Spoilers are ahead. Being a teenager is a constant struggle to self-define and determine your own identity. In its debut episodes, Cruel Summer twists that reality into a morally grey quandary about what happens when a young girl sees the chance to upend the identity that the world has chosen for her.
At the end of the first episode of Cruel Summer we're left with a clear question: Who is telling the truth? Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia), the nerdy teen-turned-popular phenom-turned-most hated girl in America, or Kate Wilson (Olivia Holt), the former queen bee-turned-kidnapping victim who publicly blamed Jeanette for her plight. But episode 2 presents Kate's life in a new light, adding darkness and depth to the seemingly obvious blame game presented in the pilot. That nuance is key to the power of the Freeform teen mystery, that on the surface seems to be a simple whodunnit. The real villain? Societal pressures that crush the life and empathy out of young girls.
While the series will continue to chase the central mystery of exactly what actually happened to Kate and how Jeanette is involved, the first episode employs simple victim and antagonist tropes: There's Kate, the popular golden girl who everyone loved. And then there's Jeanette, the jealous, obsessive loser whose unhappiness let her allow Kate to suffer in her kidnapper's basement and took over her seemingly better life.
The tragedy of Jeanette is that she has lovely, loyal friends and a passionate and supportive family who cares for her. It's a life that, from the outside, seems fulfilling and satisfying, yet she can't see past the life she wishes she had — Kate's life. As we explore Kate's reality, we discover that aside from her high school popularity, her home life was unravelling before she went missing. Her mother's denial, fantasticism, and cruelty break through the family's perfect facade. Truthfully, Kate is just as eager to escape her enforced societal role as the perfect daughter as Jeanette is to flee her fate as the school nerd. The series even hints at a burgeoning friendship that could have potentially saved the pair this whole ordeal, but that's not the aim of Cruel Summer. Instead, we get a story about two girls keeping a devastating secret, but we're trapped on the outside unsure of what it is. The series seems eager to avoid easy answers, and as we leave episode 2, everything has changed.
The second episode mostly focuses on Kate, but we do get to hear Jeanette's first true denial, in which she refutes Kate's claim that she saw Kate being held in assistant principal Martin Harris' (Blake Lee) basement and did nothing. It's hard to listen to, because if Jeanette really is telling the truth, that means she's weathered the most horrific betrayal and an unwarranted, unimaginably cruel national hate campaign. If she's lying, she's callously gaslighting a kidnapping survivor. Jeanette's denial seems to ring true, but it's hard to ignore that she has everything to lose and every reason to deny Kate's claims. That includes her new bond with Kate's friends and her relationship with Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), Kate's boyfriend who dated Jeanette until Kate was rescued.
We also learn that though Kate claims that Jeanette stole her life, the people around Jeanette seemed to genuinely love her until Kate claimed that Jeanette knew where she was. If Kate is the one lying, she had just as much to gain because she wanted to reclaim her life. That arc deepens when the show reveals that the girls clearly had a connection, and that perhaps Jeanette's actual indiscretion was less concrete. And while this episode works to endear us to Kate — it succeeds because Holt's performance is brilliant — it also reveals that she has been keeping secrets that, thanks to a defamation lawsuit from Jeanette, are about to come out.
At the end of the second episode, we see Kate tell a friend in an online chatroom that she hasn't been entirely honest, and shortly after, we see that Kate actually seemed to know her abductor well. If her glamorous outfit changes are anything to go by, the timeline suggests Kate was likely being groomed by the new assistant principal before he imprisoned her. If that's so, then Kate is once again being trapped by the mores of the society around her, worried that if she reveals she knew him or entered some kind of relationship with him willingly before her abduction, that the blame for her ordeal is somehow hers. It's a sadly familiar story for young people who have been preyed on by people in positions of power; teenage girls have historically been victim-blamed in sexual abuse scenarios, especially in the '90s when Cruel Summer is set.
The series cleverly positions so much of the conversation around Jeanette's possible complicity or Kate's possible lies, that it's easy to forget Cruel Summer's actual villain: assistant principal Martin Harris. While we try to decipher the motivations and truths behind Kate and Jeanette's stories, we're ignoring the man who kidnapped Kate and abused her. And that's the real truth in this story: When so much onus is put on victims and their actions, abusers can more easily be forgotten, and in a way, absolved.
So while the question at the end of episode 2 is whether or not Kate's reveal could mean Jeanette is telling the truth, Cruel Summer seems unlikely to come down cleanly on either side. No matter the details — and future episodes are sure to dole out plenty — we already know what Cruel Summer really is: a tragedy about two young women pitted against either other by society and traumatized by the outcome.