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'Cruel Summer' Recap: Mirror Mirror on the Basement Wall

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 28, 2021 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 28, 2021 |


From what I’d read and understood about Cruel Summer based on the first two episodes, I believed the series would focus on three days in the summers of ‘93, ‘94, and ‘95, while each episode would also focus on the perspective of a different character. That doesn’t seem to be the case, exactly. Each of the first season’s seven episodes will focus on a different day during those three summers, and while the episodes shift perspective, there’s not a focus character in each episode, per se.

This week, for instance, we gain some more insights into Jeanette’s mom, Cindy (Sarah Drew), and one of Jeannette’s best friends, Vince (Allius Barnes). It’s more clear, too, that while Jeannette and Kate Wallis are the central characters, it’s Jeanette who is the protagonist, although one that viewers may not always like. Increasingly, this feels like her story and this week’s episode was determined to both create some sympathy for her and cast doubt on the version of events purported by Kate Wallis, namely that Jeanette Turner visited the home of her abductor, Martin Harris, saw Kate, and failed to report it.

It seems to me — given Kate’s oversized reaction to seeing Jeanette after Jeanette filed a defamation suit against Kate — that Kate legitimately believes that Jeannette saw her trapped in Harris’ basement. I am increasingly of the belief that both Kate and Jeannette were right. At the end of this week’s episode, in 1995, Jeanette returns to Harris’ now abandoned house again — confessing to her friend, Vince, that she has broken into his house numerous times over the years — and says that she “sensed” something was amiss the first time she broke in and wanted to somehow reverse it. When she says, “I thought I unleashed something down here, something bad,” she turns, as though nodding toward the mirror behind her.

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It may be too early for theories, but what if the torture basement had a two-way mirror such that it allowed Kate to see Jeanette snooping about in Harris’ house but didn’t allow Jeanette to see Kate? It would not only explain a lot but allow both of them to be right. It’s also worth noting just how often mirrors are used in this show. I mean, honestly, it’s like they’re trying to hide the twist in plain sight. Look at the poster itself!

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Beyond that mystery, however, we also get some more insight as to why Jeanette remade herself and shed her nerdy friends in 1993. It was pressure from her mother, Cindy, who claimed to be popular herself in high school and encouraged her daughter to rid herself of the glasses after her braces came off and try to be friends with the more popular girls, like Kate Wallis. It’s clear that Jeannette took that cue, and somewhere along the way, she and Mallory stopped being friends, though it also seems that Mallory triggered Jeannette’s craving for danger. Vince, meanwhile, seems to have maintained a connection to Jeanette, perhaps recognizing that Jeanette’s transformation was borne out of peer pressure from her mother instead of a genuine desire to be someone else.

Of course, it all backfired on Cindy when rumors began to swirl that Jeannette had seen Kate in the basement and didn’t tell the authorities. That’s the thing about people like Cindy who invest so much in what other people think. Here, she chose to believe the rumors rather than her daughter, which is presumably why we don’t see Cindy in 1995 — she backed away from the family (and Jeanette no longer even returns her calls) rather than stand by her own kid because she was too afraid of what other people said. People like Cindy are the worst.

Say what you what about Jeanette’s father Greg Turner (Michael Landes) — who seems like a surly asshole — but at least he chose to believe his daughter and made an effort to stick up for her in ‘94 when Jeanette’s ex, Jamie, punched her in the mouth. (And he may have reason to be surly if his wife left him over this ordeal.) Likewise, Derek — who may be one of the few good people in this godforsaken town — also sticks by Jeanette, although I suspect that he has a darker backstory than what we’ve been led to believe, so far.

The other character Cruel Summer spent a lot of time with this week was Vince, who we discover is gay (a much bigger deal in the early ’90s in Texas, obviously), and in love with Ben (Nathaniel Ashton). The two visit a gay bar/prom in 1994 and share an intimate dance, but by 1995, Ben wants nothing to do with Vince. I grew up in small-town South and my best friend in high school was gay during these exact years, and if his experience is any indication, a lot of the boys he messed around with had come-to-Jesus moments after their parents found out and were miraculously “cured” of their gay (my Facebook feed suggests that some of them remain “cured” to this very day because Jesus is a hell of a drug 🤔).

In any respect, during the deposition when Vince is asked if he is aware of Jeanette visiting the Harris house, Vince lies and says he isn’t (though she confessed to him that she broke in often). Vince believes Jeanette, but he also values her friendship — he confided to Jeannette about Ben, and it’s clear that she’s the only person who knows. She kept his secret, so he’s willing to keep hers.

Let’s just hope that their arrangement doesn’t blow up in both of their faces.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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