Major spoilers ahead. The truth is out. In what is surely one of the most shocking and anticipated finales of 2021, Cruel Summer has peeled back the layers of deception, reconciliation, and twists to reveal the rotten truth at its core. What felt like a pitch perfect and surprisingly hopeful ending neatly tied up Kate (Olivia Holt) and Jeanette's (Chiara Aurelia) stories while giving us a hint at what their futures might look like. But an unexpected final scene shook viewers and upended our understanding of the show's world.
After reconciling with Kate and helping her uncover her buried memories of what happened in Martin's house, a seemingly redeemed Jeanette got her 15 minutes of fame on The Marsha Bailey Show, forgiving Kate publicly while taking her moment in the sun. Meanwhile, after the shocking reveal that Mallory was the one who saw Kate in Martin’s house, without realizing who she was, Kate and Mallory were enjoying a rare moment of joy in 1995 dancing to Garbage and sharing a kiss. It's a much needed and deserved happy ending for Kate, but just as the episode feels like it's over, we take one final journey back to 1994. There, we see Jeanette back in Martin Harris' home, walking along the corridors, but this time when she says "hello" she gets a reply. Kate tells the mystery voice upstairs that she is the missing girl and that Martin has her trapped in the basement. But as the sound of Radiohead's “Creep” begins to play, Jeanette smiles and leaves Kate trapped in the basement, revealing that she did know Kate was there in 1994 — and she left her there.
It's a grim twist that throws an entirely new light on Jeanette and her journey. In under a minute, the show reframes the redeemed young girl who spent all season proving she wasn't a guilty party, as just that; a callous young woman who left Kate to wither in Martin's basement, and who's now playing the innocent for fame. For Cruel Summer showrunner Tia Napolitano, though, this twist was a chance to truly surprise viewers. "It's a great twist," she told Refinery29 over the phone, adding that it wasn't just a "shiny object," it was a choice that added depth. "I really like showing good people doing bad things.”
Much of Cruel Summer's power has come from its dissection of the societal pressures put on young women, and how their decisions are shaped by those forces. According to the showrunner, the reveal that Jeanette left Kate to suffer in Martin's basement for what Napolitano told us was "months" fits into that. "What we put on young women — to be popular, to be seen, to be enough, to be pretty, to be all these things — drove her to make this terrible mistake. We shouldn't do that. We shouldn't put that on young women. America in 1994 pushed Jeanette to that place, and I think that can happen to any of us at any time."
Many Cruel Summer fan theories were also upended by the last minute reveal, but there’s no need to dwell on any clues we may have missed: the writing team didn't sprinkle in any teases or "breadcrumbs" that Jeanette was guilty into Cruel Summer’s earlier episodes. "If we had intended to, we would have specifically directed Chiara that way, and we didn't," Napolitano said. Despite the lack of clear clues, the showrunner stood by episode 10’s final twist as a choice that fits the way Jeanette processes the world around her. "She's very good at compartmentalization and I think she put that little incident in a box far, far away."
"What we put on young women — to be popular, to be seen, to be enough, to be pretty, to be all these things — drove her to make this terrible mistake."
Tia napolitano, Cruel Summer Showrunner
There's also the fact that Jeanette's dark secret wasn't decided upon until "a long way in" to crafting the first season. The team talked about many different versions of what the truth looked like in Cruel Summer, but it wasn't until they settled on the idea that Jeanette had known about Kate being in Martin's basement that they found it. "Every time we pitched it to anyone involved, including Chiara, they screamed," Napolitano said with a laugh. "And that was the exact reaction that we wanted."
As for whether she thinks the last-minute shock twist undermines the journey that Jeanette and Kate have been on, "I hope it doesn't," Napolitano shared. "I think that who Jeanette is in 1994 when she hears Kate and does nothing is not who she is in 1995 when she's had that reconciliation with Kate."
That reconciliation is one of the show's strongest moments, as Jeanette and Kate meet in Martin Harris' home to uncover the truth. It's here that the show reveals what seems to be its biggest twist: that Mallory was in fact the one who saw Kate. That was another decision that evolved as the production went on. After Kate realizes her mistake in naming Jeanette, she asks the girl she once accused of being complicit in her kidnapping if she'll come with her to the basement. It's there, together, that Kate finally remembers the truth about Annabelle — it was the name of Martin's gun — and that she was the one who use it to kill Martin in the end.
While some viewers might feel like some of the weight of that reconciliation is lost when it's later revealed that Jeanette was still lying to Kate and the world, Napolitano sees it as a valuable moment that shows how far the two teenage girls have come. "They've both learned so much," she said. "Kate being able to remember that moment and being able to forgive Mallory when she learns of her involvement; they're both better, stronger women than when we met them in 1993, and I think they've both gone through a degree of healing."