being a hard-ass and Spencer into figuring out she's been using them as her stalking horse all along, making them pay the A price while she skates by under the radar. Which is almost as helpful as Spencer's use of Dream Toby to both short-circuit her repetitious, methed-up thought processes, and break down her current closed logic loop of doing more drugs so she can solve more crimes so she can feel bad about not solving enough crimes so she can do more drugs.
Since all the clues -- even more than usual, which is really saying something -- are suspect, it's hard to guess what will pay out. A cutely intimate scene between Aria and Paige suggests Paige will be moving on from Rosewood for one reason or another, while the regrouping of Toby and Mona to Ezra's side suggests a return to the questions about the makeup and structure of the classic A-Team. So while the real-time content of the episode is about five minutes -- with four and a half of them comprising what appears to be a single complicated joke about show producer/cutie-pie Oliver Goldstick, Poe's mystery short "The Gold-Bug," and Gödel's incompleteness theorem about a system commenting on itself from the inside of itself (from the inside of itself) -- it's at least enough to get us to next week. That's when Aria finally confronts Ezra about the fact that he might be trying to kill her and all of her friends, but more importantly whether Alison got there first.
Either way, the moral of the story is that you should do a bunch of drugs if you want to succeed. Is Spencer going to keep popping pills? Probably. Is that going to help Ezra (And possibly Mona?) bring her down? Definitely. Is Alison working to keep the Liars separated? I think so now, but only insofar as it keeps things hopping in a way that keeps her, in turn, safe. Is Emily going to keep bringing it as hard as she has been? I sure hope so. What we do know is that the Liars will continue to squabble about Spencer's newest intel, Aria is going to throw a fucking fit, and Ezra will... most likely continue to be disturbingly hot.
Spencer's busily geo-caching the Valley of the Dolls, but only Hanna has noticed this distinctly different flavor to her madness; Alison's out of money and on the run, thanks to same. The Liars are cautiously willing to stipulate to Ezra's A-ness, but nobody wants to talk to Aria about it because if you even try to imagine the epic shit-fit she's gonna throw, all you see is just a blinding light and a deafening sound and then you wake up on the floor a couple hours later with a nosebleed.
In the relentless pursuit of culture that causes Rosewood High to put on so many unnamed theatrical productions or study one book so deeply that it takes three years, today we have arrived at all 32 of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," which I believe in this context is a joke about Kurt Friedrich Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems (and usually indicates a secondary reference to Poe's detective story "The Gold-Bug.") And in this case further references both by having the Liars refer to it as the "Goldstick Variations," which is a comment from inside the show on the name of one of its producers. Which is, in itself, a demonstration of the Incompleteness Theorems that Bach's music, and this set of pieces in particular, already evoke.
Which is a shot across the bow because the whole episode -- written and directed by the Emmy-winning, always great Joseph Dougherty -- is like that: Internal references to external works that strengthen the show's structure while also commenting on it.
The Theorems basically prove that any formal system is actually incomplete. There are true statements you can say within that system's language that you can't actually prove are true, like, you could say "This sentence is false." (A little something known as the Liar Paradox.) And the other side of it is, a system that includes a statement of its own consistency, thanks to Theorem 1, makes itself a lie from the inside out. You say, "This sentence is false is true," and you are automatically lying.