I Know What You Did Last Summer is a show about deception—from yourself, from the world at large, from the people that you think would know you best. It has layers upon layers upon layers of it. Deception is so central to the show that it even deceives its audience, right from the very beginning. And no, I don’t just mean in the sense of the plot, although there is no shortage of that. Let me explain.
Before we go any further, I should mention that this article contains spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the new series, I recommend you go check it out!
On my first watch, I thought that the opening half-hour or so kinda…sucked. After Lennon Grant arrives home for the summer after her first year at college to find a severed goat’s head in her bedroom along with the ominous message “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the rest of the episode is devoted to the fateful night one year ago that changed the lives of everyone involved.
When we first meet Lennon Grant, her sister Allison, and Lennon’s original group of friends—Margot, Jonny, Riley, and Dylan—they are an absolutely obnoxious, borderline unwatchable group of millennial stereotypes cranked up to eleven, while plot-wise it appears to be a fairly by the numbers modernization of the 1997 movie. It was enough that, in all honesty, I almost stopped watching about twenty minutes in. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and grousing to my editor that the show wasn’t worth my time, but I gritted my teeth and decided I would at least give the show until the end of the first episode before I passed any sort of final judgment.
Then, just after the half-hour mark, we get to the “what you did” part and the game changes. This twist is the first sign that this is going to be something different in a significant way.
See, unlike the ’97 I Know What You Did Last Summer, it’s not a random person who is the victim of the fatal accident that changes the lives of everyone involves: it’s Allison. This twist instantly adds an entirely new, personal layer that wasn’t present in the original story. This is somebody they all knew; they might not have particularly cared for Allison, but she’s somebody who had already made an impact in their lives and whose absence is felt in a tangible way that stretches well beyond that of the original victim.
The first sign of this different dynamic comes with how different the aftermath of the accident plays out this time around. Whereas the victim in the ’97 movie was sort of unceremoniously dumped off of a dock, here we get an extended sequence where they almost ritualistically leave her body in a nearby cave, notorious for having been the site both of a cult’s mass suicide years prior and the suicide of Allison and Lennon’s mother. They then swear to never tell anyone about what happened that night.
But it’s not until we only have about five minutes left in the first episode that we get to the real twist.
As the episode ends, we get a flashback to earlier that night—the first of many used throughout the show to fill in gaps in the narrative and add a new perspective on the evening’s events—which gives us one of the most brilliant twists I’ve seen in years. Throughout the night, the primary way that we’ve been able to tell the twins apart is that Allison had been wearing a rather distinct necklace as a memento of her mother, but when we flash back to earlier that night and get the full conversation between her and her sister, we get a game-changing clue: Allison takes the necklace off, flings it at Lennon—and Lennon puts it on.
That’s right: Lennon was the one hit by the car, Lennon is now dead—and not only was Allison behind the wheel, she is now living under her sister’s name and identity. In a single moment, I Know What You Did Last Summer turns from what felt like an uninspired remake into something new and f*cked up and weird and exciting.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything interesting and compelling about the show spirals out from this piece of knowledge. It adds a fascinating new shade to what would otherwise be cliched plotlines and leaves just about every interaction between major characters dripping with sweet, sweet subtext.
For starters, it leaves a huge question mark over the entire “accident.” Given that we’ve just seen a good forty-five minutes of evidence to suggest that Allison and Lennon really didn’t care for—or even viscerally hated—each other, the question that naturally follows is: was it even an accident at all? Or did Allison see Lennon staggering home along the side of the road and deliberately run her down in a moment of rage? How did Lennon even wind up along the side of the road, to begin with?
When we originally see the accident thinking that Lennon is behind the wheel. It could have been chalked up to the fact that we had watched her spend the night loading up on just about every pill or drink she could get her hands on, but we know perfectly well that Allison was completely sober—if not incredibly distracted by the inebriated loudmouths she’s driving around, all of whom think she’s Lennon.
So when “Lennon” checks back in with Dylan after returning home from college, finding him so riddled with guilt that he won’t even talk to the rest of the friend group, is his bitter statement of “There are no accidents—only karma” simply acceptance of what they’ve done and what is coming for them? Or does he suspect—or even know—that there was more to the events of the evening? Might he even suspect that “Lennon” is not who she seems to be?
Dylan would certainly be close enough to both sisters to potentially know the difference, and as we find out in Episode 3, he carries around a significant amount of guilt, knowing how he had played a huge role in the rift between Allison and Lennon. He had been Allison’s first longtime crush but had slept with Lennon the night of the graduation party. Turns out that he had shared Allison’s feelings but neither one had had the courage to make a move, and after some aggravating words from Riley about how Allison would never sleep with him, he winds up getting high with Lennon and hooking up with her—likely out of frustration over never getting together with Allison.
So it’s with a level of heartbreaking irony that we watch the two of them interact, knowing that Allison still holds feelings for him but is now in a situation where she will never be able to have him without revealing her secret and risking her own safety. In Episode 4, Dylan even goes so far as to confess that he loved Allison back—unaware that she’s sitting right in front of him—and then turns it into an accusation that Lennon had only slept with him as a way of hurting her sister.
Then there’s Jonny, the one with the unfortunate distinction to be the first major character to wind up dead (the first victim is technically Jonny’s lover, Coach Craft, but he hadn’t been seen up until that point). His death sets up several of the common threads that connect most of the murders we’ve seen so far: the victims are all someone who seemed to be taking a step towards figuring out the truth about “Lennon”—his death happens not long after he and “Lennon” share a cigarette on the beach and he makes an off-hand remark about how she never used to smoke, to which she gives the subtext drenched reply of how they’ve all changed—and his death ties into the first of many red herrings and false leads for the authorities to pursue. The first three victims, Jonny, Coach Craft, and Dale, all have ties to Craft’s ex-wife, leading the police to name her as the primary suspect and focus their investigation on her.
But Jonny’s death holds extra significance. He was the only one who was really friends with Allison, so his death seems geared towards inflicting pain on two people in particular: “Lennon,” who we know is actually Allison, and Margo, who had considered Jonny her best friend and had earlier suggested that “Lennon” had always been an attention wh*re and that she might have been faking the thing with the goat head.
Margo herself is, funnily enough, perhaps the closest person to understanding what “Lennon” is currently going through. She’s the one who most openly lives a double life with an ever-widening chasm between the manufactured existence she puts out via her social media accounts and the very real pain that she’s experiencing.
Margo is the source of much of the show’s dark, satirical sense of humor. Her videos taken for her Instagram after hearing about Jonny’s death or even at “Allison’s” funeral hit that perfect middle ground of just over the top enough to be funny while still being perfectly plausible, but she has plenty of moments sprinkled throughout hinting at the amount of personal baggage she holds onto that add real vulnerability and sympathy to her character.
Then there’s Riley, the odd one out of the group. She’s less well off than the rest of them—her mom has to work doing the cleaning at “Lennon’s” house, and she’s also the one who’s usually getting drugs for her friends. We haven’t gotten as much on her character as some of the others just yet, but so far she’s holding down the fort as both the practical one (“Let’s focus on the killer coming for us”) and the brutally honest one (“You’re not a nice guy, Dylan, you’re just a chickenshit”).
Finally, there’s “Lennon.” While her opening monologue about how you don’t really know anybody seems cliche at first, the secret we share with her means that we really don’t know who our lead even is. The first episode gives us a fairly good idea of who Allison and Lennon were individually, but after a year of living to at least some degree the way people would expect her sister to act, “Lennon” comes across as some weird, unfamiliar mixture of the two sisters.
Late into Episode 2, “Lennon” has a visualization and/or hallucination about her sister (well, an idealized version of her sister who she gets along with perfectly well) crawling onto her bed before cooing, “It’s fun being me.” At first, Allison appears to be adjusting to being “Lennon” fairly easily, but as time goes on, she appears to be growing more and more uneasy with the idea of living as her sister. Is she more Allison or Lennon? Is she getting lost inside of her sister’s identity—or slowly being consumed by it?
“Lennon’s” secret also means that every interaction that she has with her friend group from the moment she gets behind the wheel of her car on the night of the accident is a multilayered one. Sometimes, in a way, that’s tragic; sometimes, in a way, that’s sinister; sometimes, in a way, that’s downright funny. Margo’s rant that they shouldn’t feel guilty about accidentally killing “Allison” because “she had no friends and just sat around and hated on everybody” was already an absurd moment of over-the-top bitchiness. When we find out that it’s actually Allison who’s listening to how she really feels, that absurdity is pushed to almost satirical heights.
Flashbacks to the night of the grad party are frequently woven into the narrative, both to paint a more complete picture of the night’s events and to fill in the blanks of who everyone involved is versus who they want—or are pretending—to be. The trend so far has been to focus on the perspective of one character per episode, and it’s worked to great effect, although that might very well just be the fact that I have a weakness for shows that can fluidly go from past to present, especially shots in the ballpark of “character goes enters a door at one point in time and exits a door at a different point in time.”
The show’s intrigue stems from how open-ended everything has been so far. After all, if my brain is spiraling out into all of those questions, it’s easy to assume that “Lennon” is going through a similar thought process and is likely growing more and more paranoid as the past comes back to haunt her. We’ve already seen her hallucinate about the real Lennon on two separate occasions, and I don’t imagine that going away anytime soon.
There’s even a sinister new subtext given to the phrase “I Know What You Did Last Summer”: does whoever wrote it simply know about the “accident”? Or are they letting on that they know everything that happened last summer? The goat’s head that accompanies this message suggests some level of deeper insight into the situation, given that Dylan remarked after the accident that it “must have been a goat,” but is it just that someone knows the secret that the group has been keeping from the outside world? Or do they know the secret that “Lennon” is keeping from the rest of the group?
Truth be told, as of now, we don’t have any solid leads as to who the killer’s true identity is. The show is in a constant game of give-and-take with us, presenting possible leads only to cut them off at the root. Dale—the local creep who saw the group on the side of the road just after the accident—is revealed to be the guy who’s stalking “Lennon” in the black pickup truck, but the group’s attempt to confront him turns out to be in vain as he’s already dead by the time they get there.
It’s not out of the question to think that “Lennon” might be responsible for everything due to some sort of schizophrenia or fugue state after living as someone else for a year. Even though we watch her horrified reaction to the video they all get of Jonny getting his head cut off, I still can’t help but wonder if she is the one who did the deed and sent the video to the rest of the group from a different number at a later time. Admittedly, the plausibility of this theory gets pushed to the breaking point the further in you get, but it’s still a possibility that I can’t fully let go of.
Another possible suspect is Bruce. He shows up right after “Lennon” and Jonny share a cigarette on the beach, and he warns her to be careful. Then after the video of Jonny’s head being cut off is sent to the group, he’s suddenly unable to be found or reached, and he seemed…weirdly okay with the whole “I accidentally killed my sister” thing to the point that he encouraged and helped her to assume Lennon’s identity. Plus, he knew exactly who to go to for answers when “Allison’s” body shows up in the ocean in Episode 4, has a vested interest in protecting his daughter’s identity, and—if there’s anything to what Clara said about “protecting” both him and his daughters—probably has some ties to the weird cult sh*t that happened in the past.
Clara herself is certainly involved in something. It turns out she had been holding onto “Allison’s” body for the last year before releasing it into the ocean at the summer solstice, only to find out that she was not the “one,” as she laments to Bruce. The one what? No clue at this point, but the best guess we have so far is something related to the cult that had committed mass suicides on the island at some point in the past, and it’s the first of the show’s mysteries that falls strictly into the category of weird sh*t.
It’s here that I Know What You Did Last Summer leans into another of its major influences: vintage Twin Peaks. Almost all the hallmarks are there: the dual identities, everyone and their mother being full of secrets, the way in which the central mystery slowly spirals outward to reveal further and further secrets and mysteries and weird sh*t. Even the flashback sequences are often given an off-kilter, dreamlike quality that brings to mind the infamous Black Lodge. “Allison” might not have been wrapped in plastic, but the visual of her body floating in the ocean with glassy, white eyes instantly brings to mind both Laura’s dead body and the terrifying doppelgangers that await people in the Lodge.
But the biggest mystery of the show remains “Allison” herself. She’s easily the one most likely behind the killings—until her body shows up near the beginning of Episode 4 and seemingly confirms her death. Then two more bodies show up at her funeral, and each of the group receives a pair of messages from “Allison”: “I’m still here,” and “I still know.” The two common threads behind the killings have been “people who are getting close to uncovering ‘Lennon’s’ identity” and “people who were close to Allison,” so everything points to the killer being someone who would not only know about the truth of “Allison’s” death but that “Lennon” was actually Allison living under her sister’s name. Just as “Lennon” is hiding under the name of her deceased sister, it looks like someone is hiding under her real name, in turn.
So where does this leave us? With a whole lot of questions, a rapidly increasing pile of bodies, just about nothing answered—and I can hardly wait for more. I Know What You Did Last Summer has so far been a tense, weird thrill ride—and if the rest of the season lives up to what we’ve seen so far, it will be something we talk about for years to come.
The one thing I can say for certain? I Know What You Did Last Summer is my favorite new show of 2021, and it is one you would do well not to miss.