Cruel Summer is Freeform’s latest thrilling drama series and it’s perfect for, well, summer viewing! Tonight the first two episodes of the show aired back-to-back and already I can tell this time-twisting thriller is going to be a captivating and addictive watch.
The premiere episode opens with a text blurb denoting the importance of June 21, 1993, 1994 and 1995. The date happens to correspond with our main character Jeanette Turner’s (Chiara Aurelia) birthday. Jeanette’s dad wakes her up on June 21, 1993, her 15th birthday. Jeanette looks like your typical awkward teen girl complete with frizzy hair, glasses and braces. It’s a tradition in the Turner household for Jeanette’s parents to rouse her first thing in the morning for celebratory pancakes and celebration.
But then we skip to one year later and things have significantly changed since 1993. Jeanette has transformed into a straight-haired, contact lens-wearing beauty with an equally attractive boyfriend named Jamie Henson (Froy Gutierrez) who somehow convinced her dad to let him wake her up this year instead.
Again, we skip ahead to the same day, but in 1995. Jeanette is 17 and the picture of gloom. Her father has no patience for her as he harshly scolds her to get out of bed. Gone are the birthday candles, replaced with a sullen teen who has since cut off all of her hair.
The Cruel Summer opening establishes the three timelines we’ll be following, although we still don’t know what the show’s big mystery is just yet, only that something significant obviously happens between 1993 and 1995.
Cruel Summer Episode 1 recap: Jeanette checks off an epic birthday list in 1993
In 1993, Jeanette and her equally nerdy best friends Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes) are celebrating Jeanette’s birthday with a trip to the mall and an epic bucket list of sorts of all kinds of daring activities to check off that summer. At the mall, we get our first look at Jeanette and Kate Wallis’s (Olivia Holt) relationship, which will be pivotal to the show.
Kate is your classic Queen Bee and Jeanette yearns to be part of the “It” girls. She can’t help but watch Kate from the shadows until she musters up the nerve to talk to her. Surprisingly, Kate knows her name.
But their conversation doesn’t last long before they’re interrupted by Kate’s boyfriend, Jamie! Jamie and Kate share a kiss while Jeanette is relegated back to her friends. Mallory and Vince gift her a kitschy “you go girl” necklace that might come into play later.
Later, they decide to do something illegal as a way to spice up their summer vacation. Since Jeanette’s dad is a realtor, the plan is to steal a key from his office and sneak into one of his recently sold, but still vacant, homes. The one they pick happens to have been recently sold to Martin Harris, the new assistant principal at their high school.
Unbeknownst to the trio, Martin is home after all. Jeanette manages to think of her feet and come up with a decent excuse for being in his house, giving the teens ample time to escape before he realizes they were actually in there to mess around and play hide-and-seek.
Cruel Summer Episode 1 recap: Jeanette transforms from outlier to It Girl
Skipping ahead to 1994, a lot has changed in Jeanette’s life and the town at large. Kate Wallis goes missing at some point in 1993 and not long after Jeanette undergoes a transformation into the popular new It Girl.
Within the year since we’ve last seen her, Jeanette has mostly left Mallory and Vince behind in favor of Kate’s old best friends, Tenielle (Shelby Surdam) and Renee (Aaliyah Muhammad), and her boyfriend, Jamie. Jamie and Jeanette are even at the “I love you” stage and Jeanette recently lost her virginity to him, something everyone in town seems to know.
For her 16th birthday, Tenielle and Renee take Jeanette to a local roller rink. Later, the trio has an awkward run-in with Mallory and Vince at the mall. Mallory is all repressed rage and anger that Jeanette has changed so completely. The whole thing is awkward and strained.
But the biggest shock from 1993 comes toward the end of the episode when Jeanette is hanging out at Tenielle’s house. Tenielle returns to her bedroom to deliver some shocking news to Jeanette and Renee –– Kate Wallis has been found and she’s alive.
Moments later, Jeanette and her friends rush to Jamie’s house as Jeanette suddenly insists on explaining something to him but the second he gets there Jamie runs out and punches Jeanette in the face. At home, Jeanette’s parents, including her mom Cindy (Sarah Drew), help take care of her fresh black eye. Jeanette doesn’t tell them the truth about where she got it, of course. And while Cindy holds a bag of frozen peas to her daughter’s eye, Jeanette notices a news bulletin featuring Kate’s recovery on television.
Kate was found inside Martin Harris’s home! The assistant principal allegedly kidnapped and held her captive for months.
Cruel Summer Episode 1 recap: Kate blasts Jeanette on national television
So, how does Jeanette go from the most popular girl in town to being known as a psychopath to the entire country? Well in 1995, this new, moody Jeanette is obsessed with rewatching the old news coverage from the past three years. One particular interview from 1994 is between Kate and an Oprah-like journalist who features her for a sitdown interview.
In it, Kate tells the world that a girl saw her while she was being held captive by Mr. Harris. Kate claims she thought she would finally be saved because someone saw her but then no help came until months later. She tells the world this girl was none other than Jeanette Turner and that while Kate was gone, Jeanette pretty much swept in and took over her life.
Now, we know something else has to have gone down between that interview and Jeanette’s birthday in 1995 because, throughout the episode, the 1995 portion shows Jeanette preparing for a trial. An interview with Kate claiming Jeanette saw her at Martin’s house wouldn’t be enough to get a trial even though Kate tells the world she wishes Jeanette could go to jail for not helping her.
Jeanette’s life has entirely crumbled around her. Instead of saying “I love you,” Jamie Henson regularly sits outside of Jeanette’s house in his car, watching her. He keeps a gun in his glove box compartment. The only good thing is it seems like she might be on good terms with Vincent again. As her neighbor, he calls her to warn her Jamie is creeping around her house.
As for Jeanette’s trial, her lawyer is concerned she doesn’t seem “likable” enough which triggers a tirade for Jeanette. She says she can’t go anywhere without people screaming at her or harassing her for what they believe she’s done and we see some examples of that. Jeanette rarely leaves her house anymore and even then people are constantly tagging her garage.
The people around Jeanette have been affected by all of this too. By 1995, it doesn’t look like her parents are together anymore. Cindy isn’t shown at all yet and her dad is dating a local bartender. The once strong connection between Jeanette and her father is virtually nonexistent.
And that’s where the Cruel Summer Episode 1 leaves us, with tons of questions and a giant mystery at the center!
New episodes of Cruel Summer air Tuesday nights on Freeform.