I think she’s exactly what she seems, and there’s no bait-and-switch. We’re not even supposed to suspect her. We’re supposed to find her charming. The reason that some of us do find her actions suspicious is the usual: Jeff’s crappy writing…
That… doesn’t make any sense. Davis has made poor writing choices in the show – I can think of half a dozen examples off the top of my head. But this? I don’t see how you even got to your conclusion.
Thinking about it, I can see two possible ways Malia’s changing look could potentially be attributed to “crappy writing”, but none of them hold water.
Reason 1 - Davis doesn’t care how she looks
This is less a problem with writing than with showrunning. Writers often don’t spend a lot of script time on costuming, hair and make-up, because it’s not their job. They’ll write about how the character’s personality or job is reflected in their look. For instance: She wears a suit so sharply creased it could cut you if you brushed against it. And then it turns out the character is an assassin. Or: Even his grunge had grunge. His blond dreds were grey with grime, and his fingers stained with nicotine, but his pants were clearly $600 designer grunge-wear, now covered in a sheen of stale alcohol. Or: he looked like he’d just stepped out of a 1940s recruitment poster, and he had a smile that lit up the room. Every woman wanted him, and every man did too.
What then happens is that the costume/wardrobe crew, the make-up and hair crew, the props crew, and the actor themselves take that description and collaborate to come up with a look that suits the character. The showrunner will usually sign off on this, but won’t usually micromanage, because the crew are experts at what they do.
In the case of Teen Wolf, the wardrobe choices are also influenced by product placement deals. So generally, the costume crew try to give each character a distinctive look, so that the actors show their clothes off like a mannequin, in addition to the clothes being for characterisation. Stiles wears plaid. Scott is classic denim and jeans, with red as a feature now he’s alpha. Lydia is florals and pinks and high heels. Kira is tights and cute jackets.
Malia started off kind of boho and sporty, which was a cute look, but now wavers between Kira and Lydia. Nope. That’s not how product placement of this type works.
In other words, there’s really strong reasons for Malia to have one style and stick with it, and three teams, other than the writing team, who have major creative input in her look. They’ve managed a consistent look for every other character, over several seasons, and Davis has been writer/showrunner all that time.
This kind of change doesn’t happen by accident. It just doesn’t make sense that suddenly no-one cares when it comes to Malia, when they are consistent for every other character.
Reason 2 - Davis wrote her that way for a “crappy” reason
So, it’s on purpose, but rather than given Malia decent characterisation that makes sense, Davis decided to just use constant costuming, hair and make-up changes to tell us Malia is struggling with adapting. We’re meant to think it’s cute and charming. She’s trying!
Okay, so if that’s the reason, why make it so subtle some people might not even notice? Why not give her a cliched make-over scene (where they can do more product placement and make their sponsors happy), or have her ask Lydia or Kira (or Stiles, LOL) for help?
I just don’t find the excuse of “crappy writing” convincing in this case. If costuming/wardrobe, make-up, hair and props (all separate teams) are going to all that effort, but it’s just for a superficial reason, why make it so subtle? Why not make money off it?
Even the dumbest showrunner in the world wouldn’t do that, and Davis has managed his show for four seasons, so he’s not the dumbest, even if he’s not a gift.
Or… Davis wrote her that way for a plot reason which hasn’t paid off yet
It’s on purpose and there’s a reason. It’s subtle at the moment because it’s a building arc, but we’re meant to notice and wonder what it means.
I’m not ruling out that Davis’ plot for her might end up falling flat. It could still turn out to be a stupid reason, like a bait-and-switch, or Malia is mimicking Lydia to get Stiles’ attention, because she thinks that’s how it works for humans. Or it could turn out to be a more interesting reason, like she’s not what she seems and is playing some kind of con.
But either way, it’s intentional. It didn’t happen by accident or because no-one cares. At least three teams of people in addition to Davis made this change happen, and happen in a progression over several episodes.
That’s why I disagree with your explanation that “We’re not even supposed to suspect her. We’re supposed to find her charming. The reason that some of us do find her actions suspicious is the usual: Jeff’s crappy writing…”
In this particular case, that argument makes no sense at all. Davis deserves to be called out when he does dumb stuff, but this doesn’t (yet) fit the bill.