'Pretty Little Liars' : Producer/Writer Joseph Dougherty on the Winter Premiere and What's to Come

Doughtery teases what questions fans will get answers to by the season's end

Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC Family

Pretty Little Liars is back, and the stakes have never been higher.

Since the second half of Season 5 premiered this week, fans have been taking over Twitter with their theories. Is Ali guilty? Where’s Mona’s body? And are Spencer, Aria, Emily and Hanna finally free? (Based on that festive-turned-frightening fireworks display, we’re gonna go with “no.”)

PEOPLE spoke with PLL executive producer Joseph Dougherty, who co-wrote Tuesday’s episode, about what viewers can expect for the rest of the season, which online theories are worth considering and what exactly is up with those on-screen hashtags.

The winter premiere was pretty explosive: Spencer cleared her name, Ali was arrested, and there were tons of creepy moments. What was your favorite scene?
My two favorites are seeing Grunwald back in Rosewood, and every time I write for Shay [Mitchell] and Lindsey [Shaw] is always a treat, for Emily and Paige.

Paige moved to California. Is she gone for good?
That is something that’s going be talked about when we all come back for work on Season 6.

How did you decide it was time for Paige to go?
It was a very complex decision, and it comes out of, as most things, basically we take our lead from [showrunner] Marlene [King], and then we just try to see how best to keep things interesting. And sometimes in order to keep things interesting, you’ve got to make people unhappy a little bit. It’s called drama.

Does this mean there will be any new romances for Emily?
I think there are some opportunities in the second half, in the winter season, but we haven’t thought beyond that right now.

Detective Holbrook was missing this week, out on a temporary assignment. What’s he up to this season? Will we find out what is going on with him and Ali?

The first part of the question, no I can’t tell you [laughs]. The second part of the question, he is operating in the shadows for the first half of the winter season, but he is going to make a rather significant return.

Ali’s new group of liars, who debuted at the Ice Ball, were also not around. Are they still a factor in the rest of the season? Are they going to be working to avenge her now that she’s in jail?
They’re operating in the shadows, and I think they may be as disoriented as a lot of viewers by the arrest itself. I think they are rudderless right now. That doesn’t mean they may not be taking action, it just means that they may not be a group.

We have three murders that need solving: Mona’s, Bethany’s (we know Melissa buried, her, but who hit her?) and Mrs. DiLaurentis’s. Can we expect by the end of this season to find out who definitively killed any of those people?

It’s weird because of what’s already been done for the winter season and what we plan to do in Season 6, which will come out in June. We want to answer all the questions in a satisfactory way, but we don’t want to just kind of shovel answers on you – the way you’d shovel dirt on the dead body. No, we are going to unravel everything, but we’re going to do it carefully and as artfully as we can.

Will Mona’s body ever be found?
There certainly is a trail that leads to remains. And that will happen in the winter season.

It was really interesting to see that scene where Ezra was talking to Mike and seemed to suggest that he doesn’t believe that Mike really is acting like Mona is gone. Even though the police haven’t found her body yet, the viewers did see her dead body. Why set up that little doubt about her fate?
I think it’s a little overdue, but Mike has got some secrets that he hasn’t shared, and the nature of his relationship with Mona and some of the private secrets they shared together are going to be pretty key to what people are going to see in the next 12 weeks.

One of the scariest moments this week was when Aria was attacked in The Brew. At that moment, the hashtag on the screen was something about “Can Aria trust Ezra?” Is he coming under suspicion again?
I don’t know, you know, sometimes those hashtags make me a little nervous [laughs]. Sometimes I’m a little scared to look up in the corner because I’m afraid that they’re either going to be too informational or they’re actually going to come up nanoseconds too early. I wouldn’t trust that hashtag. We don’t know who does it! There’s someone who sits in a room somewhere and types them, and they won’t tell us where this person is.

This week’s episode had a lot of Ravenswood shout-outs in it, especially with Mrs. Grunwald there. I feel like PLL has always kind of danced around the question of whether the supernatural exists. Will there be any more of those supernatural elements in season 5B?
I don’t think so. Because Ravenswood ended up being little more truncated than we were hoping it be, we were left in a situation where we wanted to try and be as satisfying in that as we can. That’s why we took the time that we took with Caleb last year. Grunwald, after all, was a character who began on Pretty Little Liars. We met her first on PLL. We just got the opportunity to use this character again, use her because I think we you can trust her for information, and we all wanted to have Meg Foster back for a little curtain call.

Curtain call? Is this her last appearance?
I think that she does not show up again for the rest of the winter season.

What can we expect next week? The preview is pretty intense: They’re searching for a bloody knife, and it looks like there’s a photo of Ezra’s ex Jackie on the screen. I know a lot of people were like, “What is going on here?”
[Laughs] Well, I will tell you the knife is unrelated to Jackie, let’s start with that. There is an aggressive storytelling pace to the winter season. A tremendous amount is going to happen where it’s going to be very hard for people to stand on a moral center when they start finding these things out. There are clues, there are trails – as Grunwald put it, there are the trails as well. It’s kind of hard to completely unpack it for you without giving things away, I just know the eleven episodes that are coming in the next weeks, actually we’re just finishing them up now, are some of the most aggressive storytelling we’ve ever done in terms of action and suspense. And again, keep watching those hashtags, because we’re going to continue them. It’s hard to look for something when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for.

Which upcoming episodes are you most excited for fans to watch?
I think they’re going to like a storyline in which Emily has to put herself on the line for Hanna in a completely unexpected way. I think also Jason, you can see a lot of changes in Jason because of the actions he has taken over the past couple episodes. And even though Ali has been carted off, as they say, she remains an absolute, major gravitational force. She’s pulling the girls in various directions. We tie up a lot. We’re getting ready to really cash the check.

One of the most pervasive fan theories is that Aria is A, and it seems you and Marlene like to plant little Easter eggs throughout: showing that their handwriting is the same when Aria writes her name on the train in the window, she’s been called “Big A” by Mona. Could there be any truth to that, or is it just another red herring?

I can’t actually identify it as a red herring, because I know we have always gone back to the concept that A could be one of them. That’s as much as I can go down that road.

This is one of my favorite theories, and one that people are really divided over online: how closely the TV show is following the books in terms of Ali having a twin out there. There have been allusions to this, from the freaky ghost twins in the Halloween episode to Ali remembering finding identical presents in the Christmas special. And last week, her not remembering going skiing with her family, that maybe she wasn’t the one who was there. Can you comment on that at all?
We began kind of close to the books basically the pilot represents the first book. In order to make sure that nobody knows exactly what we’re doing, they can be surprised, we have not wanted to follow the books, because there are major structural changes from the books. And I think what we’ve always wanted to do to is maintain a certain amount of DNA from Sara Shepard’s stories, which has allowed us to kind of service those but kind of play a little jazz variation on what’s in the books. I would say there’s material in the books that we mine and use, we just use that material in a very different way.

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