One of 2021’s best TV series so far follows a beleaguered woman in a small town trying to uncover the truth about a haunting crime, and its finale stuck the landing perfectly. That was Mare of Easttown, yes, but it was also Cruel Summer. Creator Bert V. Royal and showrunner Tia Napolitano’s Freeform series (also on Hulu) tracked three summers in the mid-90s over two crisscrossing points of view to deliver an excellent mystery series with an ending that wrapped up all of our questions, and gave us a final stinger that put the entire season into fresh—and chilling—context.
It seemed nearly impossible, leading up to “Hostile Witness,” that Cruel Summer would be able to effectively answer its remaining questions (“Who is Annabelle?” “What happened on the day Kate was rescued?” “Who saw Kate?”) in its final hour, but thankfully it did. In fairness, its penultimate episode, “A Secret of My Own” had laid incredible groundwork: There, we saw how Kate willingly entered Martin Harris’ home, but eventually became his unwilling captive. And as the show was careful to point out, repeatedly, Kate never really had the agency that she was presented with—Martin Harris had been grooming her for months, and her response to that (and his “charms”) were all part of a calculated act of abuse.
The Martin Harris of it all was more or less wrapped up in “A Secret of My Own,” which meant “Hostile Witness” was able to focus back on Jeanette vs Kate, the entire emotional crux of the series. Going into the episode, both girls stuck by their own version of the truth: Kate was certain Jeanette had seen her in the house when she had broken in on Christmas Eve, Jeanette maintained her innocence. When the two came together and discussed the night in question, the objective reality was revealed: Jeanette didn’t see Kate, Mallory did—but she didn’t know it was Kate at the time.
All of this was plausible, but moreover, it showcased Cruel Summer’s brilliant balance of plot and character drama. Its story was always a fairly linear one, and the truth came down to repeated cases of misunderstanding and hidden agendas (for a variety of very understandable reasons—especially given that these are teenagers, at a time when abuse and trauma weren’t discussed or as well understood as they are starting to be today). Thus, Cruel Summer’s mystery didn’t come from bizarre, labyrinthine “twists” (like some outrageous theories proposed throughout the season: that Kate’s mother paid Martin to take her, that Mallory was always in on it, that Kate gave birth to a baby in captivity, that Martin had other women buried in his basement). It used its unique format—three summers, two POVs—to confuse things in a realistic way. People don’t react logically in a crisis, or always tell the truth, but sometimes someone’s “secret” is just that they grew apart from their friend and kept a snowglobe to protect someone. And that’s what made “Hostile Witness” and Cruel Summer as a whole so satisfying: everything felt emotionally true.
That’s also why that final stinger was both a genuine surprise and something the show had clearly planted throughout its full season: Jeanette broke into the house one other time, she heard Kate cry for help, she knew exactly who it was and what was happening… and she chose to leave her there. In the pilot episode, when Jeanette learns that Kate was found, her immediate response was to ask who killed her. Given that she knew Kate was in the basement and later heard a gunshot right before the rescue, it makes Jeanette’s response all the more horrifying.
But this was no sudden heel turn; the signs were all there. The creepy smiles at inappropriate times, her obsession with Kate, her mimicry of her. She claimed she didn’t steal Kate’s life, and even told Kate to her face “you didn’t want it,” but that wasn’t really true. From the scrunchie to wearing exactly what Kate had worn on “The Marsha Bailey Show” (right down to the headband!) Jeanette was absolutely copying Kate at every turn, even chopping her hair off after Kate does it first. The mirror images that the show continued to use were not red herrings, nor were the references to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Jeanette is a creep who stole Kate’s life, and would do anything to keep it. And yet, how true does that feel to obsessive teenage girldom??
What was fascinating about that moment, though, is how the show managed to successfully manipulate us into thinking Jeanette really was innocent. When the truth came out (that it was Mallory who saw Kate, not Jeanette), there was an immediate accord between our two leads. They went to the basement together and Kate apologized to Jeanette, who not only accepted it but later told the nation that “you are forgiven” (with a big smile, of course). The court case was dropped, Kate even referred to Jeanette as a victim. And all of that felt fine; we could believe that Jeanette just enjoyed the popularity she found after Kate’s disappearance, and that had the two girls spoken frankly from the beginning then things might have been cleared up (Kate’s trauma, of course, prevented her from facing that for a long time). We found out who (or what) Annabelle was, Kate and Mallory patched things up, Vince got a happy-ish ending, we got a nice Garbage needle drop, and everyone was happy!
And then we saw Jeanette breaking into the house in 1994, hearing Kate’s calls for help, and doing nothing.
Break our hearts!!!!
Cruel Summer was just too good at giving us two sides to everything, always understanding the complexity of who we are in the moment and over time. Cindy abandoned her family, yes, but also Cindy was right about Jeanette. Joy was a disaster of a mother, but she did love her daughter and wanted to do right by her. Martin Harris was a pedophile, but he was also young and attractive and difficult at first to see as a villain. Derek was the cool brother who then betrayed his love interest’s trust to broadcast Kate’s trauma in a courtroom. Mallory befriended Kate knowing that she could have saved her, but also not knowing that had been Kate until it was too late. Jeanette did not see Kate—but she heard her.
When Cruel Summer began, it set up a kind of she said / she said dynamic, and there was an implied suggestion that one of the girls—Kate or Jeanette—was lying. In the end, they both were, about totally different things. But with that stinger, we are left with some clarity: Kate was betrayed by everyone she ever trusted, while Jeanette “unleashed an evil” in that basement, as she told Vince. Martin Harris perpetrated evil acts there, yes, but so did Jeanette. And damn that felt so bad… but so right.
Freeform recently announced that Cruel Summer has been renewed for a second season, though there’s no clarity yet on whether this story will continue or it might take the form of an anthology. Frankly, my hope is very much for the latter. “Hostile Witness” closed the book on what happened with Kate and Jeanette in a way that felt fully satisfying. It was a great story, told exceptionally well, with a nostalgic ‘90s setting and pitch-perfect performances from its young leads. To continue on here feels like a mistake—give us a new, emotionally devastating mystery to dive into. Let Kate have peace.
But Jeanette Turner? I hope you rot in hell.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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