What does the [SPOILER] in the “Pretty Little Liars” finale mean for lesbian and bisexual viewers?

Warning: This post contains MAJOR spoilers about last night’s Pretty Little Liars finale.

When rumors of Maya St. Germain’s death started spreading around Twitter several weeks ago, my reaction was to shake my head and go, “Nah. No way.” When last night’s Pretty Little Liars finale included a shot of Pam Fields running full throttle at Emily, crying about how paramedics thought they’d found Maya’s body after she’d been missing for several weeks, my reaction was to roll my eyes and go, “Like anyone ever really dies on this show. The entire premise is zombies.” But late last night, Entertainment Weekly posted an interview with showrunner Marlene King and executive producer Oliver Goldstick, in which they confirmed that Maya really is dead:

Why kill Maya? “That’s the only backlash I think we’re going to get from the finale,” King says, referring to Maya’s unexpected death in the last few minutes of the episode. “The Maya fans are going to be a little bit upset.” The decision, King continues, was a difficult one. “It was a really hard decision to make because I know Emaya shippers are very passionate about that couple, but it just felt like we had to continue on this journey and it was a step we needed to take to give ourselves more mystery and open up the show to season 3. Plus, it was just great drama. That scene has me on my knees every time I watch it.” Adds Goldstick: “With Allison’s death — and now Maya’s — you say, ‘Are these related? They’ve got to be related.’ If they are related, was it because this person was about to be caught?”

The response from AfterEllen.com readers on Twitter ran the gamut between apathy (It’s a campy show full of murder! Of course Maya died! Let’s talk about how Spencer and Aria called themselves “Team Sparia!”) and rage (How dare they kill the lesbian character’s significant other while the straight girls all got happy endings!).

I’ve got Ezbian-sized feelings about the whole thing, and they’re as divided as the fan response to Maya’s death.

On the one hand, the entire Pretty Little Liars creative team is populated by openly gay men and women who have always treated the queer characters on their show the same way they treat the straight characters on their show. And in Rosewood, PA, sometimes that means candlelight slow dances with the one you love, and sometimes it means getting poisoned by your sports cream. Hanna’s prom king boyfriend dumped her because she danced with another dude, and then she got hit by a car. Spencer’s tennis pro boyfriend dumped her because he thought she applied to tennis camp for him, and then her brother-in-law tried to push her off a bell tower. Emily’s girlfriend dumped her because she wouldn’t run away with her, and then her girlfriend got axe-murdered. Pretty Little Liars‘ writers torture all their main characters, is what I am saying. It’s a show based around the murder of their best friend, after all.

One thing we don’t talk about so much is what real equality might look like on TV. It means the gay characters have to be given the same chances at happiness as the straight characters (love, physical affection, etc.), but it also means gay characters have to face the same tribulations as straight characters. And in the case of Pretty Little Liars, that can mean getting gunned down by your bestie’s Lexus.

On the other hand, though, killing lesbian characters is a tale is old as time. Killing characters of color is a tale even older than that. Pretty Little Liars may be telling a new story in a postmodern way, but I also think Maya’s death accidentally plays into decades of tropes that have been upsetting gay and lesbian people (and people of color) for years and years. It takes the already-slim number of queer characters on TV and shaves it down to an even smaller number. But most of all, it breaks the hearts of women who saw themselves — some for the first time — impressed upon their TV screens. The reflection of straight white guys on TV is positively blinding. The reflection of bisexual women of color is barely visible.

When I was seven years old, Supergirl died in DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” I will never forget dropping that comic book — Issue #7 — onto the floor beside my bed and crying so hard I made myself sick. I was devastated so badly that my mom and dad kept me home from school the next day to take me to the doctor. They thought I’d lost my mind. She was just a comic book character! But I was gay kid growing up in the rural south in a less than ideal family situation and Supergirl represented everything I had ever wanted in my life: Freedom, agency, the ability to take care of herself, the power to protect the people she loved. I projected the deepest, most desperate desires of my heart onto her — and she died.

But here’s the tricky part: DC’s writers only had one job: To tell a really good story and sell comic books. They didn’t kill Supergirl because they were misogynistic, because they hated women, because they didn’t care about seven-year-old girls sitting in their bedrooms longing to learn to fly; they killed Supergirl because it was a compelling story. It served as a catalyst for three dozen side-narratives. It gave the main hero of the series (Superman) an even stronger focus and motive for fighting the good fight.

It’s the same reason Joss Whedon killed Willow’s lesbian love Tara McClay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the same reason lesbian Paulie jumped from that roof at the end of Lost and Delirious, the same reason Russell T. Davies murdered gay Ianto Jones at the end of Torchwood: Children of Earth, the same reason J.K. Rowling sent gay Albus Dumbledore flying to his death during Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

None of those deaths were homophobic. But they sure were sad.

Having interacted with the PLL creative team the way I have, I feel like I can safely say there was nothing sinister in Marlene King & Co.’s decision to kill Maya. Heck, Marlene King is a lesbian lady herself. If she says the writing team needed to kill Maya in order to advance the story, I trust her. But I know what it feels like to lose a character you love.

I wanted Supergirl to be OK back in 1985 because I wanted to be OK back in 1985. Lots of lesbian and bisexual women wanted Maya — and by extension Emily and Maya — to be OK in 2012 because they want to be OK in 2012. Because when characters look like us, we stretch ourselves across fictional worlds to try to make sense of our own worlds. We’ve been doing it since before there was even an alphabet, before Mona Vanderwaal hijacked the first letter and started calling herself “A.”

How do you feel about Maya’s death? (Check back for a full recap of the PLL finale soon!)