From ‘Mare of Easttown’ to ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer,’ Kids’ Criminal Actions Are as Complex as the World They Live In

Yellowjackets Mare of Easttown I Know What You Did Last Summer
Yellowjackets: Showtime; Mare of Easttown: HBO; I Know What You Did Last Summer: Amazon

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the series premiere of “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

After Alison (Madison Iseman) learns her twin sister Lennon (also Iseman) slept with the guy she has been in love with for years in the premiere episode of Amazon Prime Video’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” she just wants to leave their graduation party. Alison is emotionally distraught when she drives away, but also distracted by her sisters’ friends, who pile into the car, drunk and high. She may not have meant to hit something on a dark road, but when she gets out of the car and sees it is her sister, she agrees to dump the body — and then steals her identity and lives for the next year as Lennon.

Even if shock incapacitated Alison in the immediate aftermath of the accident, the longer she tells the lie about who she really is and what happened to her sister, the more culpable she becomes.

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is based on Lois Duncan’s 1973 novel of the same title, wherein the teenage protagonists hit a child with their car and fled the scene. Making mistakes, even deadly ones, is not a completely foreign topic in entertainment, although for many years, especially on screen, themes of criminality for child characters were depicted as acts of psychopathy and often came with fatal consequences for the immoral actions (see “The Bad Seed” and “The Good Son”). Now, adolescent life has become increasingly complex — especially due to the increased pressure that comes with social media — and with that, so too are such characters.

“Teenagers and young adults live in a very complicated time where everything about them is exposed and everything is being judged,” says Sara Goodman, creator and showrunner, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” “I think there’s more honesty in giving them challenges and not knowing the right and wrong thing to do and making terrible mistakes and thinking it’s empowering at the time or that they know what’s right and then have to live with that.”

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a slasher drama in which a year after Alison takes over her sister’s life, she and the group she was with on that fateful night are stalked and killed one by one who someone who claims to know what they did. In that case, consequences for their criminal actions are still just as deadly as they were in projects of the past, but external threats are only one piece of the puzzle: Because they are not psychopaths, there are different levels of guilt, trauma, PTSD and perhaps even shame to work through.

Balancing such psychological and emotional elements can be tricky for teenage characters who are already trying to find themselves amid an intense world. The gray area between mistake and true criminality grows in such series as “One of Us Is Lying,” Peacock’s adaptation of Karen M. McManus’ 2017 novel of the same title. In that story, five students enter a detention classroom, where one drinks water laced with peanut oil and suffers a fatal allergy attack. The others are naturally thought of as suspects, but they all claim innocence and that they were set up for what got them sent to detention in the first place. Similarly, on the first season of Freeform’s “Cruel Summer,” confusion over what she was seeing led Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) to witness the whereabouts of the missing Kate (Olivia Holt) but keep that to herself. Even Ryan (Cameron Mann) being the killer on HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” and Theresa (Stella Baker) attacking Emma (Lily Rabe) and going on the run, letting the world think she might be just another victim of a serial killer, on Amazon’s “Tell Me Your Secrets” are actions that are not purely villainous when you think about the trauma they experienced that pushed them to these points. (Impressionable Ryan learned his father was sleeping with someone not that much older than him, while Theresa was sexually abused in her younger years.)

The same is true for the protagonists of Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” a new drama premiering on Nov. 14, in which a team of high school soccer players gets stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. The extremity of those circumstances leads to criminal behavior ranging from destruction of property to cannibalism, some of which is for survival and some of which is to serve selfish interests. Twenty-five years later, those grown women still live with what they did in the woods — and what they kept secret.

“People are putting on such obvious masks — the curation of the self and how that’s put out into the world is very, very different now — and I think that perhaps there’s something about that phenomenon that is allowing people to more readily embrace these more complicated, darker stories,” says Ashley Lyle, executive producer, “Yellowjackets.”

Focusing these stories on the characters and their relationships to each other rather than just the plot of what they did provides both new storytelling opportunity for the creatives and unique appeal for the audience. Brad Ingelsby, executive producer of “Mare of Easttown,” previously told Variety he wanted his killer to be a teenager not because of a social statement about kids and gun violence, but because he wanted the “discovery [to be] so emotionally devastating” for a protagonist who was still grieving the loss of her own son.

Goodman, meanwhile, made her victim the driver’s twin sister because she “felt like in order to sustain a series it needed to be much more personal.”

“They just want to feel free, feel grown up, have the best time of their lives. And only when the accident happens are all of the consequences of every single one of their actions suddenly upon them,” she explains. Alison’s “decision gets more and more and more complicated in terms of, it does make her more responsible. It’s the fallacy of sunk costs, which is that once you invest in something, even if it’s losing, you can’t walk away. Somehow you’ve sunk so much in that you will lose that; you can’t see that each step you take further you’re losing more.”

The fact that so many of these characters are female is not a fluke, either. According to the most recent “Boxed In” report by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, representation for female characters is up 35% year-over-year (from 43% in 2020 to 58% now). When it came to children and teens, female characters made up 17%. This may be, in part, because the number of women creators also increased slightly, from 28% in 2020 to 30% now.

“The complications inherent to [young women] are always, I think, very apparent to anyone who’s lived through it or anybody who’s had daughters or anybody who’s been around women,” says Lyle.

Citing “The Sopranos” as one of her favorite series with complicated, criminal protagonists, she continues, “We felt like we could absolutely give the women on our show that same treatment and have faith that the audience will care about them despite the questionable and often dubious decisions that they make.”