Spoilers are ahead. So it all comes down to this. Even with three episodes left, Freeform's mystery series Cruel Summer has already laid down a gauntlet for itself. Can the Jessica Biel-produced series actually live up to its — so far — nuanced take on victim blaming, gaslighting, grooming, and the ways that young women are often blamed for their own abuse? The most recent episode gives us our most in depth and distressing look yet at what Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) went through while trapped by Martin Harris (Blake Lee). In an incredibly upsetting scene, we see the ways that Kate lost control of her life and agency, not just at the hands of Harris but also at the mercy of her mother's meddling in the wake of the tragedy. But as the episode ends we are left with a painful truth: Kate lied about her relationship with Martin and now Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), her schoolmate whose life was ruined by her accusations, knows about it.
"Happy Birthday Kate Wallis" inverts the pilot episode which focused on Jeanette's birthday over the three year period of '93,'94, and '95. Here we explore the special day of the other key player in the ever unfolding mystery as Kate deals with a drunk and possessive Jamie in 1993, befriends Mallory in 1994, and tries to decipher the mystery of Annabelle while Mallory tries to distract her in 1995. Aside from the dark reality of what Kate went through while in captivity, the biggest reveal here is that Kate's mother forced her into going onto the chat show where she incriminated Jeanette in front of the whole country.
In one of its most insightful and sadly realistic moments that foreshadows where we find ourselves at the end of the episode, in 1994 Kate learns that another teenager was abused by Martin in his old town of Widow Falls. But rather than finding solace in another survivor, she turns on the young woman and claims that Martin told her the truth about the girl and her story. It's a really hard scene to watch as Kate regurgitates the lies that her abuser told her, victim blaming another girl that Martin hurt. It shows that wherever Kate's head was in 1994 it was still massively shaped by Martin and her need to blame someone else other than him. And it's that anger that her mother Joy (Andrea Anders) uses to push her onto The Marsha Bailey show. That isn't Joy's only crime this week as we learn that she also gaslit Kate about her own affair in 1993, which led Kate to visit Martin and get kidnapped. We also learn that it was Joy who sent Kate the hate mail in 1995, fabricating the idea that someone was stalking her in order to incentivize her taking Jeanette's lawsuit seriously.
Somehow that isn't the biggest betrayal of trust that we see from one of the relatives of Kate and Jeanette this week, though. Jeanette's brother Derek (Barrett Carnahan) and Kate's sister Ashley (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut) finally sleep together. And, while checking his email, Derek finds Kate and Ashley's anonymous chat where Kate admits that she went to Martin's house willingly. It's a heartbreaking reveal, made even worse by the fact that it was Martin who convinced her to confront her parents about Joy's affair. He immediately reaped the benefits of that choice too as Joy hit Kate and let her pack a bag and leave, heading straight to the only other adult that she trusted: Martin. While the show has long hinted that Kate entered Martin's house willingly, it doesn't make this devastating moment any easier to watch. If Kate's mother had told the truth, if her father had backed her up after her mother hit her, or if she had chosen to go to a friend's instead, Kate may have escaped Martin's grips. But his grooming and scheming worked, and so she instead ended up a captive in his basement.
While the audience and surely the show know that this doesn't make Kate in any way complicit in her own kidnapping, Kate definitely does not. She's obviously never told anyone other than her online friend — that she doesn't know is Ashley — and Jeanette and Derek realize this could completely upend her case in Jeanette's favor. But this is where Cruel Summer comes to a pivotal moment. Will the series really turn Jeanette into a true villain, vindicating herself at the cost of another woman's trauma? Victim blaming and the harm it causes has been a recurring theme throughout the series, so it seems incredibly unlikely that Cruel Summer will use Kate's chat logs as a gotcha win for Jeanette. But still the question remains, where does the show go with it now?
When the series was first announced via Deadline, creator Bert V. Royal said, "We're really excited to tell this story that we hope will spark some interesting conversations about how our society can upend a person's life and send them to the hell of infamy before — and sometimes even, despite — the facts." This was clearly a nod to Jeanette's journey, painted as a villain on nothing but the word of Kate Wallis' chat show interview and nothing close to a fair trial or even circumstantial evidence. Going off this train of thought there's a version of the final three episodes which see Jeanette do the same thing to Kate, causing her great public harm by revealing the 'truth' about Kate's arrival at Martin's house, flipping the script on the golden girl who ruined her life. But that would do a huge disservice to the characters and the nuanced, complex, and thoughtful conversation Cruel Summer has so carefully cultivated.
While we'll have to wait and see what the show does, there's another route the show could go. Jeanette could consider using the transcripts, but decide not to when she thinks of the way she has been treated. Perhaps she and Kate could even come to some kind of understanding in the face of the deposition. Maybe something will be revealed that allows both of them to move on without Jeanette turning to blaming a kidnapping victim, even one who turned her life upside down in such a monumental and terrible way. As for Derek, it seems unlikely that he'll be able to make up for betraying Ashley's trust in such a gruesome way, which is fitting as it was once again a "nice guy" who invaded Kate's interior world, taking her words, experience, and life and using them for what he sees as his own gain.