[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of Cruel Summer, "Endgame." Read at your own risk!]
While Freeform's young adult thriller-mystery series Cruel Summer is an anthology, with its first two seasons — the second of which concluded on Monday night — telling fully separate and contained stories, it's impossible not to compare the two. The first season, set in the mid-'90s, tells the story of popular high school student Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), who mysteriously disappears, and the nerdy Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), who basically steals Kate's life while the former is missing. This season, we turn to a small Washington town around Y2K, where we meet Megan Landry (Sadie Stanley), a computer whiz who enters into an intense friendship with Isabella LaRue (Lexi Underwood), an exchange student living with the Landrys for a year, until the two girls are implicated in the death of Megan's boyfriend, Luke (Griffin Gluck).
There were two main mysteries to solve throughout the first season: How was Kate abducted (and how did she escape), and how much did Jeanette know about it? Told over three timelines from each girl's point of view, Season 1 kept viewers guessing about Jeanette's involvement until the very end, when the finale provided one last, perfectly deployed twist. (Spoiler alert: Jeanette's guilty, she fooled us all, and she's getting away with everything!!) It made for the perfect topper to a frothy summer watch. While Season 2 follows much of that same playbook as it answers the mystery of what happened to Luke, right down to a last-minute game-changing twist, it unfortunately doesn't pack quite the same punch.
This season's finale takes its time unraveling its central mystery. "Endgame" keeps providing would-be conclusions, and then, just when you're resigned to that answer, it rips it away to present another one. We learn that on New Year's Eve, after Megan and Isabella leave Luke tied up and bleeding in the cabin to think about his toxic masculinity, he escapes, makes it to the dock, and pages (bless the '90s) his brother Brent (Braeden De La Garza). Unfortunately, these two brothers can't help but fight, and in an argument about how much their family is made up of garbage people, Brent pushes Luke, who hits his head against the ladder and falls into the water. Brent goes in after him, but it's too dark, and Luke never resurfaces. Brent takes the horrific news to his dad, and Steve (Paul Adelstein) spends the rest of his time trying to pin Luke's death on anyone but Brent.
Meanwhile, in the summer 2000 timeline, when Megan doesn't reciprocate Isabella's feelings that all of this [checks notes] evading murder charges together feels like "old times" (it was literally just a few months ago) and that their friendship is back on track, Isabella retaliates by editing the video the girls took of Luke's interrogation, making it look like only Megan was there and that Megan fired the gun (Isabella was a tech girl all along!). Megan gets charged with Luke's murder, and it looks pretty grim. Mercifully, Brent decides to grow a heart, and, against his father's wishes, he turns himself in to the police, tells Megan the whole story, and gets her released. Steve gets arrested too, because karma for a man willing to throw anyone under the bus in the name of avoiding scandal is, indeed, a bitch. And in about as happy an ending as Megan could hope for at this point, Ned (Ben Cotton) gets her a coding job in California. But Cruel Summer isn't here for happy endings. Friends, "cruel" is right there in the title; don't act like you didn't know.
Isabella gets her own, twisted version of a happily ever after: We find her on a flight to Ibiza, making friends with the young woman in the seat next to her. She tells her all about her perfect best friend Megan — the same exact way she spoke about her previous BFF, Lisa, to Megan — and then offers to be her "partner-in-crime" in Ibiza, since the girl is traveling alone. Isabella goes by Lisa (!!) now. And then we get the grand finale: While saying a symbolic goodbye to Luke at the dock, Megan notices another hidden security camera, most likely belonging to Ned, up in the trees, pointed directly at the dock. When she pulls the footage from the night Luke died, she learns the horrifying truth. Isabella went back to the cabin that night alone. In the footage, Isabella finds Luke down by the dock, washed up on shore, but, against all odds, he's alive. Brent didn't accidentally kill him after all. In a bone-chilling turn, instead of helping him, Isabella ever-so-slightly steps on his head, pressing it into the water, drowning him. Isabella killed Luke in some psychotic effort to keep Megan to herself (an effort that failed spectacularly), and now she is nowhere to be found. The final image of the season is a close-up on Megan's face as she takes in the horror and her distress soon turns into piping hot rage.
Don't get me wrong: The way Isabella kills Luke is shocking, to say the least (please see also: nauseating, heartbreaking, that thing where a cartoon's eyes separate from their sockets), but is it that shocking to learn that it was Isabella who killed Luke after all? She was the No. 1 suspect from day one. The only time I wondered if Isabella didn't have something to do with Luke's death was when I said to myself, No, that would be way too obvious. From the moment Isabella showed up in Chatham she was obsessive to a disturbing degree. In every timeline she was off. The final Jeanette reveal in Season 1 worked so well because you were constantly second-guessing whether she was lying or not. It was so ambiguous throughout the season that it was easy to convince yourself either way. There is no ambiguity with Isabella.
A huge factor in the difference between the two characters is that in Season 1, so much of the story was told from Jeanette's point of view. Jeanette and Kate shared that job equally. But Season 2 is almost entirely told from Megan's point of view (save for an episode from Luke's). Because we don't often see the story from Isabella's side, it's harder to empathize with her, and therefore difficult to look beyond the surface and question our snap judgements. Give Isabella a fully developed backstory! The show's hints as to what happened pre-Chatham with Lisa, including the appearance of Lisa's brother Trevor (Olly Sholotan), are so undercooked. Knowing more of Isabella's story and making her a fully rounded character would make audiences second-guess whether she's capable of murdering Luke. Make us question her motives more! She seems unhinged from the beginning, and there's never a reason to examine that assumption.
Isabella and Megan's friendship feels just as undercooked. The time frame we're playing with here — summer 1999, winter 1999, and summer 2000 — is so short, and there's no meaningful catalyst for their supposed deep friendship. Just repeating the phrase "ride-or-die" does not a friendship make. Megan is won over by Isabella so quickly. If there were a more believable or obvious reason for her shift in feelings, or a longer time period for the two to get to know one another, it, again, might force us to question our own first impressions. So much of the season hinges on believing in this friendship or, at least, believing that they both believe it is as strong as they keep saying, but there's no real foundation for that belief. It's a shame their dynamic doesn't hit the emotional stakes as hard as it could, because Stanley and Underwood have great on-screen chemistry and both give compelling performances.
There are so many great elements Cruel Summer sets up for Season 2, and an exploration of toxic teen girl friendships is an interesting jumping-off point, but because one of the characters is so underserved, none of it works as well as it could. There's just not enough filled in between the lines to make it click as well as the first go-around. Perhaps some of the problem is that Season 2 follows the pattern of Season 1 so closely and yet fails to live up to its predecessor. If a potential Season 3 is in the works, Cruel Summer might want to rethink its formula to keep us on our toes. A little reinvention never hurt anyone — just ask Isabella.
Cruel Summer Season 2 is now streaming on Hulu.