It Was The Best Summer Ever
Cruel Summer Season 1 Recap
(Warning: The following contains spoilers for the entire first season of Cruel Summer.)
Usually, in any crime story, the revelations in the final episode of the season can be a complete disappointment. There are still fans angry at the end of Season 1 of True Detective and The Killing. But the last two episodes of Freeform’s incredible drama Cruel Summer did exactly what they said they would: they revealed the central mystery… and more.
For most of Season 1, the story that Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) has been telling the world is that she was abducted by Martin Harris and that he held her prisoner for almost a year. In the penultimate episode, we learned that was anything but the truth. Throughout the therapy sessions that Kate had been going to, we learned that Kate had been going through the practice of ‘grooming’, the predator convincing a younger person that they are an adult so that they will learn to depend on them. That being said, it came as a huge shock when he ended up learning, not only that Kate ran away to Martin’s house the night she disappeared, but that for the better part of three months, their relationship was almost…romantic. What we saw in the early stages of the ninth episode was that Kate truly believed — and indeed, Martin may have believed — that they were truly on equal footing. For that reason, they stayed happily in ‘a bubble’ — the house for weeks. It was only after a few months that the ugly side of Martin’s nature began to come out.
That was before the biggest shock of the penultimate episode — Jeanette was in the house. However, Kate hadn’t revealed the truth, either. When Jeanette came in, Kate ran upstairs. As Kate would tell her therapist later, part of her wanted Jeanette to find her — to take the decision out of her hands. Jeanette heard her, but never saw her. Kate did leave the house, went home, and in a case of horrible misfortune saw her parents laugh for perhaps the only time they did while she was gone. Kate went back to Martins, where things got worse quickly. She tried to leave, and then ended up in the basement.
All of this was a big shock, but most of it paled in comparison to last night’s finale. The lawsuit began, and all of Kate’s truth (which she had been inadvertently revealing to her stepsister Alex for the past several months) came out. This led to the highpoint of the season and one of the great moments of television in 2021 so far.
Trying to get the truth of what really happened Kate and Jeanette — who have barely interacted throughout the entire series — finally had a showdown in Martin Harris’ house. All the hostility of the past year came out in perhaps the most meaningful exchange:
Jeanette: “You ruined my life!”
Kate: “You stole mine!”
Jeanette: “You didn’t even want it!”
In a nutshell, that is what everything both women have gone through all season was about. But there were bigger revelations ahead.
There was a replay of Christmas night 1994. And we saw one more thing. Kate has believed all this time that Jeanette made eye contact after she left the house, and that she knew Kate was there. But someone did see her — only it was Mallory, Jeanette’s former best friend, and now Kate’s. She had followed Kate there to see her breaking into the house, and saw her come out with a snow globe. The two had another angry exchange — one where I think Jeanette was justified — and Mallory left with the snow globe.
This revelation was so explosive that the front Kate had put up all these year finally buckled, and it seemed remarkable that Jeanette accepted everything. This led to another stunning scene. The two girls went to the basement where Kate had been held prisoner — and Kate finally remembered what happened on the last day. We also learned who ‘Annabel’ was. It was shotgun that Martin owned — that his father had killed himself with. The final confrontation between Martin and Kate was frightening, moving and shocking. Martin initially seemed at peace seeing the end was near. He seemed about to let Kate go. He put the gun to his head…but couldn’t pull the trigger. Ultimately, Kate finally shot him. The story that there was a shootout was just one they told the cops.
Jeanette and Kate finally made peace. Kate said Jeanette should sue her for what she did. And Jeanette told the truth, it was never about the money. And that part of her really thought she deserved what had happened this past year because she never thought she deserved to be special or loved. Kate made a public apology (and no surprise, the media would turn on her and embrace Jeanette)
The last ten minutes were beautiful. Mallory was about to runaway when Kate confronted her. She admitted that she had seen someone in the window, but she had always assumed it was Martin’s girlfriend or sister. Never for a moment had she even considered it was Kate. Why would she; it went against the story Kate had been telling all this time? But now because she realized just how badly she had failed her friend, she planned to leave town. And Kate showed the same level of forgiveness she had shown Jeanette.
The last two minutes seemed like we were getting a real happy ending. Jeanette appeared on the same show that Kate had destroyed her on in the Pilot, and expressed real forgiveness and love. Kate and Mallory drove out of town, danced in the street, and then the two kissed. It really seemed beautiful…which was why the last thirty seconds were such a kick in the teeth. In 1994, we see Jeanette go into the house. Kate is in the basement, knocking on the door shouting for help. Jeanette puts her hand on the knob, pauses…and removes it. It was one of the most gutting moments I’ve seen all year, and threw into question everything we thought we knew about Jeanette.
If this was a perfect world, the Academy would reward Cruel Summer with lost of Emmy nominations, starting with two for Olivia Holt and Chiara Aurelia for giving two of the best performances I’ve seen this entire season. I always give extra credit for performances with extra layers and considering how different each one was in 1993, ’94 and ’95, as well the secret each one was carrying, and both deserved nominations. But all of the performances from Harley Quinn Smith as Mallory to Blake Lee as Martin Harris were magnificent. And every technical aspect, from the makeup to the hair to the cinematography, deserves recognition.
I think I let out a cheer when I learned yesterday that Cruel Summer had been renewed for a second season. It wasn’t a hard choice: apparently this is the highest rated series of any kind in Freeform’s history. Of course, then comes the question: What will Season 2 look like? Even the showrunners admit they don’t know yet. Maybe it’ll be an anthology series with different actors.
But part of me really hopes they try to carry on with the current cast in a new season because there are so many unanswered questions. What really broke up the Turner marriage? Can Jeanette work things out with her mother? Can Vince and Ben work out their relationship? Will Mallory and Kate’s kiss mean more than just friendship? Will Jeanette ever be able to forgive her stepsister? What will happen between her and Derek now that the truth has come out? And will the real truth about what Jeanette did ever come out?
Whatever happens in Cruel Summer’s future, no one can deny what it accomplished this year. It dealt with a psychological issue far more disturbing than so many that have been made conventional on Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds. It told a very complicated story in a very unusual way. And it featured some of the greatest writing, directing and acting I’ve seen so far. It’s going to be really hard to regard this series as anything but one of the year’s best shows.
My score: 5 stars.