Major spoilers are ahead. Over its critically acclaimed first season, Cruel Summer has slowly unfurled a heartbreaking mystery about a young girl, Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), and her grooming and abuse at the hands of the new local vice principal, Martin Harris (Blake Lee). Despite the central conflict revolving around the question of whether her high school peer Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) could have helped her and chose not to, the time-jumping teen thriller is really about the ways that young women are harmed by society. And specifically, in Kate's case, manipulated and abused by the people who are supposed to care for them. The penultimate episode of the series, “A Secret of My Own,” showcases that in brutal fashion as we learn exactly what happened to Kate in Martin Harris' home.
Rather than being held in the basement the entire time she was at Martin's house, Kate was in fact a different kind of prisoner. Entrapped by his grooming, manipulation, love bombing, isolation, and lies, Kate was abused by Martin and kept in his house as in a twisted facsimile of love. She thought she was there by choice, and he tightly controlled every choice that she made. It was a reveal that was already in place when Cruel Summer showrunner Tia Napolitano joined the project, but getting it right took a lot of work.
"We wanted to make sure that [episode 9] isn't a love story, it isn't a fairytale. These two people are not made for each other,” Napolitano told Refinery29 over the phone. “‘Hard to watch’ is exactly the way we want the audience to feel because they're happy in moments, but we are not happy for them. What's going on is very wrong, and handling that with the care it deserves is the intention."
Part of that careful handling included the use of a consultant, Dr. Sheila Modir, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. For Napolitano, who "grew up in Shondaland" working on Grey’s Anatomy as a story producer, using consultants is second nature ("consultants should always be in the mix" for tough topics, she says). Along with another psychologist who was hired as a writer for the show rather than a consultant, Modir joined the Cruel Summer team from USC’s Hollywood Health & Society program.
"We shared scripts with them, we shared cuts with them, we invited criticism. And where we missed the mark, we corrected best we could,” said Napolitano.
"There is that fear in all of us that people will judge us for things that we'd never judge in another person. Your secret might not be as big as Kate's, but we all have that fear."
Tia Napolitano, Cruel Summer Showrunner
As a consultant for Cruel Summer, Modir focused on two key elements of the series, both of which play into episode 9: Kate's relationship with her therapist and Kate's relationship with Martin Harris. Modir watched footage of the pair’s scenes carefully to ensure that Martin and Kate’s interactions depicted the practice of grooming and Kate internalizing blame.
”This is not star crossed lovers in any way. Martin was a person that had identified Kate as vulnerable due to family conflict and discord very early on and preyed on her vulnerability," she explained.
Cruel Summer walks a fine, yet vital line between building mystery while treating its sensitive topics with care, never using them for shock value. The fact that the series dedicates an entire episode to detailing Kate's experience in Martin's home is testament to that care. "The issues, the humanity, the therapy, the psychology, the trauma, deserves its own space,” said Napolitano. “It is not a shiny object in the way that our twists and turns are."
The truth behind Kate's abduction is devastating as we watch as a young girl believing she's happy, safe, and in love with an adult man that we know is a predator. The first inkling we get of that dynamic is on Day 21, where we see Kate and Martin running around the house kissing and playing hide and seek. While the world searches for Kate, she is living in her bubble with a controlling and dangerous man, becoming ever more isolated. It's a brutal and difficult reveal.
"It connects very much to the speech that Kate gave to Joy," Napolitano explained, referring to episode 7. "She was raised to be trusting and he took that from her. This is a man who was put in her life as a safe space. He's an educator, he's friends with her parents, so for him to show her kindness — and, I won't call it love, but what they're pretending is love — I think she was following his lead. And it's heartbreaking to see her so happy when you know that it's something that's so wrong."
Building to the truth of Kate and Martin was part of the show's aim to showcase the realities of grooming. Throughout the series we've seen Martin slowly and subtly groom Kate. The process, which is designed to evade detection, might not seem obvious to every viewer, but Modir made it clear that Martin's actions leading into the events of episode 9 are true to life.
"There's a scientific model of understanding sexual grooming, and watching the show we are watching the steps of grooming being played out,'' Modir explained. "Maybe not explicitly, but implicitly, which is very much a portrayal of what it's like in real life."
Cruel Summer has been weaving those steps into each episode of the show. Martin comes to Skylin during a time filled with familial upheaval Kate. It's here, as she struggles to deal with her mother's affair, that he realizes she's vulnerable. Gaining access to Kate is the next step, and that's easy as he's vice principal and is quickly invited to social gatherings like the hunting trip where he and Kate first spend time alone. Then he begins to build trust, making himself a confidante, offering her a special, secret relationship, a unique bond that she doesn't tell anyone about. His actions are what lead Kate to his front door on the night she goes missing.
Those steps become even more apparent in episode 9. When Kate turns to Martin for help, he quickly begins the next steps of his abuse, subtly instigating small but noticeable moments of physical contact when they're in the house together. From a comforting hug to sitting close together while sharing a drink, Martin is establishing a clear pattern.
"You start seeing how she becomes desensitized to physical contact,'' Modir explained. "For sexual grooming they start very subtly. It could seem very innocent and it could be non-sexual contact that slowly increases and it causes a lot of confusion in the victim."
Once the pair are in a sexual relationship and Martin has achieved the closeness he was aiming for it all becomes about control and continuation. His actions towards Kate as the episode reaches its third act are what Modir called "the final piece of the cycle." It then becomes about maintenance: "Martin wants to continue the abuse but avoid detection, making Kate feel guilty for wanting to leave him or for missing people in her life. But ultimately he's isolated her, and he's trying to essentially bribe her."
That's what we see as Martin and Kate reach Christmas Eve where the teenager is missing her family, the mall, her friends, and all the normal things that Martin's captivity has denied her. So Martin begins to bargain with gifts, promises, and ultimately violence.
The upsetting and laser-focused episode gives us a deeper insight into Kate's misplaced guilt and fear, because in her mind she’s to blame for what Martin did and she worries that, because of what is unveiled in episode 9, society won't deem her a perfect victim. That fear of being victim-blamed and Kate’s own internalized shame is one of the most universal parts of the series.
"There is that fear in all of us that people will judge us for things that we'd never judge in another person," Napolitano explained. "Your secret might not be as big as Kate's, but we all have that fear."
Victim blaming also allows groomers to find new victims and keeps survivors like Kate from sharing their whole stories — something Cruel Summer shrewdly highlights. "What people might forget in this process is that Martin is an adult," Modir shared. "Kate is a child. She's an adolescent, she's vulnerable, she's naive. In no way is she responsible for any of this. Martin is the responsible adult. He's the vice principal. He holds so much authority and is intentionally aware of every decision that he's making. That is grooming, that subtleness that happens, and then it really puts a lot of responsibility, unfortunately, on the victim. And that's the way society sees it."
Both Modir and Napolitano see the show as an educational space that can hopefully help viewers recognize the signs of grooming and abuse, and get young women talking to a therapist or a friend about “the hard stuff.”
But with one episode left, all eyes are on the question of whether Jeanette saw Kate, which seems to have been answered in episode 9. However, the showrunner teased that there is still more to that mystery. While fans are sure to get more answers from the finale, Napolitano asks that we also look for something else. "What's important about episode 10 is that there is a little bit of joy — true joy that you can enjoy — that's sprinkled throughout the season and is missing from episode 9. We tried to honor that part of our show in the finale."
After seeing every awful twist in Kate's experience this week, we can only hope that she gets to share in whatever shred of joy is on its way.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat at online.rainn.org to get free, confidential, anonymous help 24/7.