Freeform’s anthology series Cruel Summer is back with another small town mystery.
Season 2 debuted on Monday night with two episodes, introducing audiences to the rise and fall of a friendship between two teenagers, Megan Landry (Sadie Stanley) and Isabella LaRue (Lexi Underwood). Just as with Season 1, the story takes place over three periods of time: Summer 1999, Winter 1999 and Summer 2000. In each timeline, the two girls are in very different places in their friendship.
The series begins in the summer of 1999. Isabella has just arrived in the idyllic Pacific Northwest waterfront town of Chatham to spend the summer, and her senior year, with Megan and her family as part of an exchange program. She left the U.S. when she was young, and she hasn’t been back since. While she’s welcomed with open arms by most of the town, Megan is hesitant to let Isabella in.
“I think what it comes down to is just Isabella is everything that Megan isn’t and doesn’t identify with. She sees Isabella when she first comes [to town] as privileged,” Stanley told Deadline. “She’s had this amazing life, and she’s never had any problems, and she gets everything that she wants…she’s charming and magnetic. Megan just is just resistant to that. She doesn’t want to fall for that.”
But all is not what it seems on the surface, and it quickly becomes clear that she’s got some secrets.
“When we first meet Isabella, she’s incredibly charming and alluring. She knows what she wants, and she doesn’t stop until she gets it. That’s when it comes to who she is on the surface,” Underwood said, adding that who Isabella is on the inside “a very different question.”
In fact, uncovering Isabella’s true self is the mystery that plagues the first timeline, Underwood explained.
“Over the span of 10 episodes, we get to see a young girl who’s doing her best to uphold this image or maintain this facade that she feels she’s had to put on due to her life prior to [Chatham]. I feel like there’s a lot of trauma that we get to unpack with Isabella. She has issues when it comes to attachment and when it comes to her need for validation,” Underwood continued. “While Isabella has had everything that she wants, she hasn’t had everything that she needs. And while being in Chatham, I think that that’s the first time where she really discovers that what she needs is pure love, care, acceptance, validation and the space to just be vulnerable.”
While Summer 1999 is planting seeds for their eventual friendship, Winter 1999 is setting up for their downfall. And by Summer 2000 they’re no longer on speaking terms as the sheriff investigates Luke’s disappearance.
Each episode toggles between the timelines, giving the audience pieces of the puzzle that don’t seem to fit together just yet. As confusing as it may get for viewers, the actors also had to stretch their skills to be able to shoot across all three time periods at once, rather than chronologically.
“I was doing all three timelines in the same day, most days,” Stanley explained. In addition to the physical changes that each character undergoes throughout, they are also in vastly different emotional states. The actors were fed scripts as production progressed, which is typical for a television show. But for a story like this, it meant that the leads weren’t clued in to how things would play out for their characters.
“For me, I use music as tools and then also journaling as Isabella from her perspective. That helped me kind of stay in the right headspace and stay on track with what was happening in her life during that time,” Underwood said. “Listening to playlists that I felt as though Isabella would have put together during summer ‘99, during winter ‘99, and summer 2000 that reflect how she’s feeling on the inside.”
By halfway through their senior year, in the winter of 1999, the girls have become the best of friends. That is, until a someone sneaks a sex tape into the VCR at a town Christmas party depicting Megan’s then-boyfriend Luke (Griffin Gluck) hooking up with Isabella. Another show might have let things blow up there, but not Cruel Summer.
Episode 2 reveals that the tape has been edited to replace Megan with Isabella. Instead of coming clean, Isabella decides to protect Megan, who is worried about losing her college scholarship, or being kicked out of school altogether, if people were to know the truth.
“I definitely think that it was a major decision that she made, but it was an incredibly impulsive decision that I think stems from the lack of acceptance or lack of love that she received from her parents,” Underwood told Deadline. “She feels as though she has to do absolutely anything, even go to the lengths of putting her future and her character on the line, her reputation on the line. She’s willing to do that if it means that she’s able to keep a stable relationship with someone that shows up for her and that validates her every step of the way.”
Unfortunately, no matter who the town thinks is on the sex tape, both girls are suffering from it. Megan is now the girl whose boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend, who is secretly terrified of what would happen if anyone found out the truth. Isabella is the town pariah who refuses to be forced out of Chatham, even if it means waking up to blow up dolls in her front yard and icy stares from people who she once considered friends. Luke, on the other hand, will never understand their dilemma.
It highlights the glaring double standard, which still exists, in which “people kind of pat men on the back for things that they shamed women for,” Stanley mused, teasing that Isabella’s decision to take the fall, and the girls are treated as a result, is ultimately the “catalyst” for what’s to come.
“It’s just the mere fact that men continuously sometimes feel as though that they can get away with anything, especially knowing that they’ll have people that have some voice — in this instance, you see [Luke and Brent’s] dad and their brother with high power in that town,” Underwood said. “You have that person to back you up and to say that everything’s gonna be fine, and usually everything is fine, and you get away scot free.”
Except it doesn’t seem like Luke got away scot free after all. Episode 2 ends on a major cliffhanger, with Luke’s body being pulled out of the lake in Summer 2000. The sheriff wants to re-question everyone about his disappearance, now that his death is confirmed, and Isabella approaches Megan to tell her that they need to “get their stories straight.”
“I promise you, it gets even crazier and crazier as we keep going. Ideally, at the end of it, you’re going to [have your] jaw on the floor freaking out,” Stanley said, assuring that, wherever audiences think the story is going, things are going to keep taking unexpected turns until the very end.
With her own ominous warning, Underwood reminded viewers that “you can’t trust any one of the characters because everyone is hiding something in some way, shape, or form.”