TV & Movies

'Cruel Summer' Boss Breaks Down Finale's Twisty Reveals and Season 2

Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched the season finale of Cruel Summer.

Who do you believe: Kate or Jeanette? 

Freeform’s buzzy mystery drama, Cruel Summer, closed out its twisty first season with a flurry of reveals in Tuesday’s finale, “A Hostile Witness,” from the truth behind what happened to Martin (he didn’t die in a police shootout like we previously thought) to the reveal of Annabelle’s identity (it’s not what you’d think) to whether there was basis for Kate’s suspicions over Jeanette in the first place (turns out, she had every reason to doubt her) to the results of Jeanette’s lawsuit against Kate.

In the end, Kate and Jeanette finally aired out their grievances in the same basement Kate was locked up in with Jeanette telling Kate that it wasn’t her who had spotted her like Kate had originally suspected, but Mallory. And that she wasn’t at Martin’s home the day Kate suspected she was and could have saved her. (Jeanette very well could have rescued Kate from further trauma, as she heard Kate’s desperate pleas from the locked basement, but made the split-second decision not to.) Following Kate and Jeanette’s face-to-face, the lawsuit was dropped, Jeanette forgave Kate in a televised interview and Kate (ironically) found happiness with Mallory.

“I knew what we had to tie off everything we set up. I didn’t want us to leave any hollow clues, any questions. I wanted to put every last piece in place and provide the bigger picture, I’m talking full circle. It was also important to me that the finale represents what the show is as a whole, which is it’s psychological, it’s a character study, but it’s also fun and there’s some joy,” executive producer/showrunner Tia Napolitano tells ET. “We get to see Jeanette get a little joy, we get to see Kate have a lot of joy, and that’s somewhat healing.”

With season 2 officially picked up by Freeform, Napolitano breaks down the season finale’s twisty revelations and what her plans are for the next chapter of Cruel Summer

ET: Before we dig into the finale, how do you feel about the season as a whole?

Tia Napolitano: It was challenging, for sure, and it was definitely a group effort. A lot of the puzzle pieces, twists were sort of in placed by a few people that worked on the project before I joined. Then I got to take it that step further, so that was definitely a team effort. We wanted to create a season of television that we would want to watch, a season that we would walk away from feeling surprised and satisfied, and hopefully we did that.

Is there a specific viewer reaction or theory that stood out to you or were surprised people latched onto?

The fact that the fan theories are all over the place is so satisfying and so wild to read. Some people picked up on the fact that Kate is eating, in episode 2, pineapples and milk, which is a big piece of the JonBenét Ramsey mystery. That was definitely intentional and people picked up on it. That was really exciting. We thought that Annabelle was a wonderful clue, but the way people have latched onto it and all the theories have been amazing. It’s great to see that it’s landing.

Let’s dig into the finale because we definitely got a lot of questions answered, from the results of the trial to who or what Annabelle is to what really happened to Martin. What were the most important questions you wanted to answer to wrap up this mystery?

I knew what we had to tie off everything we set up. I didn’t want us to leave any hollow clues, any questions. I wanted to put every last piece in place and provide the bigger picture, I’m talking full circle. It was also important to me that the finale represents what the show is as a whole, which is it’s psychological, it’s a character study, but it’s also fun and there’s some joy. I mean, we get to see Jeanette get a little joy, we get to see Kate have a lot of joy, and that’s somewhat healing and a happy ending. That was important to me to deliver in the finale.

It’s revealed that Martin didn’t die in a police shootout, but that Kate was the one who killed him with a gunshot. And that there was perhaps reason on Kate’s part to be suspicious of Jeannette for not rescuing her when she was locked in the basement, like she originally felt. What does this last revelation signify to you?

What I’m loving about this show is people have very different reactions to Jeanette and Kate. They see themselves or someone that they might be friends with in these two girls, and our audience seems to be very polarized. I think that last moment, I’m not taking the audience by the hand and leading them to a conclusion. I think it’s open to interpretation. You might be a good person who saw a crime of opportunity and make a bad decision or you might see a bad person. I think it depends on the viewer and their experience on this Earth as an individual.

When Kate comes clean to Jeanette about those last moments with Martin in the basement, it was a powerful moment that added a layer of complexity. It doesn’t seem like there’s an easy answer as to which side you’re supposed to be on…

Yeah, the message is consistent. It’s very rare you find a true villain. The reality is probably much more gray and not black and white as we would want it to be. My job isn’t to tell people how to feel, it’s to show them something and say, “Feel your feelings, whatever those may be.”

The identity of Annabelle has been a season-long mystery introduced early on and we finally got the answer here in the key scene between Kate and Martin before she kills him in the basement. Can you break down that reveal?

I haven’t read a ton of fan theories. I read some, but there are so many, and it would take up my whole life. Around episode 4 when we dropped the Annabelle clue, we found ourselves, as a team — everyone involved in the show — feeling like we needed one more clue. We needed one more hook, one more mystery and that’s when Annabelle was born. We worked on the end of the episode and then I delivered it to do your network, not telling them who Annabelle was. So, they had their theories before I told them who it was and they really liked that Annabelle was the gun. I felt pretty confident that was a satisfying extra layer of mystery and twist to our show.

What was your favorite scene in the finale that you felt pulled everything together?

I love that Jeanette and Kate, who we have deliberately kept apart throughout the whole season, finally get together alone in a room and start speaking to each other and speaking for themselves. I think it lands in a great satisfying way because we had deliberately not given them a scene together. They’ve lived in two separate worlds and then, in the finale, their worlds collide. That was really fun. Them entering the basement, of it, chasing down that basement and that mirror together is our show at its best.

With the way the finale leaves off, it leaves room for the story to potentially continue for Kate and Jeannette or begin a brand new mystery. With the season 2 renewal, how are you approaching this next chapter?

We have not started writing season 2 yet, so I don’t have any big secrets. I know we want to deliver another really satisfying, complex mystery that is also a character study, that deals with some heavy themes, much like they were in this season.

Are you anticipating this being the end of these characters’ stories or are you thinking about possibly continuing certain threads?

I don’t have the answer to that.

This show touches subject matter like trauma, different people’s responses to that, sexual assault, grooming. What was crucial for you and the writers to get the tone and the experiences reflected accurately and authentically?

We did a lot of things. On our writing staff was Imogen Binnie, her other job, other than being a TV writer and novelist, is she is a therapist. She was hired not as a consultant, but as a writer, but she shined some light into honoring trauma and talk therapy. We consulted with Hollywood Health and Society, we shared our scripts with them. We really treated this story with the weight and the attention that it deserved. We tried for that and I think we had a writers’ room that was very open about sharing our own experiences and trauma and relationships and sexual grooming, which isn’t always specific to children, it can happen to anyone at any age. We had people who were really willing to share their hearts with us for the show, which is great.

What do you want people to take away from the finale? 

I don’t think I want anyone to feel a certain way. We put out a show  that definitely makes people have emotions and that’s wonderful. I think one thing that I think the show does is demonstrate how much we fear that if we share secrets out loud, people will judge them or judge us, like Kate’s fears. And no one is ever as hard on us as we are on ourselves. I think speaking things out loud, talking to people and be kind [are important]. 

For more on Cruel Summer, watch below.

‘Cruel Summer’: Sarah Drew on Jeanette vs. Kate and those ‘Pretty Little Liars’ Comparisons (Exclusive)

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