For seven seasons, "Pretty Little Liars" asked fans to root for Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale) and Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding) ― aka "Ezria" ― despite their creepy, exploitative origins and the fact Ezra should be in jail. (The show is set in Pennsylvania where the age of consent is 16, but allows 16 and 17 year olds to only consent to those under the age of 18).
The student-teacher relationship is an all too common trope on teen TV, but at least the parents on "Riverdale" had the sense to chase Ms. Grundy out of town when they discovered she was having sex with Archie. That isn't the case when it comes to "Pretty Little Liars."
For years, the characters were offered plausible deniability by having 20-something Ezra meet teenage Aria in a bar. When they hook up in the bar's bathroom, viewers are meant to assume Ezra had no idea she was underage or that she'd take a seat in his English class at Rosedale High the following day.
It's not until Season 4 that the show reveals Ezra knew exactly who Aria was and that she was underage when he had sex with her. The big reveal that season ― Ezra was trying to write a book about Alison's (Sasha Pieterse) "death" and began dating Aria for research ― is evidence that the series celebrates statutory rape and inappropriate relationships.
In the four seasons prior to that reveal, the series sold the "Ezria" relationship not as one where a teacher was abusing his position of power and committing statutory rape, but as star-crossed lovers who are destined to be together.
The show has somewhat improved since the five-year time jump at the start of the second half of Season 6, which allowed the teen characters to become adults and the show's writers to no longer worry about things like final exams or age of consent laws. But even after discovering that Ezra was just dating Aria for his book all those years ago, "Ezria" is still kicking and set to walk down the aisle.
With the series finale looming, the show is finally addressing the fact that the "Ezria" relationship was born out of statutory rape, but it also seems to be celebrating its problem romanticizing dangerous relationships.
For years, the show danced around the issue and kept consequences to the vague idea of "getting in trouble," as Dame Magazine pointed out last year. It wasn't until the fourth season that Aria was confronted about the relationship by her principal and told, "It's illegal for a teacher to have sex with a student."
The most recent episode might be the show's first attempt at addressing statutory rape head-on, when Aria recovers a police report she never filed as a teen:
I am a student at Rosewood High School and I have had a sexual relationship with my former teacher Ezra Fitz since I was a sophomore until now. I have been too ashamed to come forward, but I have come to realize Mr. Fitz is a twisted, conniving, predator and I need to stop him from doing this to anyone else. He needs to be charged with exploiting a teenager when he was in a position of power.
The episode also featured a musical dream sequence in which Aria, distraught over villain A.D.'s threat to release the report to police, has a nightmare to the tune of Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" and imagines Ezra in a prison jumpsuit being beat bloody by other inmates.
Then, as Aria is doing the bidding of A.D. and becomes increasingly more withdrawn from Ezra, he addresses the fact that their relationship is based on a lie.
"You still have doubts about me ― about whether you can trust me or not. Maybe there's some part of you that has never forgiven me for taking advantage of you and your friends for the sake of a book," he tells her. "I wish that I could change history, but I can't. I fell in love with you Aria, and this is where we are now, and I truly believe that we are stronger for having weathered those storms. Don't you?"
With a show like "Pretty Little Liars," it's impossible to trust anything. But Ezra's monologue sounds like the writers' attempt to convince viewers to root for the couple even as they blatantly acknowledge that Ezra not only committed statutory rape, but manipulated and deceived Aria for years.
What's most disturbing about this is that the show wants them to have a happy ending ― or so we've been led to believe. Creator I. Marlene King told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that "Ezria" "are like magnets who attract each other for hopefully the run of the show because I think they are soulmates."
Meanwhile, Lucy Hale, who plays Aria, also shares King's opinion and called the "Ezria" relationship "super sexy" when she spoke to Cosmopolitan in April.
"There is something about a forbidden romance that draws people to it. It had a little Romeo and Juliet vibe at certain points," she said.
Interestingly, the one voice of reason among the three is Ian Harding, who plays, Ezra.
"One company dropped its advertising for our show in one of the early seasons, because they didn't agree with the relationship," he told Cosmo. "And I was like, 'No shit, our relationship is illegal!'"
"And Marlene said, 'No, it's not yours, it's Emily's [same-sex] relationship [that's the problem].' So I could be seen as a statutory rapist, and people are like, 'I know, but love knows no bounds, as long as there is a penis and a vagina involved."
It's unbelievably irresponsible for a showrunner, whose series airs on Freeform (originally ABC Family) and has almost exclusively been honored by the Teen Choice Awards, to endorse a relationship like "Ezria" to its largely teen audience.
Even if the series doesn't let "Ezria" live happily ever after― which is definitely a possibility ― that's still seven seasons worth of gleefully romanticizing an unhealthy and inappropriate relationship.