Breaking Down All the Best 'Cruel Summer' Theories

Who's lying, who's telling the truth and who the eff is Annabelle on Freeform's addicting thriller?

cruel summer
Olivia Holt as Kate Wallis | Freeform
Olivia Holt as Kate Wallis | Freeform

This article contains spoilers through the first four episodes of Freeform's Cruel Summer. We'll be updating this after every episode, so keep checking back.

In Cruel Summer, the new teen series created by Easy A writer Bert V. Royal, helmed by longtime Shondaland scribe Tia Napolitano (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal), and executive-produced by Jessica Biel (The Sinner), Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) goes from being a sweet 15-year-old who likes riding bikes and hanging out at the mall with her friends to being the most hated girl in America by age 17. The psychological drama examines how teenage girls must figure out their own identities and how they fit into the world—and the way the world weaponizes them for it—but does so in a juicy, twist-filled manner.

Set primarily over three summers in 1993, '94, and '95, corresponding to Jeanette's 15th, 16th and 17th birthdays, Cruel Summer tracks the damage that unfurls in a small Texas town when a popular classmate named Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) goes missing and returns home a year later. Kate, who had been purportedly abducted by the new-to-town vice principal, finds that her boyfriend and two BFFs have gotten close to Jeanette, and melodrama ensues: in a nationally televised interview, Kate alleges that Jeanette saw her while she'd been in captivity and failed to report it to the police, a charge that Jeanette vehemently denies. But since Jeanette, in the year since the abduction, had transformed from an awkward, unpopular 15-year-old into, essentially, Kate herself, the residents of their small town of Skylin, Texas, begin to question which of them is telling the truth, and by Jeanette's 17th birthday, the two are facing off in a legal battle as well as the court of public opinion.

It's all completely addicting, a rare gem of a teen series that still manages to tackle trauma and the ways society can vilify young women for their emotional complexities. The thriller hinges on a mystery that feels like it could never be solved, with the way teenagers keep secrets and wield lies. Jumping without warning between the three time periods, the show drops clues in virtually every scene, with red herrings, misdirection and the quaintness of '90s technology making it very challenging to determine who's telling the truth and what really happened. As you wait for the next episode of Cruel Summer to air on Freeform on Tuesday nights, before it hits Hulu the next day, you might as well join me as I break down the many theories about what went down in Skylin, because it feels like the break between episodes takes as long as dial-up.

cruel summer jeanette
Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt | FreeForm

Theory 1: Kate is lying and never saw Jeanette

The simplest explanation for the allegations at hand is that Kate never saw Jeanette at all and that she made it up to get back at Jeanette for "taking over her life." That could be the case, as it wasn't until she returned home that she found out Jeanette was now dating Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), who was her boyfriend at the time she went missing. That's not to mention how Jeanette started hanging out with all of Kate's friends and dressing like her.

Kate's jealousy could have fueled the rumor about Jeanette's alleged negligence, but it also doesn't seem as if she was stewing on the idea upon her release until she sees Jamie cozy up to Jeaneatte in a clandestine meeting he lies to her about. Still unknown is why Jamie had violently punched Jeanette right after Kate was found. Initially, it seemed like the show wanted fans to think that Kate had told Jamie about the allegations immediately, but then in a later scene, Kate asks Jamie why he punched Jeanette, so it's unclear. Did someone else tell Jamie something about Jeanette's possible involvement? More importantly, why is Jamie so unhinged that he'd punching Jeanette at all?

Theory 2: Jeanette's necklace is false evidence 

The biggest piece of evidence that Kate has to back up her claim is that she found Jeanette's necklace that her friends got her for her 15th birthday and handed it over to the police. It is possible, though, that Kate could have picked up another at the mall by the time she went to the cops. It was only $7. It's also possible that Kate just stumbled upon it at some point and recognized it as Jeanette's.

As with the whole case, it's one girl's word against another, but it's probably true that Jeanette wasn't lying to the detectives in Episode 3 when she said she tossed the necklace out after her and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) stopped being friends. If Kate's claim that she saw Jeanette in roughly December, it's likely that, by then, Jeanette was done with Mallory and "you go, girl" charms, and had fully adjusted into her new life as Queen Bee (since she started hanging out with Jamie shortly after Kate disappeared).

cruel summer
Andrea Anders and Olivia Holt | Freeform

Theory 3: Kate is lying about something else 

Kate admitted in a vague way in the chatroom for survivors of kidnappings that she wasn't being totally truthful, which is designed to make you question the veracity of her allegations. At first, you might think she's referring to her claim that Jeanette saw her during captivity. But Episode 4 proved she was lying to the authorities about something else. 

Kate told the cops that she didn't know Mr. Harris prior to her abduction, but now it's clear that they did have a relationship. He appears to have groomed Kate into getting close to him, like on the hunting trip her family invited him on, so he could later abduct her. If you were watching closely, you might've noticed the show was hinting at that even earlier—as Kate was wearing a red dress when she appears to be taken and held captive by him, but a green-and-white outfit when they first meet after her parents' party in '93. So, considering that is what she's being untruthful about, it still leaves open the question whether or not she spotted Jeanette.

Theory 4: Jeanette did see Kate

Right now, what's really stacked against Jeanette is that Kate found her necklace... and the public sentiment that she was motivated by not wanting her life as Miss Popular to be disrupted by Kate's return. That argument alone seemed a little ridiculous, but it definitely fits with the Episode 3 reveal that Jeanette had kept her father's realtor key to Mr. Harris' house. The episode showed she'd broken in on July 4, 1993, and stolen Mr. Harris' yearbook, and she admits to her friend Vince (Allius Barnes) in 1995 that she comes back to the house "a lot."

It's unclear if Jeanette only goes into the house in the 1995 timeline because the place is empty again, as a way for her to find some closure, or if she continues going back to the house throughout '93 and '94, as well. She seems to be keeping that little detail from the detectives and her lawyers because of how incriminating it would be. But it's definitely very possible that Jeanette had broken back into Mr. Harris' house in late 1993—and therefore, seen Kate.

Theory 5: Kate saw someone else

Kate seems insistent that she saw Jeanette, but could she have seen someone like Jeanette's former BFF Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith)? Maybe when Jeanette threw the necklace away, Mallory recovered it and kept it for herself, since she was the person who'd given it to Jeanette? Now that Mallory and Kate are friends after meeting at their therapist's office in '95, she could feel guilty and blame Jeanette so to not ruin her new friendship. Whatever the case is with Mallory, she seems like she's holding a lot of anger, which might have gotten her involved in something.

Maybe Kate saw someone we're not even really familiar with yet—like whoever Annabelle is. At the end of Episode 4, in '95, Kate was hoping to face her trauma head-on by listening to the tapes from her therapy sessions. Despite Mallory warning her that it can be overwhelming, she did, and it reminded her that in one psychotherapy session she unearthed the memory that there was someone named Annabelle who was involved in her kidnapping in some way. She tells her therapist that right before she was rescued, Mr. Harris' was acting as if "something was different, something was wrong," and then says, "And that was when I met Annabelle." Kate seems to have suppressed the memory up until that moment, so it's hard to say who Annabelle is—but perhaps Kate mistook her for Jeanette. It's possible that this person could've found Jeanette's necklace that she lost on one of her little break-ins, dropped it herself, and Kate got only a glimpse of her through those cellar windows.

Theory 6: Who is Annabelle?

The show hasn't dropped many clues regarding who Annabelle is yet, or really said much at all beyond a teaser, but there are a few possibilities, as far as I can tell. It's possible that Annabelle is a second victim Mr. Harris imprisoned in his house. You may recall that earlier in the Episode 4 Kate told a "ghost story" about "a girl named Annabelle" around the campfire while on a hunting trip with her family. She basically iterates what happened to her on the same trip in 1993 when Mr. Harris came along and intentionally formed a relationship with her—saying a man abused Annabelle and the trust of the grown-ups around her in order to do "something unspeakable." It seems as though she's referring to herself and trying to stir things up, but maybe someone else's similar story has been haunting her. Plus, we still don't know how the cops found Kate. Could Annabelle have been the one to somehow get help?

Of course, there's also the reverse possibility: Annabelle was assisting Mr. Harris in some way. But that doesn't seem as likely if Kate has been both repressing and holding onto Annabelle's name in some way.

The simplest explanation would also be a bit of a narrative cliché—namely that Annabelle is a disassociated identity of Kate herself, caused by the trauma of her awful situation. Perhaps the psychotherapy tapes Kate's listening to will reveal just that in the weeks to come.

Theory 7: Both Jeanette and Kate are telling the truth

If you recall the first episode, when Jeanette and her friends were playing hide-and-seek in what became Mr. Harris' house, she went into the then-empty basement and found walls of mirrors with a door next to them. Could those mirrors be two-way mirrors? Suppose that Kate is trapped in the room through the door and doesn't know that she's looking out at the basement through a two-way mirror. If so, it's possible that Kate did actually see Jeanette enter the basement from her side of the mirror and that Jeanette had even appeared to look at her from her side, but that Jeanette had in fact only seen her own reflection from her side. That would be dramatic, but it would certainly explain the confusion and why both parties are standing by their claims. 

Whether that's what happened or not, that Kate (maybe) saw Jeanette at all raises the questions of why she was at Mr. Harris' at all. She might've continued breaking in for the rush (see above)—but is there more to the story of why she kept returning there? Had Mr. Harris been grooming her too? People do have very different trauma responses—and it's possible that both the girls are questioning if they're at fault for something, even if they're not.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment editorial assistant at Thrillist. She's on Twitter at @mssadiebell.
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