Let’s Unpack Cruel Summer‘s Upsetting Carnival — Including That Final Scene

Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.
Spoilers are ahead. Though Cruel Summer set up a brutal conflict between two teenage girls, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), as we move into the second half of the season the show is beginning to reflect on the real villain of the series, Martin Harris (Blake Lee). From the outset we've known that the new assistant principal was to blame for the kidnapping of Kate, but it's only in "As the Carny Gods Intended" that we get confirmation of what many viewers already suspected. Harris actively groomed (built an emotional connection with the intent to manipulate) Kate before he kidnapped her and kept her prisoner for months in the basement of his new home. 
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For an episode filled with all the fun of the fair, there are a few breathtakingly upsetting moments. And the subtlety of those scenes showcase the power and depth of understanding that Cruel Summer has of grooming and the abuse of teenage girls at the hands of older men. Since the start the show has done an impressive job of subverting the tropes, archetypes, and settings we recognize from classic teen movies and casting them in far more realistic and grim light. How many films and shows did we watch where a teen girl practiced seducing a sexy, older man? Or laughed at a boy obviously lying to his girlfriend about something that we all know definitely happened on screen? Well, this week we get the harsh reality of both of those moments and they are nearly impossible to watch. 
Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.
Over three years at the same county fair, we see Jeanette, Kate, Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith), Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), and Vince (Allius Barnes) as they try to cling to their childhood or grasp eagerly at the oncoming train crash of adulthood. But the most important inciting incident comes when Kate happens across Martin, who's running a game booth. The fact that we know this man is a child abuser immediately makes his presence sinister, but during an interaction with Kate, we see his true nature revealed. Martin (not-so) slyly implies that he thinks Kate is mature for her age, and begins to take their friendship to the next level by playing to her teenage ego and hinting at his attraction to her. It's a deeply unpleasant scene, especially as his words will likely sound familiar to many of us, which is definitely the point. While Martin's later actions are extreme, his early treatment of Kate is completely normalized and in the '90s (and '00s) was still seen as relatively acceptable
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While the 1993 sequence is easily the most unsettling of the episode, in 1994 we see Jamie bluntly gaslight Kate about him kissing Jeanette in the park. Not only does he straight up deny that the event happened, but when Kate tells him that she saw it, he uses her recent trauma as a reason for why she might have been making it up. We've already seen Jamie punch Jeanette in the face, and now he's casually making Kate question her own sanity and memory just as she's trying to come to terms with what happened to her. It's a sharp reminder that cruelty and abuse come in many forms. Not every abuser kidnaps someone or traps them in a basement, some just gaslight victims and deny their lived experience until they can't tell what's true or not anymore. Sadly for Kate, she encounters both kinds. But she's not the only one who has a run-in with Martin, as Jeanette also sees a different side of the creepy teacher when he radiates serious incel energy while telling her off about abandoning her nerdy date and humiliating him in front of Kate's cool friends. 
Both of Martin's inappropriate interactions with the girls lead to the heartbreaking end of the episode. Jeanette and Kate sit looking into their mirrors in their 1993 bedrooms. Jeanette has Kate's scrunchie that Martin had kept, intending to use it to lure her in — a plan that was thwarted when Jeanette spotted him creepily holding it. Kate holds the rabbit she won from Martin's fair booth. While the former practices giving Kate back her scrunchie, hoping it will inspire the friendship she so deeply wants, the latter practices talking to Martin. She pouts sweetly, stating to her reflection, "You know, Mr. Harris, you look awfully young to be an assistant principal." It's a startling juxtaposition of the wants of one 15-year-old girl and another. While Jeanette hopes for friendship or maybe something more with her popular and kind peer, Kate is in the grips of an older man, one in a position of power who is supposed to protect her. 
While this doesn't give us any clear answers about the truth of what happened in Martin's basement, it does give us more insight into where the girls were at emotionally. It's clear at least that Kate is being groomed and likely feels that she was somehow complicit in her own abuse because she entered "willingly" into a relationship or a date with Martin. In the case of Jeanette, we see just how much the concept of Kate's friendship meant to her. But there's also the chance that she had deeper feelings for the popular girl, which could have muddied her version of events. Is there a chance that Jeanette saw Kate and Martin in what seemed like a consensual situation? Might she have not realized her peer was in danger at all? And if she had feelings for Kate, might she have been jealous and not have totally understood what she was seeing at all?
While we can't expect the answers to come all that quickly, these final 30 seconds of this week's episode have irreversibly changed Cruel Summer's slowly unfurling mystery.

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