This article contains spoilers for the first season of The Summer I Turned Pretty.
How do you react when you realize you’re living in a tragedy?
Now, you may be tempted to think of tragedy in the classical sense where the majority of the characters die by the end of the story. But tragedy can simply be an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress. And how we react to tragedy can say a lot about us.
That initial question haunted me after my first viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. After nearly two hours of breakneck tension, The Birds doesn’t have a happy ending. There’s no deus ex machina for the ensemble and no satisfying explanation of why the birds are on their murderous rampage. Instead, the characters are just lucky to escape with their lives.
When you know you are going to lose, do you keep on playing the game? Do you keep fighting when defeat seems inevitable and inescapable? How do you react when you realize you’re living in a tragedy? Recently, those questions crept up on me again in an unexpected place: Amazon Prime Video’s new series The Summer I Turned Pretty. What I expected to be a typical guilty pleasure left me in an existential crisis on my couch.
In my household, cheesy teen romances are a go-to for a feel-good time. While love triangles, first kisses, and heartbreak may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect evening, the genre is popular for a reason: almost everyone, at one point or another, has been on a journey to find love. So how did The Summer I Turned Pretty conjure such stressful emotions in me?
Isabel “Belly” Conklin is a blossoming teenager eager for “real” summer to begin upon arriving at Cousins Beach. Her older brother, Stephen, is ready to see his lifelong best friends. Their mother, Laurel, is newly divorced, which makes it difficult for her to work on her upcoming novel. The trio arrive at the palatial home of their friend Susanna and her sons, Conrad and Jeremiah, who invite the Conklin family for an extended stay every summer.
Conrad, Belly’s childhood crush, has an attitude that’s noticeably different from past summers, brooding and sulking while others enjoy the summertime fun. But despite how distant he stays from her and his family, Belly can’t resist Conrad’s charm. He embodies that mysterious magnetism of the Byronic hero. But with her dream man behaving so differently than usual, Belly’s left to wonder if he’s still the boy she fell in love with. Conrad’s attitude and actions push Belly into exploring her newfound freedom and potential in the dating scene. And as the genre promises, emotion flares and drama ensues.
As the season meanders through yacht parties and volleyball games, it builds up to the big reveal where all the characters learn what Conrad has already known and been struggling with since the spring: Susanna’s cancer is back and she’s refusing treatment. Conrad’s way of coping with this news has been partying and sulking. And so, my mind went back to The Birds. I realized that Conrad was living a tragedy: the tragedy of watching his mother slowly die.
The Birds and The Summer I Turned Pretty are unified through tragedy. When people realize defeat is inevitable, how they react reveals their true character. Those characters who continue to fight become the heroes that audiences love to cheer on.
The book of Romans tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” For a long time, Conrad has found himself in the stage of suffering with no one to talk to out of respect for his mother’s privacy. Through the mentorship of a fatherly writer, Conrad learns more about forgiving himself: he doesn’t have to blame himself for his mother’s cancer. Forgiveness, he learns, has the ability and power to free you to live the life you are meant to live.
Although the series does not explicitly handle topics of Christianity, Conrad’s storyline showcases the transformative power of hope. Christians know that living in faith does not mean life will be easy. But having hope means that regardless of the type of day we’re having, a better day is coming. On our best days, on our worst days—a better day is coming. It may not be on this side of Heaven, but a better day is coming. It’s a slow process for him, but as Conrad learns to focus on the positive and let go of the past, viewers see his growth—even if it’s too late for him and Belly.
By the time Conrad begins approaching life with a fresh outlook, Belly has shifted her interest to his younger brother, Jeremiah. Broken out of his Byronic stance, Conrad accepts that she has moved on. Despite serving as an antagonistic force for much of the season, Conrad has finally changed, becoming a sympathetic character.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is rife with takeaways. Because of its genre, you may be tempted to view it as little more than another teen romance. But if you take the time to look at the struggles of its characters, you may just recognize the hardships we all face in life. And whether it be heartbreak, love triangles, or personal tragedy, Amazon’s series reminds us that hope can reach us in our hardships.