Spoilers are ahead. Freeform's time-jumping teen thriller Cruel Summer is about two young girls pitted against each other by the unimaginable events of one Texas summer, sure. But it's really about society's expectations of women and how they manipulate and shape us from girlhood. The show's depiction of the complexities of growing up seem to be its biggest appeal. But in episode 6, "An Ocean Inside Me," the series takes a left turn, shifting its sharp focus onto motherhood and in particular Cindy Turner (Sarah Drew), the mother of Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia), now the most hated girl in America. It might be the series' most nuanced and intricate episode yet as it presents a picture of a devastated woman with her own hopes and dreams who turns her back on her child when she arguably needs her mother most.
For Sarah Drew, that complex and unexpected interpretation of motherhood was exactly what drew her to the series, along with the chance to collaborate with her long-time Grey's Anatomy colleague and Cruel Summer showrunner Tia Napolitano. "She called me and asked me to play this character," Drew told Refinery29 over the phone, days before episode 6 dropped. "She said, 'You're only going to read this one episode, but I promise this character is so interesting and complex.' Then she pitched me on the idea that she had for Cindy and where she was going to go and I just was totally hooked."
Drew isn't the only one. Over the six episodes of Cruel Summer that have aired so far, Cindy has become one of the show's most talked about characters. Her reluctance to believe her daughter's version of events and desperate desire to uncover a version of the truth about Kate Wallis' (Olivia Holt) kidnapping that will give her closure has set up an unusually raw look at the role of a mother and how that shifts as her daughter hits teenagehood.
"I think, for me, dealing with the complexity of what it is to be the mother of a teenager during this particular time in life was very compelling because I knew that there were so many layers that you could pull back in that mother daughter relationship," Drew explained.
Cindy's unravelling has been at the center of the series since the first episode, where her absence from 1994 and 1995 stood out. But until episode 6 it was unclear why Jeanette's potential involvement was such an insurmountable trigger for the once doting mother.
"So much of her identity was wrapped up in her children being successful, her family being in good standing, and there's always been this longing for something more," Drew said. "If you build your whole identity on the success of your children and then the world starts revolting against your child and you don't know if you can trust your child anymore, it really does start to shake the very foundation of where you built your identity."
One of Cruel Summer's biggest strengths is its reluctance to judge the women at the center of its story, instead presenting them as whole people experiencing life changing events. In one of episode 6’s powerful scenes the truth of where Cindy has been is finally revealed, as she makes her first appearance in the 1995 timeline while dropping in on her ex-husband's new girlfriend Angela (Brooklyn Sudano) at her bar. It's here we learn Cindy has been absent because she's been pursuing the life and career she always wanted for herself.
"I find that scene with Angela to be so poignant," Drew told Refinery29. "Angela is the only person anywhere in that town that would say, 'It was okay for you to do that.' I think everybody else would consider her a villain for doing it. And it's powerful to see those two women supporting one another under these crazy circumstances."
The big reveal that Cindy left the family to pursue her own dreams, as well as to leave behind the horrors of the Kate Wallis case, is sure to split viewers down the middle. That's exactly what Drew is hoping for. "People are going to have so many different opinions about the choices she made. There are a lot of people that would say, 'Sure, you had a dream but then you made a different decision and now you have to stick with it. You're abandoning your responsibility by going after that thing.' Then other people would say, 'What kind of example are you leaving for your child if you're showing her that she has to diminish herself in order to be a martyr for her family?' You can be on both sides of this coin. You can be mad at her and you can also feel for her."
Bracing for some very heated opinions on Twitter, Drew hopes one thing remains extremely clear: Cindy is first and foremost a complex human being. “I think a lot of people will find different pieces of themselves in her and it's fun to not be all one thing, to not be good or bad. That's just not how humans function, we're so much more complicated than that."