Ahhhh, there’s nothing quite like the summers of our youth. Those perennially awkward phases of braces, acne, weird hair, and dorky but loveable friends. Taking a page from USA’s underappreciated Dare Me, which found way more success on Netflix where it probably should have started, Cruel Summer is a mystery told through the lens of teen angst. The coming of age puzzle is sure to appeal to the same crowd as Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem and Netflix’s You. Cruel Summer Episode 1 was a master class in pilot episodes. Engrossing and mesmerizing from the start, I am desperate for more.
Told over three distinct timelines, Cruel Summer is the story of a popular girl that goes missing, one newly minted It girl, and the most hated girl in America. The catch is two of those are the same girl. In 1993 Kate was beautiful, popular, and the Queen Bee. By 1994 she is missing, and Jeannette, who was previously awkward and shy, is dating Kate’s ex-boyfriend. She has exchanged her childhood friends for Kate’s crew of cool kids. By 1995 Kate is back, and Jeanette is now on trial. Her family, friends, and entire life have changed again. How did the sweet shy girl change not once but twice over three years, and what really happened to Kate?
Three separate birthdays on June 21st paint a picture of a life gone very wrong. Jeanette, played brilliantly by Chiara Aurelia, dances effortlessly between all three versions of herself with just the barest whisper of recognition to make you wonder who the real Jeanette is. She is the linchpin of the series. Her wide-eyed face broadcasts every emotion. Is she a placid psychopath? Is the picture-perfect Kate a deceptive monster? Or are both girls so desperate for attention they are willing to do anything? Aurelia is a legitimate star who you last saw in Amazon Prime’s Tell Me Your Secrets alongside powerhouse Lily Rabe.
Showrunner Tia Napolitano expertly balances the need for exposition with a dazzling array of questions. The end of the first episode will leave you confused and desperate for clues. Between the Limited shout-outs and Untamed Heart love, there was a lot to be excited about. Here are all the crucial takeaways from Cruel Summer Episode 1.
All the music from Cruel Summer Episode 1
Music plays a massive part in setting the mood and establishing the timeline between Jeanette’s summer of innocence in 1993, her summer of love in 1994, and her summer of pain in 1995. For all the 80s babies, there is even a The Belle Stars callback to Iko Iko. Gabrielle’s 1993 Dreams is achingly optimistic, and the Cranberries 1993 hit Dreams is even more poignant when you consider the lyrics. Is Jeanette the shy, hopeful girl from the first verse or an obsessed danger like the second verse?
Oh, my life is changing everyday
In every possible way
And oh, my dreams
It's never quite as it seems
(Never quite as it seems)
I want more, impossible to ignore Impossible to ignore (And they'll come true) And they'll come true Impossible not to do Impossible not to do
Brandy’s 1994 I Wanna Be Down is R & B perfection. Free Your Mind released in 1992 by En Vogue is a banging classic about not judging another’s life choices. The color blind song could easily be applied later to Jeanette, who the whole country has judged by 1995. A personal favorite Stupid Girl by Garbage, released in 1995, captures all of the alt music scene rebellion alongside Jeanette’s noticeably darkened appearance.
There is so much going on in Cruel Summer Episode 1; if you blink, you will miss things. Here are all the critical details, clues, and hints in each year.
1993- This is Jeanette’s 15th birthday. She is geeky/cute with her best friends Mallory and Vincent. During this summer, her brother misses her birthday to stand in line to buy tickets for Boys II Men. Kate is living her best life with tag-a-long friends and boyfriend Jamie. A chance encounter in the mall shows just how badly Jeannette wants to be one of the cool kids. Her brief interaction with Olivia Hunt’s Kate lay the groundwork for what is to come. There is something almost predatory in her interest in Kate.
Jeanette’s parents are married, and they eat dinner with her. Jeanette’s mother criticizes the necklace Mallory and Vincent gave her. Later that summer, the trio steal keys from Jeanette’s dad, a real estate agent in 1993, and play hide and seek in Assistant Principal Harris’s house, where Kate claims to have been held for a year. She lies easily when she is caught by Mr. Harris and acts odd in the basement. At some point after Jeanette’s birthday and school starting, Kate goes missing. The “You Go, Girl!” necklace is in Jeanette’s jewelry box, along with the house keys to Asst. Principal Harris’s house.
1994– This is Jeanette’s 16th birthday. She is now rocking straight hair, straight teeth, and contact lenses. Kate has been missing for almost a full year. Jamie and Jeanette are dating and had sex for the first time shortly before her birthday. Jeanette is no longer friends with Vincent and Mallory, exchanging them for the tag-a-long mean girls that previously followed Kate. Mallory and Jeanette have a nasty exchange in the mall that ends with Jeanette’s cold words and chilly hug. Jeanette spends her birthday with her new friends and boyfriend at the skating rink.
Later that summer, Kate is found, and Jeanette asks, “Where did they find her body? Do they know who killed her?” These are morbid questions to ask. Her parents are still together when the new report airs regarding Kate’s rescue. Jamie punches Jeanette in the face, and Jeanette lies to her parents about it. She still has her necklace, and it is in her jewelry box. There is a gunshot heard from the front yard of Jeanette’s house on the night of her birthday. Her brother still lives at the house in the summer of 1994.
Sometime in the Fall, Kate goes on national TV and publicly accuses Jeanette of refusing to help her. She claims Jeanette saw her in Assistant Principal Harris’s house and failed to report it so she could steal her life. Kate claims she could have been rescued months earlier, which seems to indicate Jeanette did not see her in the house on the day of the game but several months later. Why was she at the home again, if she was?
1995- It is Jeanette’s 17th birthday, and she is a pariah. Jamie stalks her house with a gun in his glove compartment, and she has no friends beyond Vincent, who watches her from his house. Jeanette has recorded new stories about Kate’s disappearance and return and watches them on loop. We don’t know why she recorded the news, but it is odd to record a story about a girl’s disappearance for no reason at all. She is drinking heavily. Her brother was never seen in 1995. They had a close relationship before the Fall of 1994.
Jeanette’s mom is no longer with her dad, who is now a bar owner. He was a real estate agent in 1993 and at least part of 1994, but by 1995 he isn’t anymore. He is dating a bartender and still living in the family home. The bartender has been dating her father for a while because she has a key and knows Jeanette well. He doesn’t trust Jeanette, and they have a very strained relationship. There is an undefined court case that Jeanette is involved in that may be a civil or criminal matter. We don’t know yet. She is supposed to present a case as the wronged party, making it seem like she is not the defendant. Her necklace is not seen, and Jeanette has short dark hair. She is angry, frustrated, and lonely.
- Did Jeanette’s brother really get Boys II Men tickets on Jeanette’s birthday, or is there more to his story? He had access to the Assistant Principal Harris’s house along with Jeanette, but what is his motive? The last time we see the keys in her jewelry box is on the night of her birthday. Kate goes missing shortly after.
- What is so important about the necklace? She mentions it to her lawyer, and she says we will get to that later. Is it the same 7$ necklace her friends bought her, or is there another necklace that will be important?
- Does Jamie’s friend tell Jamie Jeanette is good for him because he was heartbroken when Kate went missing or because Kate had a dark side of her own?
- Was that a gunshot they heard on her birthday, and why was Jamie so quick to dismiss it?
- Did Jeanette run to Jamie’s right after hearing about Kate’s return to try to remind him that he loves her or to find out what Kate might have told him?
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.