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Why Is Anyone Buying Cruel Summer's Latest Twist?

If you squint, Cruel Summer Season 2's sex tape controversy almost makes sense.
  • Griffin Gluck, Sadie Stanley and Lexi Underwood in Cruel Summer Season 2 (Photo: Freeform/Justine Yeung)
    Griffin Gluck, Sadie Stanley and Lexi Underwood in Cruel Summer Season 2 (Photo: Freeform/Justine Yeung)

    [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Cruel Summer Season 2, "Welcome to Chatham" and "Ride or Die."]

    There are two major twists in the Cruel Summer Season 2 premiere, "Welcome to Chatham," but only one makes a lick of sense.

    In July 2000, police pull the body of Luke Chambers (Griffin Gluck), the son of a prominent developer, from the town marina. As Megan Landry (Sadie Stanley), Luke's girlfriend, looks on in horror, Isabella LaRue (Lexi Underwood) sidles up to her and issues a warning: "We have to get our stories straight."

    Six months earlier, in the second of Cruel Summer's three timelines, Luke, Megan, and Isabella attend the annual Chambers holiday party at the family's mansion. Steve Chambers (Paul Adelstein) cues up a Christmas movie — apparently, it's tradition to stand around a pool in the dead of winter and watch a feature-length film — but something far less wholesome begins to play. For a few uncomfortable seconds, everyone at the party watches as Luke and an unidentified girl have sex, seemingly unaware that they're on camera. The girl's face doesn't appear before Luke pulls the tape from the VCR player, but the partygoers have already handed down a guilty verdict: It must have been Isabella, the mysterious exchange student who arrived in their sleepy Pacific Northwest town in July 1999 (as seen in the first timeline).

    It's not hard to see what Elle Triedman (Siren), who assumed showrunning duties on Season 2 after a series of creative overhauls, was going for with these twists. The question of what happened to Luke — in Episode 2, "Ride or Die," his death is ruled a murder, rather than an accidental drowning — carries the season and looms large over all three timelines, just as the circumstances surrounding Kate Wallis' (Olivia Holt) disappearance did in Season 1. Plot-wise, the sex tape becomes a potential motive, but it also allows the anthology to comment on anxieties specific to the late 1990s (shortly after Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee Jones' sex tape was stolen and illegally leaked online) and Y2K. And while Luke gets off scot-free, Isabella is ridiculed by the town and faces possible expulsion at school, reflecting the sexism and racism that lurk beneath even the most idyllic communities, whether in this season's chosen era or the present day.

    But think about it for a second, and the half-baked logic underpinning the sex tape controversy becomes apparent. While Luke can be seen clearly on the tape, only the girl's knees and lower thighs appear as she lays on her back beneath him, making it practically impossible to identify her. Of course, that doesn't stop the other teens from jumping to conclusions. They latch onto the pink sweater that appears in the corner of the frame — the same sweater Isabella wears to the Christmas party — and the shadows on the girl's skin as evidence that it's Isabella on screen, rather than Megan.

    TV teens have a reputation for making dumb decisions, but the collective blame placed on Isabella after just a few seconds feels particularly ridiculous. Not only is Megan and Luke's healthy sex life the talk of the town — Steve and Megan's mom, Debbie (KaDee Strickland), debate whether it's just "puppy love" or something more as their kids nuzzle each other by the pool — but we see Megan and Isabella engage in the great tradition of best friends sharing clothes in this very episode. Isabella loans Megan a red floral dress to wear to the party; who's to say Megan didn't return the favor by sharing her pink sweater with Isabella?

    Once the theory takes hold, though, every move Isabella and Megan make is interpreted as additional proof of her duplicity. (The scene is also edited in a way that reinforces this idea.) When Megan grabs the tape from Luke and whirls around to stare at Isabella, the others see anger and heartache, just as they find guilt in Isabella's quiet discomfort. But close-ups on Stanley's face tell a different story. If the partygoers were actually paying attention, they would see that Megan isn't mad; she's confused and looking to her best friend for help in an unimaginable situation. Her trust has been broken, but not by the people currently facing blame.

    At the beginning of "Ride or Die," viewers learn the truth: It was Megan on the tape, and Isabella is covering for her so she doesn't lose her prestigious college scholarship. Considering how terribly Isabella is treated in the days after the Christmas party — her lawn is littered with blow-up sex toys and derogatory graffiti — this is a plausible (and unfair) consequence, which is why they continue to pretend that Isabella and Luke had sex, leading Megan to cut her friend out of her life.

    It's not a bad plan, but in enacting it, they prove to be just as foolish as their peers. They gather to discuss the charade on a bench directly in front of the police station, of all places, which is as close to the center of town as you can get. And they're not quiet about it, either: Isabella and Luke make a scene while disagreeing over his brother Brent (Braeden De La Garza), whom Luke suspects of making the tape, and Megan has to physically separate them. When Megan yells at them, insisting they don't "need more attention," she says it without a hint of irony. Luke does the same, telling the girls to "lay low" until he talks to Brent. "The last thing we need is to make things worse," he says, after spending the past few minutes doing exactly that.

    When Isabella speaks with Sheriff Myer (Sean Blakemore) after Luke's body is found, it becomes apparent that, despite their obtuseness, the truth about the sex tape still has yet to emerge. Clearly, the adults of the Chatham Sheriff's Department are no smarter than the teens they're interrogating (without lawyers, it's worth noting). If Megan and Isabella were involved in Luke's death in any way, they can take comfort in knowing that the brightest detective minds are far, far away from the case.

    Cruel Summer Season 2 airs Mondays at 10:00 PM ET on Freeform and streams next-day on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Cruel Summer, Freeform, Elle Triedman, Griffin Gluck, Lexi Underwood, Sadie Stanley