This post discusses plot points from the Cruel Summer season-one finale.
Cruel Summer’s anticipated showdown between Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) vs. Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) finally happened at the most unexpected of locations: Martin Harris’ house. Yes, the same one where he held Kate captive for months, and which Jeanette kept breaking into for cheap teenager thrills. In the season-one finale, “Hostile Witness,” the two girls come face to face for a seemingly honest discussion and end up unraveling a surprising truth—that it was actually Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) who spotted Kate through the window. After learning this, Jeanette drops her lawsuit and, in turn, Kate tells the media that Jeanette is innocent. But this is a Freeform teen thriller, so obviously the final shot upends the happy ending for its leads. Jeanette’s closing moment reveals that during one of her “visits” to Martin’s house in 1994, she heard Kate trapped in the basement but decided against turning the knob on the door and helping her out.
Cruel Summer showrunner Tia Napolitano tells the The A.V. Club that this horrible choice was a result of various pressures Jeanette felt growing up. “The messaging she has got from society, pop culture, and even her own mother sometimes is that popularity equals success equals happiness. That drove her to do something she’ll regret for the rest of her life,” Napolitano says. She adds the the writers came up with it deep into filming the episodes because they wanted to challenge themselves and end on a suspenseful yet character-focused note. “It was intended to complete season one because a second season is never guaranteed, so we thought we’d be in the moment with Jeanette when she makes the choice. It excited us and it complicates her character so much.” As hard-hitting as this plot twist is, Aurelia’s impressive performance evokes some sympathy for Jeanette, especially after viewers have spent multiple episodes getting to understand her. Napolitano says seeing both girls in three timelines at different stages in their lives helps, too: “The trick with Jeanette, and our show overall, is that I’m hoping the audience watches and wonders “Could I have done that?”
The two protagonists’ confrontation is like opening a Pandora’s box of emotions. They start off being cold to one another but eventually (and somewhat tearfully) discuss everything that Kate endured with Martin—his grooming, manipulation, assault. It’s the long-awaited scene with Aurelia and Holt, especially since they don’t share many scenes together, which Napolitano says was intentional. “It’s what we were driving towards from day one in the writers room. We kept them apart for most of the season so when they’re in the same space together for a lengthy conversation, it has the maximum impact. We put a lot of care and attention into the importance of this moment,” she says. By the end, it’s evident that Kate hasn’t just blocked out how she fatally shot Martin with his gun (named Annabelle, yet another clue planted early on) but has projected her fear and rage into blaming Jeanette, whom she believed might have seen her at Martin’s house. She has to now confront the possibility that the witness was her her best friend, Mallory.
Kate and Mallory’s relationship has been evolving since the latter helped the former readjust to life after she was rescued in 1994. A year later, their bond is so tight that Kate quickly forgives her after Mallory explains she was only keeping it a secret to protect Kate, who falsely testified that Martin kept her locked up the entire time she was there. “She has learned from the conflict with Jeanette to not hold things against people for long periods of time,” Napolitano says. “It’s much easier for her to blame someone she doesn’t know rather than Mallory, who is her safe space now.” So much so that they end up sharing a kiss later while dancing on the road at the end of “Hostile Witness.” Napolitano adds that it wasn’t the original plan but Smith and Holt’s chemistry and the actors’ urging that their characters’ felt this way about each other helped build momentum. “Harley Quinn Smith believed Mallory was queer from day one. It wasn’t a coming-out story like Vince’s, because that’s just who she is, so we wanted to embrace that. We also knew [the kiss] had to come from a place of joy, in a fun and free moment unrelated to her trauma,” she says.
The Cruel Summer finale answers the main mystery of what happened to Kate and whether or not Jeanette was involved in her disappearance, but there is still room to explore the after-effects in the newly ordered second season. Will anyone else find out what Jeanette did? Will she finally restore her queen bee status, especially now that Kate seems to not care about it? Will Kate and Mallory make it as a couple? Or will Cruel Summer return as an anthology, with an entirely different teen mystery in tow? Napolitano says she doesn’t know yet. “We’re in early stages so it’s wide open right now.”