Cruel Summer Season-Premiere Recap: What Did Megan Do Last Summer?

Cruel Summer

Welcome to Chatham
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Cruel Summer

Welcome to Chatham
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Justine Yeung/Freeform

Booyah and zetus lapetus, my homeys! I am so goddamn excited to become completely obsessed with Cruel Summer once again. I love a teen soap opera — of which Freeform is now the official hub thanks to the demise of the CW — especially when it’s set in the era of Y2K and so has to find a way to make dated slang like “bee-yotch” sound natural in the mouth of someone who’s never known life before the internet.

Speaking of the internet, let’s introduce our season-two protagonist, Megan, a budding young coder and aspiring Silicon Valley billionaire who dreams of attending the University of Washington after high school. (I know. I, too, was surprised it wasn’t Stanford.) Like the first season, Cruel Summer season two unfolds in three separate time periods simultaneously — in this case, July 16, 1999, December 15, 1999, and July 16, 2000, on each of which dates Megan has a different personality and wardrobe — and revolves around a mysterious disappearance she is somehow involved in.

I will just come out and spoil the surprise ending for you here. I mean, the show doesn’t care about chronological order, so why should I? After setting up a classic love triangle between the girl next door, the glamorous newcomer, and the hometown princeling, the show subverts expectations at the end by killing the princeling instead of the female romantic rival. That’s right, the missing teen who later turns up dead is Megan’s bestie turned boyfriend turned scumbag, Luke. I love this development. Kill more rich white teen boys, television.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning with Megan 1. The innocent Megan. In the summer of ’99, Megan is the responsible daughter of an irresponsibly cool single mom — a dynamic that was inescapable in ’90s and early-2000s teen media and is the most historically accurate detail of Cruel Summer by far. Instead of partying with friends, Megan works at a restaurant to help with the household bills and frets about the pricey flower bouquet mom Debbie bought to welcome Isabella, the much-resented foreign-exchange student Debbie imported as a low-budget alternative to actual travel.

If Megan has a rebellious streak at all, it is her bad attitude about Isabella’s impending arrival. Megan doesn’t have or want any female friends because she already has BFF Luke, and she suspects that anyone who would choose to spend their senior year in a foreign country among total strangers does not have a social life of their own. And anyway, she doesn’t have time to babysit a new friend because she is far too focused on getting out of this tiny Podunk West Coast town.

Enter Isabella, who is, in fact, American but counts as a foreign-exchange student because she says she spent most of her life abroad with her diplomat parents. (It seems suspicious, but we’re rolling with it for now.) Isabella is everything that Megan is not. Fabulous, flirtatious, and well-traveled, she’s a woman without a country who longs for the quiet comfort of a small hometown. The two get off to a rocky start primarily because Isabella catches Megan snooping through her stuff, but also because Megan is just being a hater. For instance, she agrees to let Isabella tag along on her daily errands — picking up her paycheck from the restaurant, etc. — but isn’t about to go out of her way to make her feel especially welcome.

Luckily for Isabella, she doesn’t need Megan’s help to immediately charm all of Megan’s friends — including the previously mentioned Luke Chambers, whose father turns out to be a local real-estate baron who owns most of the town. Said father also forces Luke into some unspecified police ride-along program intended to build character, which is why Isabella first meets him as he’s climbing out of a squad car. Now, I’m seeing just a parade of red flags here, but Isabella is apparently into it and asks Megan if she’d be upset if the two of them hooked up. Megan, lying, says it’s fine.

A lot has changed by the winter of ’99. Megan 2 has traded her ponytail for a perfect anachronistic blowout and her straight-edge lifestyle for underage drinking and cliff-jumping under the influence of Isabella, who is now her best friend and “the best thing that ever happened to [her].” Also, despite her earlier claims that she only sees Luke as a brother type, Megan and Luke are now fully dating (and so are their parents!). She’s officially gotten into her dream school, she’s listening to the Spice Girls, she’s in love, and she’s finally indulging in some light teenage rebellion. Everything is coming up Megan, in short, until it all goes spectacularly south at the big annual Christmas party hosted by Luke’s dad.

At the fancy-pants event, Megan and Luke are PDAing all over the place while their parents watch on and debate whether or not their kids are truly in love. Isabella, meanwhile, is passing around shots and contemplating a hookup with the hot but dumb French bartender. One tradition of the annual gathering, Luke’s dad announces in a toast, is to screen a Christmas movie on a giant projector screen next to the pool, and this is where the teen shenanigans take a turn for the disturbing. Instead of whatever family-friendly favorite of Luke’s deceased mother, Jane, the movie that begins to play is a secretly filmed sex tape of Luke and Isabella, proving that you don’t need social media to ruin people’s lives with revenge porn.

So now Megan has discovered in the most humiliating way that her boyfriend has been sleeping with her best friend, and all of the Chambers’ guests have been unintentionally subjected to viewing child pornography, but the biggest victim in all of this is really Isabella. Until, of course, the following summer, when Luke’s body is fished out of the bay.

In July of 2000, Megan 3, the darkest Megan, has acquired an eyebrow piercing and a distressing amount of L.A. Looks. It’s not clear at what point in the last six months Megan developed an appreciation for studded belts and German industrial techno, but her responsibilities now include scrubbing blood out of the floorboards of a secluded cabin in the woods and shady coding-related business dealings. She also seems to have taken on a disciplinarian role with her younger sister, demanding Lily change her “slutty” shirt because “if she gets a reputation now, she’ll never shake it.”

At one point in this period, Megan looks at a Missing Person poster with the face and name torn away. A friend approaches and muses, “None of this would have happened if she never came to town.” Megan responds, “I think about that all the time.” Presumably, this is supposed to hint that the unidentified missing person is Isabella, but the good news is that this is not a story about two boy-crazy teenage girls fighting over a guy who doesn’t deserve either of them. When Luke’s body is retrieved and identified in the episode’s final moments, Isabella appears at Megan’s side. “We have to get our stories straight,” she says. Women supporting women!

Clues to Watch

• What is the significance of the mystery-thriller book Isabella gifted Megan when she first arrived?

• Megan finds a driver’s license with Isabella’s picture, but the name reads Pat Highsmith and lists an earlier birthdate than the one on her passport. Clearly sus.

• I am pretty positive that the kid with the video camera is going to come up again.

• Another thing I’m pretty sure is going to come up again — whatever issues are going on with Luke’s dad’s business.

Cruel Summer Premiere Recap: What Did Megan Do Last Summer?