Smells Like Teen Spirit: Unraveling the Secrets and Lies of ‘Cruel Summer’

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Contributors: Jules, Brianna

Cruel Summer is a show built for speculation, with each episode including Easter eggs and throwaway lines of dialogue that inspire theorizing by its many fans on social media. The central question of whether to believe Kate or Jeanette is most discussed, but there are plenty of smaller mysteries that could hold the key to that larger narrative arc. We here at Nerds and Beyond have been watching and recapping the show from the start, and now that the series has reached its halfway mark, we are offering up our theories on what really happened as well as our lingering questions. Of course, if you haven’t caught up on the first five episodes, this is your spoiler warning!

Jeanette Saw Kate and Left Her On Purpose

Freeform/Bill Matlock

This is admittedly a dark theory, but based on some of Jeanette’s choices it wouldn’t be entirely unexpected. We’ve seen how Jeanette wanted to be like (or be) Kate before her disappearance, and we’ve also seen how quickly Jeanette picked up the broken pieces of Kate’s life. When Kate first came back, Jeanette insisted on needing to tell Jamie something — something we never heard because of Jamie’s violent outburst. Jamie also later asks Jeanette why she was one of the first to know that Kate was gone, and Jeanette never answers the question. Jeanette has also had some downright creepy moments, like when she imitated a victim from a Law and Order episode on TV when no one was watching. Even Mallory calls her on what is essentially her Kate impersonation when Jeanette hugs her in the mall in 1994. It wouldn’t be that much of a leap that Jeanette saw Kate and made a decision that she later regretted (or not). Additionally, it would explain the guilt she occasionally shows, like when she sings karaoke with Angela.

Kate Saw Jeanette But Jeanette Didn’t See Her

Freeform/Bill Matlock

This is a favorite theory particularly because both girls cling so hard to their versions of the story. Kate swears she saw Jeanette. Jeanette swears she didn’t see anything. But what if both are true? Perhaps it was a case of reflections or one-way glass. Kate looking desperately through a window late at night and thinking Jeanette saw her, however Jeanette really saw her own reflection or just the slightest trace of movement one night when she broke in. Whatever the case may be, we’re certain it won’t be as cut and dry as only one of them lying.

Kate Hallucinated Jeanette Being There


In “You Don’t Hunt, You Don’t Eat,” we see that Martin eventually resorts to drugging Kate to keep her captive. In her haze and desperate to escape, is it possible she could have just hallucinated Jeanette’s presence? It’s a compelling argument, but it doesn’t explain how Kate eventually got Jeanette’s necklace or why Kate would have thought of Jeanette, someone who was barely on the edges of her life in 1993. Why not Jamie, or her parents? It’s definitely a possibility, but a distant one.

It Was Mallory All Along

Freeform/Bill Matlock

Thus far we know Mallory transitions from being besties with Jeanette in 1993 to enemies and Kate’s bestie in 1995. What happened between her and Jeanette? Is she really friends with Kate only out of the goodness of her heart? We’re not sure what to believe here but Mallory’s actions have been a little suspicious.

Assuming Jeanette really did see Kate, one theory we’ve discussed is Jeanette confided in Mallory about what she saw. Upon hearing it, Mallory convinces Jeanette not to tell adults. For one thing, she’s been breaking and entering into Martin’s house all summer and that won’t reflect well on her or Mallory considering their very first break in was together. If this is true, perhaps this drove a wedge between Mallory and Jeanette as the year went on. Once Kate returned, Mallory could have befriended her out of guilt for knowing she stood in the way of rescuing Kate.

Another prevailing theory is that Mallory is the one who saw Kate in the basement. From the basement window, which is low to the ground, Kate only saw the tires of a bicycle, Mallory’s bicycle which is distinctive. At the garden party in 1993, Kate saw Jeanette and Mallory fleeing, but the girls had switched bikes leading Kate to believe the bike with a card in the tire is Jeanette’s. Upon seeing the card from the basement, she believes Jeanette was the one at the house that night. The show had several shots detailing the tires of the bike making us think it’ll be important at some point. Meanwhile, Mallory’s rage can be chalked up to guilt over leaving Kate. Her decision to “befriend” Kate later is to confirm that Kate thinks it was Jeanette, not Mallory, that she saw and thereby ensuring she’s not going to be in the line of fire. And the necklace? Perhaps Mallory gives it to Kate to help her story.

Martin and Jeanette Have a History


What if Jeanette saw Kate because something was happening with her and Martin — something Jeanette wouldn’t want everyone to know about? The first time Jeanette met Martin, he tried a few of the grooming tactics he later used on Kate, and later when Jeanette saw him at the county fair, he reacted angrily to how she treated Gideon. Jeanette also had a fascination with Martin and his house in 1993, stealing the yearbook and sneaking in often. What if, with Kate gone, something happened with Martin and Jeanette that led to Jeanette seeing something she shouldn’t have?

Who Is Annabelle?

Freeform/Bill Matlock

When Kate begins listening to her therapy sessions, we hear her mention meeting “Annabelle,” who is also the protagonist in the creepy campfire story she tells the adults at the hunting retreat. Is Annabelle a real person, or something else? We think Annabelle is likely an alternate persona Kate developed to survive what happened to her that she no longer remembers. If this is the case, we might see Annabelle reappear to protect Kate once again from the emotional trauma and stress of the upcoming hearing for the lawsuit draws near. Annabelle will likely become a key part of the mystery as the second part of the season unfolds.

Puzzle Pieces Left Over

Freeform/Bill Matlock

These are our small moments that are ringing alarm bells in our head, but we aren’t sure why just yet.

The Gunshot: We all heard it in 1994, but it hasn’t been mentioned since. Coincidence? We think not!

The Person in the Car: Who was watching Kate dance to “Zombie” in front of a car in 1995? We never saw their face, and it seems like an important omission.

Ashley’s Chat Persona: Is she genuinely trying to help Kate, or does she have another motive?

Ben and Vincent: What happened between them, and how does it factor into the Jeanette versus Kate battle?

Everyone’s Cheating: Joy’s affair with Scott and Greg’s affair with Angela will definitely have massive consequences, but we still haven’t seen their full ramifications yet.

Martin’s Old School: The show makes a point of showing us Martin’s old school as well as his reaction to Jeanette knowing about it. What happened to make him leave?

Jamie and the Gun: In 1995, Jamie has a gun and actively stalks Jeanette. We haven’t seen it in a few episodes, but it seems clear this is foreshadowing something to come.

Cruel Summer airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Freeform, with the episodes added to Hulu the next day. Have another theory? Let us know in the comments!

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By Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.
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