In a stunning finale, Cruel Summer has managed to pull off a shocker of a twist that still remained true to the show we’ve watched so far. While viewers were certainly shocked by what transpired (especially the final two minutes of the episode), seeds for the ending were planted throughout the season. From fan favorite ships going canon to big secrets revealed, “Hostile Witness” is a showcase episode for the Cruel Summer writing team, who clearly put a lot of effort into making an engaging and thoughtful drama. Without further ado, let’s answer the question that’s been on our minds for ten weeks: who is telling the truth?
Note: This episode of Cruel Summer contains depictions of grooming, emotional abuse, gun violence, suicide, and sexual assault. For 24/7 help, visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (or online.rainn.org) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (suicidepreventionlifeline.org).
A note: all events take place in 1995 unless otherwise specified.
The episode begins with the day everyone has been waiting for: the defamation case has gone to court. Kate and Jeanette nervously sit with their lawyers as the opening arguments are made. We see the media frenzy around both girls as they arrive. We flash back to Kate’s interview on the Marsha Bailey Show, where Joy puts the finishing touches on Kate’s outfit with a blue headband. Joy is beaming, seemingly forgetting the reason they’re there. Kate hasn’t, and we again see her tell the crowd and the world that Jeanette saw her in the basement. Rod and Joy are upset, saying they agreed not to name Jeanette since the potential for a lawsuit was high. But Kate sits back, confident she’s in the right, and rips off the headband. At home, Jeanette sees the interview and chops off her hair, officially leaving her innocent self behind.
Back in 1995, the media once again surrounds the girls as they leave the courtroom for the day. Jamie and Jeanette meet on the outskirts of town. It seems they’re back together as Jamie holds her hand, reassuring her as she tears up and claims no one likes her. He assures her that he does. Kate gets a message from Ashley via the chat, and Kate confesses she’s nervous for the next day since she will be on the stand. Greg and Jeanette both eat ice cream from the carton as he tries to reassure her she can still talk to him.
On the stand the next day, Jeanette’s lawyer drops a bomb. After Kate recounts her story that Martin abducted her initially, the lawyer pulls out the chat logs. As Kate’s voice shakes, she confirms the chat log is hers as the secrets she thought were private spill out in court. Back at the Wallis house, Kate’s lawyer tells her they figured out the other participant was Ashley, devastating her. The lawyer asks her if there’s anything else she needs to tell him. She stares straight ahead.
Jamie makes another stop on his apology tour by going to Ben’s house. He tells Ben he’s sorry for ruining his football career, but then tells Ben he shouldn’t blame Vincent for what happened on the ambulance when he was injured. This implies Jamie knew about and approved of the relationship between the two, and Jamie urges Ben to talk to Vincent. Kate tells Mallory what happened with Ashley, and Kate is hurt. She thought she was chatting with a fellow trauma survivor who understood her, and now she isn’t sure of anything. But Kate also knows there are holes in her memory, and she tells Mallory she knows what she has to do now. Kate makes a phone call.
At the video store, Ben apologizes to Vincent. Vincent asks why now after all this time, and Ben says he misses Vincent. Vincent asks what exactly he did that was so wrong. He was just trying to comfort his boyfriend. Ben confesses he was scared because of how public it all was. Vincent pushes back, saying that as a Black gay teenager in Texas he was also scared — but all he thought about in that moment was Ben. Ben says he is right and that he doesn’t have to answer him right away, but that he wants to earn Vincent’s trust back. He leaves as Vincent gazes after him.
At Martin’s house, Kate wanders through the rooms, remembering bits of her time there. Suddenly, Jeanette appears — Kate invited her there. Kate thinks having the two of them in one room will clarify what really happened, once and for all. They go through the story of Christmas Eve once more (in a telling moment of foreshadowing, Jeanette lets Kate walk through the story, not telling Kate anything Kate hasn’t already figured out for herself). But one detail stands out to Jeanette: Kate mentions seeing a card in Jeanette’s bike spokes and that she never got a good look at Jeanette’s face. Jeanette says that she later found out that Mallory witnessed her breaking in on Christmas Eve, wanting to see Jeanette get busted for stealing. Mallory followed Jeanette home and confronted her that night, taking the snow globe back. We see that while Mallory heard something in the house, she didn’t put two and two together and realize it was Kate. Jeanette says it was Mallory’s bike, and horror dawns on Kate’s face. It was Mallory who Kate saw that night, not Jeanette. Kate is crushed — her best friend, her confidant, has potentially been lying to her. And even worse? Kate has made an innocent girl into a monster.
Kate apologizes to Jeanette, but says there are still pieces missing. She needs to go back to the basement. Jeanette agrees to go downstairs with her, and once the two see a bloodstain on the floor, it all comes back to Kate. We flash back to 1994 as Kate narrates her last night with Martin. She says Martin was calm, like he’d made a decision. He comes downstairs holding a gun case, and Kate begins to cry, believing he is going to kill her. Martin describes the gun as “Annabelle,” solving the mystery of what Annabelle was. But Martin puts the gun to his own head, telling her to be free and that he truly loves her. But he can’t pull the trigger, and he drops the gun to the floor as he pounds the wall in anger. In a panic and seeing no way out, Kate picks up the gun. The tables turn as Martin attempts to talk Kate down. But Kate doesn’t hesitate and pulls the trigger. It was Kate who killed Martin in self-defense. She tells Jeanette she was in shock and sat with his body all night, calling the police in the morning. The police allowed the media to believe Martin was killed in a shootout, and Kate says that her mind accepted that story to avoid further trauma.
Kate crumbles as she says, “I’m the bad guy.” Jeanette rushes to reassure her that she isn’t. Kate says Jeanette should sue her, that she doesn’t deserve everything that happened to her. Jeanette says it wasn’t about the money. She says all she ever wanted was to know what it felt like to be adored like Kate as she smiles sadly at her. Determined to make up for her mistake, Kate tells the media everything, clearing Jeanette’s name. As the reporters turn on Kate, Kate grimly faces it, knowing she did the right thing.
Mallory, on the other hand, is a wreck. She’s tossing all her clothes into a suitcase as Kate enters quietly. Mallory has clearly been crying, and Kate says she knows Mallory saw her. Kate asks how Mallory could be her friend and not tell her what she saw. Mallory says that on Christmas Eve, she assumed that the blonde person she saw in the window was Martin’s girlfriend or sister. She didn’t get a good look, and more importantly, everyone thought Kate was abducted. Mallory says she never imagined it was Kate, desperately trying to make Kate understand. She says when the news first showed Kate being rescued, she realized that she must have seen Kate. But Mallory knew that as far as the world knew, Kate was only in the basement. And, Mallory couldn’t reveal Kate’s secret without revealing she had been there herself. Mallory starts to sob as she says they then became friends, “And I … I…” We flash to Kate dancing in the headlights to “Zombie” again, as it is revealed that the mysterious person in the car was Mallory. Mallory was crying in the dark car, pining over Kate. She was in love. Mallory says she’ll leave and never bother Kate again, but Kate stops her. Kate says, “And leave me, here? Without you? Don’t you DARE.” They embrace, and both cry.
One month later, it’s Jeanette’s turn on the Marsha Bailey Show. But something is off about her. She wears a pink blouse like the one Kate wore for her interview — complete with a blue headband like Kate’s. She sweetly tells Marsha that she made it through thanks to her wonderful father and loving boyfriend, Jamie. It’s certainly a rosier picture than reality. Then Jeanette looks to the camera and says she forgives Kate for what happened. Far away at the overpass, Kate and Mallory are once again dancing. But this time, they’re dancing together. Kate pulls Mallory in for a kiss — it’s official, Kallory fans!
But Cruel Summer had one more massive twist to go. In the final minutes of the episode, the title card flashes again: 1994. Jeanette enters the Harris home yet again in a scene we haven’t seen yet and hears a voice from behind the locked basement door. Kate hears the floorboard creak and calls out, saying that this is Kate Wallis and begging for help if anyone is out there. Jeanette’s hand pauses over the doorknob — and she stops. As a haunting cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” plays, we see that Jeanette has been the true wolf in sheep’s clothing all along. Smiling, she walks away from the door, leaving Kate to her fate. Jeanette really did leave Kate in the basement, just not when Kate thought she did.
Suddenly it all makes sense: Jeanette allowing Kate to give up all the information she had without revealing anything herself, why she practiced emotion in front of the television, and why she took over Kate’s life. Jeanette really DID want to be Kate. But now, the world will never know what truly happened that day. It’s a tightly-plotted and well-executed twist that hinges on Chiara Aurelia’s incredible performance as Jeanette, who kept us on our toes all season long. It’s a fitting ending to an incredible show that kept fans enthralled for ten weeks, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
Cruel Summer will return for a second season. You can watch all of season 1 on Hulu now.