While I had some issues with how the creative team handled certain plot points, ‘Hostile Witness’ was still able to offer a satisfying finale to the highly enjoyable Cruel Summer Season 1.
This review of ‘Hostile Witness‘ contains numerous spoilers. You have been warned.
Trigger Warning: This review mentions grooming.
I started watching Freeform’s Cruel Summer on a whim when the premiere debuted back on April 20, 2021. I’m not really sure why I did it. I guess I didn’t have anything else to watch that day. Anyway, a few seconds into the premiere, I knew I would return to watch such a thriller/mystery show every week. The young cast was impressive and I liked how the writers went about jumping around with three timelines for nonlinear storytelling.
Even though I didn’t write weekly episode reviews for The Geekiary, I covered the show over on our YouTube channel with my reaction and review videos.
The events in Cruel Summer occur during three years (with the narrative continuously shifting through the timeline to share how certain narrative decisions impacted one another). We’re introduced to our main leads Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) in 1993 with Kate being the popular girl at school. Jeanette’s always dreamed of being noticed and she gets her chance when Kate’s kidnapped. However, Jeanette’s newfound popularity comes crumbling down when Kate escapes her kidnapper in 1994 and names Jeanette as someone who knew where Kate was being kept all along.
With the two sticking to their versions of the truth in 1995, ‘Hostile Witness’ had the young girls face each other in court. I loved the moment Jeanette’s lawyer took out a copy of Kate’s chat logs in which she had confessed about lying about what really happened between her and her kidnapper Martin Harris (Blake Lee from The Christmas Setup). And yet she was still adamant about Jeanette knowing about her whereabouts and keeping it a secret to continue being popular at school.
While I was hoping for more scenes in the courtroom, I think Kate and Jeanette talking it all out in private made more sense. The kind of conversation the two were able to have at Martin’s house was something they couldn’t have done in front of the judge.
‘Hostile Witness’ ended up giving us a lot of answers. We found out about Anabelle’s true identity and how Kate was able to escape from Martin. We also got to know about Mallory’s role in making Kate think it was Jeanette she saw one particular night.
Again, I still think there were a couple of plot holes the writers tried to jump over. But the young cast’s been so great with the material, I found myself willing to let it slide. The important thing was that Kate and Jeanette addressed the issues between them and got to the truth. Or did they?
I did see certain tweets about how the closing moments in the finale didn’t make sense. However, I would like to defend the creative team behind Cruel Summer. Throughout the 10-episodes long first season, the writers made it clear that Jeanette was all about climbing the social ladder. She’s been shady from the beginning. Didn’t you notice how her outfit during the talk show appearance resembled what Kate wore? She was also very quick to forgive Jamie (For Gutierrez) after he literally punched her in the face. So, in my opinion, the ending made sense. What Jeanette continued to do was in character for her. In her mind, she’s still innocent because technically she never did what Kate accused her of.
Keeping Jeanette to the side, another thing I appreciated about Cruel Summer was how the writers handled the concept of grooming when it came to what Martin was doing with Kate. Martin was a predator and he singled out Kate because of the vulnerabilities he detected in her. Due to Kate being someone who was always told how to behave, Martin offered her a sense of freedom. Seeing him slowly gain Kate’s trust was very uncomfortable because I, as a viewer, already knew what he was about to do to her.
‘Hostile Witness’ also delivered on a lot of queer representation. While Vince (Allius Barnes) and Ben (Nathaniel Ashton) were shown to be a couple who faced relationship trouble due to what happened between Jeanette and Kate, turns out, Kate and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) were queer, too.
Even though I thought there could be something between Kate and Mallory during the scene at the roller rink, I chalked it up to noticing stuff through the lens of my “Shipping” glasses. But, nopes. Apparently, what I saw was actually real. Kate and Mallory kissed each other in the finale and you know what? I’m here for it. Yes, what Mallory did to Kate wasn’t the best move, but we have to remember these are supposed to be young teens. Of course, they were going to mess up. The important thing to note is that the two are still friends (and could be more than just friends moving forward).
Also, according to showrunner Tia Napolitano’s interview with Decider, making Mallory queer wasn’t the initial plan. However, Smith felt the vibes and after seeing her chemistry with Holt’s Kate, the writers decided to go in that direction.
Now that’s the type of creative decisions I want to see more of. Showrunners should be open to seeing romantic potential between characters, especially if there’s chemistry between the actors playing said roles instead of blaming the fandom for seeing “queerness” in every interaction.
Sigh! If only Jeff Davis had decided to do something about Sterek in Teen Wolf when he first saw O’Brien’s Stiles and Hoechlin’s Derek interact with each other. Currently, 9-1-1 seems to be the perfect example. The chemistry between Buck and Eddie is off the charts, and yet the show refuses to take the romantic route with those two.
Coming back to the show, with Kate and Mallory being queer, I still think that Jeanette’s supposed to be queer, too, due to her obsession with Kate. However, even if Jeanette continues to be straight, kudos to Cruel Summer for giving us a cast with four queer characters (and a bunch more that appeared in the background during a certain episode). Due to the time the story’s set in, the writers could have avoided mentioning queer people at all. But they didn’t. Even if a lot of homophobia existed back then in Texas, queer folks were still around in plain sight. Instead of using the 90s as an excuse to ignore the queer community, this show used a handful of them to tell an engrossing story. So, yay!
If you’re into a mystery/thriller series with a talented young cast playing characters you will root for, I recommend checking out Cruel Summer. It’s got a lot of surprising twists and turns. And, of course, there’s well-written queer representation.
Cruel Summer has been renewed for a second season. Personally, I think Kate and Jeanette’s story is done. I wouldn’t mind the creative team coming back with another mystery/thriller story (maybe even add some horror in there?) to tell another nonlinear story that also encourages a discussion about some serious topics surrounding mental health and wellbeing.
The Season One finale of Cruel Summer debuted on Freeform on June 15, 2021. The episodes are also available for you to stream on Hulu.
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Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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