Breaking Down All the Twists and Theories in 'Cruel Summer'

Who's lying and who's telling the truth on Freeform's addicting new thriller?


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This article contains spoilers through the first three episodes of Freeform’s Cruel Summer. We’ll be updating this after every episode, so keep checking back.

In Cruel Summer, the new¬†teen series¬†created by Easy A writer Bert V. Royal, helmed by longtime Shondaland scribe Tia Napolitano (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), and executive-produced by Jessica Biel (The Sinner), Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) goes from being a sweet 15-year-old who likes riding bikes and hanging out at the mall with her friends to being the most hated girl in America by age 17. The psychological drama examines how teenage girls must figure out their own identities and how they fit into the world-and the way the world weaponizes them for it-but does so in a juicy, twist-filled manner.

Set primarily over three summers in 1993, ’94, and ’95, corresponding to Jeanette’s 15th, 16th and 17th birthdays, Cruel Summer tracks the damage that unfurls in a small Texas town when a popular classmate named Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) goes missing and returns home a year later. Kate, who had been purportedly abducted by the new-to-town vice principal, finds that her boyfriend and two BFFs have gotten close to Jeanette, and melodrama ensues: in a nationally televised interview, Kate alleges that Jeanette saw her while she’d been in captivity and failed to report it to the police, a charge that Jeanette vehemently denies. But since Jeanette, in the year since the abduction, had transformed from an awkward, unpopular 15-year-old into, essentially, Kate herself, the residents of their small town of Skylin, Texas, begin to question which of them is telling the truth, and by Jeanette’s 17th birthday, the two are facing off in a legal battle as well as the court of public opinion.

It’s all completely addicting, a rare gem of a teen series that still manages to tackle trauma and the ways society can vilify young women for their emotional complexities. The thriller hinges on a mystery that feels like it could never be solved, with the way teenagers keep secrets and wield lies. Jumping without warning between the three time periods, the show drops clues in virtually every scene, with red herrings, misdirection and the quaintness of¬†’90s technology making it very challenging to determine who’s telling the truth and what really happened. As you wait for the next episode of Cruel Summer to air on Freeform on Tuesday nights, before it hits Hulu the next day, you might as well join me as I break down the many theories about what went down in Skylin, because it feels like the break between episodes takes as long as dial-up.


Theory 1: Kate is lying and never saw Jeanette

The simplest explanation for the allegations at hand is that Kate never saw Jeanette at all and that she made it up to get back at Jeanette for “taking over her life.” That could be the case, as it wasn’t until she returned home that she found out Jeanette was now dating Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), who was her boyfriend at the time she went missing. That’s not to mention how Jeanette started hanging out with all of Kate’s friends¬†and¬†dressing¬†like her.

Kate’s jealousy could have fueled the rumour about Jeanette’s alleged negligence, but it also doesn’t seem as if she was stewing on the idea upon her release until she sees Jamie cozy up to Jeaneatte in a clandestine meeting he lies to her about. Still unknown is why Jamie had violently punched Jeanette right after Kate was found. Initially, it seemed like the show wanted¬†fans to think that Kate had told Jamie about the allegations immediately, but then in a later scene,¬†Kate asks Jamie why he punched Jeanette, so it’s unclear. Did someone else tell Jamie something about Jeanette’s possible involvement? More importantly, why¬†is Jamie so unhinged that he’d punching Jeanette¬†at all?

Theory 2: Jeanette’s necklace is false evidence

The biggest piece of evidence that Kate has to back up her claim is that she found Jeanette’s necklace that her friends got her for her 15th birthday and handed it over to the police. It is possible, though, that Kate could have picked up another at the mall by the time she went to the cops. It was only $7. It’s also possible that¬†Kate just stumbled upon it at some point and recognized it as Jeanette’s.

As with the whole case, it’s one girl’s word against another, but it’s probably true that Jeanette wasn’t¬†lying to the¬†detectives¬†in Episode 3 when she said she tossed the necklace out after her and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) stopped being friends. If Kate’s claim that she saw Jeanette in roughly¬†December, it’s likely that, by then,¬†Jeanette¬†was done with Mallory and¬†“you go, girl” charms, and had fully adjusted into her new life as Queen Bee (since she started hanging out with Jamie shortly after Kate disappeared).

Theory 3: Kate is lying about something else

Kate¬†admitted in a vague way¬†in the chatroom for survivors of kidnappings that she wasn’t being totally truthful, which is designed to¬†make¬†you question the veracity of her allegations. At first, you might think she’s referring to her claim that¬†Jeanette saw her during captivity. But she could have¬†been referencing something else.

Something that might’ve struck you at the end of Episode 2:¬†Kate is wearing a red dress when she appears to be taken and held captive by Martin Harris-but she’s wearing a green-and-white outfit when they first meet on the street after her parents’ party¬†in ’93. She tells the cops that she didn’t know Mr. Harris¬†prior to her abduction, but could they have had some sort of relationship first?¬†If so, it’s possible that¬†Mr. Harris groomed and manipulated her into being close to him in some way before kidnapping her, and if¬†that is what she’s being untruthful about, it still leaves open the question whether or not she spotted Jeanette.


Theory 4: Jeanette did see Kate

Right now, what’s stacked against Jeanette is that Kate found her necklace…¬†and the public sentiment that she was motivated by not wanting¬†her life as Miss Popular to be disrupted by Kate’s return. That argument alone seemed a little ridiculous, but it definitely fits with the Episode 3 reveal¬†that Jeanette had kept her father’s realtor key to Mr. Harris’ house. The episode showed she’d broken in on July 4, 1993, and stolen Mr. Harris’ yearbook, and she admits¬†to her friend Vince (Allius Barnes) in 1995 that she comes back to the house “a lot.”

It’s unclear if Jeanette only goes into the house in the 1995 timeline because the place is empty again, as a way for her to¬†find some closure, or if she¬†continues¬†going back to the house throughout ’93 and ’94, as well. She seems to be keeping that little detail from the detectives and her lawyers¬†because of how incriminating it would be. But it’s definitely very possible that Jeanette had broken back into Mr. Harris’ house in late 1993-and therefore, seen Kate.

Theory 5: Kate saw someone else

Kate seems insistent that she saw Jeanette, but could she have seen someone like Jeanette’s former BFF Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith)? Maybe when Jeanette threw the necklace away, Mallory recovered it and kept it for herself, since she was the person who’d given it to Jeanette? That might be a stretch, but Mallory is rather hateful of Kate and is infuriated by Jeanette’s transformation that it seems almost as if¬†she’s feeling like Kate had abandoned her, too. Whatever the case is with Mallory, she seems to holding a lot of anger, which might have gotten her involved in something.

Theory 6: Both Jeanette and Kate are telling the truth

If you recall the first episode,¬†when Jeanette and her friends were playing hide-and-seek in what became Mr. Harris’ house, she went into the then-empty basement and found walls of mirrors with a door next to them. Could those¬†mirrors be¬†two-way mirrors? Suppose that Kate is trapped in the room through the door and doesn’t know that she’s looking out at the basement through a two-way mirror. If so, it’s possible that Kate did actually¬†see Jeanette enter the basement from her side of the mirror¬†and that Jeanette had even appeared to look at her from her¬†side, but that Jeanette had in fact only seen her own reflection from her side.¬†That would be dramatic, but it would certainly explain the confusion and why both parties are standing¬†by their claims.

Whether that’s what happened or not, that Kate (maybe) saw Jeanette at all raises the questions of why she was at Mr. Harris’ at all. She might’ve continued breaking in for the rush (see above)-but is there more to the story of why she kept returning there? Had Mr. Harris been grooming her too? People do have very different trauma responses-and it’s possible that both the girls are questioning if they’re at fault for something, even if they’re not.

Sadie Bell is the entertainment editorial assistant at Thrillist. She’s on Twitter at @mssadiebell.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef,¬†Cuong Nguyen¬†will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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