Another Cruel Summer has come to an end. No, not the record-breaking heatwaves that have been scorching the globe. I am referring to the addictive anthology series on Freeform that has kept viewers full of burning questions all season long. After the first season left viewers’ jaws on the floor, the challenge was on to deliver another intense season of mysteries and twists. Taking on the task of telling another dark and unpredictable drama was showrunner and executive producer, Elle Triedman.
Cruel Summer‘s second season finale just aired yesterday and Triedman spoke with Awards Radar all about it: her goals, keeping secrets from the cast and crew, the unexpected alternate endings, what happens to some characters after the series ends, and much more.
This season centers around an unexpected love triangle between Megan (Sadie Stanley), her best friend Luke (Griffin Gluck) and a new arrival in town, Isabella (Lexi Underwood) who quickly befriends Megan. All seems like high school business as usual until Luke turns up dead, suspiciously drowned in the lake.
(Warning: Luke’s death occurs in episode one – so it is not much of a spoiler. While we avoided some of the biggest reveals, the conversation is not spoiler-free – especially the end. If you are not caught u with the season two finale, proceed with caution.)
As an anthology series, each season is essentially a fresh start – new cast, new location, and a new mystery. This provided Triedman with a nearly blank canvas with which to work. “You do get to build it from the ground up, which is pretty incredible. I knew we were going to using Vancouver that was already established. So that setting it in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington State was perfect, because it looks like Vancouver, and it’s just spectacular.” The setting serves as a perfect backdrop for the dark subject matter the series likes to dabble with, she explained. “You get that sort of small town fell. It’s very woodsy but the water is also so dynamic. It’s sort of mysterious up there. It’s a little too quiet sometimes. Which is great for drama, and great for a murder. “
One reason this small town is ‘quiet’ is directly related to the time in which this story is set, the turn of the century before smartphones existed – right in the middle of the Y2K madness. While they may seem like more innocent times, especially since social media sites and apps did not exist in their current form, the characters are not immune to the power of gossip. “Years ago, you had the telephone game. We didn’t have social media, but word among friends spreads like rapid fire in a small town. People shift the story as they tell it, and it gets embellished,” explained Triedman.
“The impact of your one mistake in a small town is exponential. There isn’t another crisis of the day to kick you off that top headline. In the timeline of the winter of December 1999, this takes place over 12 or 13 days. So it’s very compressed, and everything is very heightened. If that were a three week period, some of the scandal would have died down. But everything just gets ratcheted up and up in this situation.”
While season one was intense, Triedman’s goal was to take season two up a notch or two, “I really wanted this season to feel different. I wanted more of an outright crime. I wanted a murder. I love puzzles. I love mysteries. I think it’s really fun to track that as a viewer. We definitely felt pressure to try to match the level of what we call ‘the doorknob moment’ at the end of season one. So that was a big goal.” (If you do not know what ‘the doorknob moment’ is, do yourself a favor after watching season two and check out season one as well – both are streaming on Hulu.)
While the addition of a murder is a great place to start, what really separates season two is an approach that more closely examines the bonds of friendship and family. “In season one, the girls, Kate (Olivia Holt) and Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia), were really on separate tracks – they barely interacted during the season. I really came in wanting to explore this very intense, non-romantic friendship between two late-teenage girls. That was something that was very, very important to me because I think it’s just such a unique and special time in people’s lives,” explained Triedman.
“It’s a relationship that had a lot of impact on my life and it’s really interesting to see; To have Isabella come in, like this meteorite, to this small town, to this girl, to this group of friends, and see her impact on it. You you sort of wonder, what if she hadn’t come? What would have happened with any of this.”
Many of the events of the season pivot around the decisions and actions of the characters. Though it may easy to judge their choices Triedman hopes viewers take a different perspective. “The thing that I always want to emphasize is, these are teenagers, these are 17 year-olds, and they’re works in progress. They’re trying to figure out who they are versus who they’ve been, and how their friends and their family and their community are seeing them versus who they want to be. You make a lot of mistakes along the way.”
“The fun of the show is, who you think the killer is, and trying to guess, episode to episode. It’s also been interesting to watch people’s loyalties shift from character to character, and someone they thought they hated. They may still hate them in the end, but maybe they see that there are more layers, and it’s not so black and white,”continued Triedman. “Especially with Luke, I think it’s interesting to see that by the time he gets to the last moments of his life, he realizes and sees all of his mistakes, and he wants to correct them. You’d like to think that if he had another few days, let alone, another 60 years, he’d probably turned out to be a different person.”
The death of Luke turns lives upside down, leaving his best friend a suspect and keeping viewers guessing where the actual truth lies right until the final seconds of the season. The puzzles may have kept viewers coming back for more, but equally important is the exploration of the character dynamics. “It was fun to play with such a great cast, the impact of a family, and what a crisis, a death, and some mystery does to a family – the lies and the secrets that are told. That was something that we certainly deepened over the season, said Triedman”
To accomplish this, the series requires layered characters for viewers to invest in, ones that have much more to them beneath the surface. Triedman broke down Isabella and Megan, who relationship is the heart of the series. “I think Isabella is a searcher. She’s someone who really craves family, and love, and a sense of community, and belonging. She’s on her path and will continue to look for that. I think she has major boundary issues, and a very twisted sense of loyalty and what that truly means.” She continued, “In terms of Megan, I think she’s someone who has always worked incredibly hard, who has also been aware that the playing field is not always even, that life is not fair. I think that she’s learned that sometimes some shortcuts are necessary. She is incredibly driven. And she is relentless, and will be, in terms of getting what she wants.”
(Warning: full on spoilers ahead)
Triedman held the biggest secrets, keeping the stars of the series in the dark for much of the time about the details of the mystery. “They were very patient, because I would not tell them much,” she explained. “In some ways, it doesn’t help you to know what’s coming. It’s hard to stay in the moment in terms of, especially who the killer is. If you know that in advance, it’s going to color your performance, it’s almost impossible for it not to.” She continued, “So I’m very good at keeping secrets. It was fun to have people on the crew guessing and trying to figure it out.”
Fans who watched either season know that on Cruel Summer it is not over until it is over; both seasons ended with final second jaw-dropping moments that changed the read on everything preceding them. The showrunner was able to keep that secret right until the very end. “When we did put out the final script, we did not put out the last two pages, except for people who absolutely needed.”
Scripts certainly would have read much different before the final killer was settled on. “We had a lot of different potential killers on the board,” said Triedman. “We had everyone from Debbie (Megan’s mom) to the Sheriff (Sean Blakemore). But once once we decided it was Isabella, that was a very clear line.”
Throughout the season, Triedman enjoyed following the online chatter about the show during and after each episode’s airing. Every week had new details and revelations that had viewers not only shifting their theories, but also their allegiances. Some fans even expected the there was no victim, “There were so many theories that Luke was still alive. I never saw that coming,” recalled a surprised Triedman.
In the end, most our questions are answered but the fate of Isabella and Megan does remain open to some interpretation. Triedman believes Megan would stay true to her self. “She took that footage and gave it to the sheriff. You don’t just sit on something like that. Sadie’s performance is so great because you see her shock and anger and grief, and then her sort of steely resolve. So that may not be the only thing she would do, but I think she’s definitely going to make sure Brent doesn’t go down for this and get justice for Luke.”
As for Isabella, who was last seen flying solo to Ibiza under the name Lisa, could she pop up in season three, “It’s sort of too early to say what’s in store for the future? It is set up as an anthology series. I think it’s fun to keep them all separate, but we’ll see. It’s fun to have different interpretations. I think that’s a great way to leave it. Everyone can make their own decision about what happens next.”
When asked for three words to describe season three of Cruel Summer, Triedman responded with, “Intense. Twisted. Fun.” After that finale, they are three words all viewers should be able to agree on.
Watch Cruel Summer season two in its entirety on Hulu,