Jenny Han has seen your memes and TikToks about The Summer I Turned Pretty. In fact, she’s reposted some on her Instagram Story. To anyone who has comments about Belly Conklin’s questionable decision-making and romantic flip-flopping, the author and executive producer has a very reasonable response: “She’s 16 and she’s been through a really hard year. And, I mean, who among us?” she laughs over Zoom.
“I have so much love in my heart for Belly, and yes, she is a chaos demon, but I think that she is a 16-year-old girl who has been through a really big loss and she’s still trying to find her way,” Han adds. Belly is just “on her own journey” and Han has “a lot of empathy for her.”
As season 2 has shown, that journey has involved falling in and out of love with two brothers, grieving their late mother Susannah, and trying to save the beach house she loved—all while being a teenager.
“I think it was important to show the different ways that people grieve and process loss and how far apart they were from each other,” Han says. Conrad and Laurel, for example, tend to go inward and not ask for help, while Steven feels too guilty to let himself be happy. “But I think one of the themes of the season is that you can hold both of those emotions [happiness and grief] at the same time. Two things can be happening at once,” Han says. “And for Belly, so much of her grief is in the loss of Susannah, the loss of Conrad and Jeremiah, and really, the loss of innocence.”
By the time we reach the season 2 finale, we see how Belly has grappled with—and even started to move on from—those losses. She assures herself she’s over her first love, Conrad, and is ready for something new with Jeremiah. It’s not an easy decision, and it’s certainly messy, but it’s fully hers. Let’s break down that ending.
“Anytime it’s an iconic scene from the book, it’s something I think everybody feels like they want to really satisfy the fans and do right by it,” Han says of the night at the motel. “And so I think that was on everyone’s minds.”
While driving home from Brown, Conrad, Belly, and Jeremiah are forced to spend the night at a motel when a storm breaks and the highway shuts down. The ride was extremely awkward considering what happened earlier that day: Conrad caught Jeremiah and Belly kissing and accused Belly of doing it just to get his attention. While cleaning up his dorm later, Conrad came across the necklace he once gave her. Conrad takes his emotions out on the other two and becomes a menace during the drive, bringing up the people Jeremiah hooked up with and asking Belly which of the two is a better kisser. Things are understandably uncomfortable by the time they check in. And what are the odds—there’s only one available room, with one bed.
Jeremiah remains cautious. First, he tells Belly that he thinks Conrad is still in love with her. He doesn’t want to get hurt again, so she has to talk with Conrad to see if she still feels the same way. Second, he calls Conrad out on his behavior (“You’re acting like a dick so everyone can see how bad you’re hurting.”) Conrad tells Jeremiah that he still loves Belly, and Jeremiah urges him to tell her. If she picks Conrad, Jeremiah will let her go. He just wants them both to be happy.
The boys let Belly sleep on the bed while they take the floor on either side of her. Later that night, when Conrad and Belly are still awake, he tells her, “I still want you, of course I do.” He doesn’t let her respond. “I just wanted you to know that.”
“All of the scenes in the motel, they’re so rich,” episode director Megan Griffiths says. “There’s the brother dynamics and the individual dynamics with Belly, her own personal experiences that she’s having outside of the brothers, like her conversation with her mom and her own moments of reflection outside of other people being around.”
Belly and Jeremiah
The next morning, Jeremiah is gone, but it turns out he just grabbed breakfast. Belly tells him he was right; Conrad told her last night that he still had feelings for her. Jeremiah seems ready to shut down again, but Belly won’t let him. She chooses Jeremiah and they kiss while Beyoncé’s “XO” plays.
“I think it’s complicated for both of them,” Griffiths says, “but there’s also such a comfort that they have in each other that there’s such a shorthand. And then this relationship that they have with each other is so much less complicated than both of their relationships with Conrad.”
Still, Griffiths adds, “They’re not walking into this blindly. They know that Conrad has feelings about it, and they both are letting that happen as well.”
In the end, Jeremiah drives Belly the rest of the way home and holds her hand in the car. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this,” he says. He takes her to volleyball camp, where he stays to watch her play and cheer her on.
“I think that’s clear, he’s happy,” Han says of Jeremiah’s ending. “To me, I’m most focused on [the fact] that they’ve all been through this really big loss and trauma. And as we come into the end of the season, it feels like a return to innocence in a way, where they’re able to come out of that grief and have moments of joy.
“Even with the way things end, I would say that, in a way, Conrad and Jeremiah are communicating more than they have in a long time. And both of them are, I think, doing their best to be there for each other by having those really honest conversations. So I think Jeremiah has grown a lot from season 1 to season 2. He had to grow up in a lot of ways.” And he ends “in a happy place.”
After Belly kisses Jeremiah, she talks with Conrad in the motel room. He doesn’t want to get in her way again, so he takes back what he said the night before: “Whatever I said, I didn’t mean it.” Belly is so stunned she can’t even be mad; he’s always been like this, she says in the voiceover. He gives her back the infinity necklace.
Conrad takes a bus back to Cousins Beach and lets Jeremiah take his car to drive Belly home. He tells Jeremiah to make sure Belly “gets home safe.” He takes a moment alone outside, his eyes tearing up.
“I think for Conrad, he’s really been so focused on saving the house and being in charge of that and taking charge of that, that I think he hasn’t really realized what was happening with Belly and Jeremiah,” says Han. “And so this is all quite sudden and surprising for him to process. So I think he has a very chaotic 24 hours—he’s still in the midst of that.”
“I think he feels in this episode he’s doing the right thing by Belly and giving her space, but I think we also have an opportunity to see that it is painful for him to make that choice and that it is not an easy thing for him to walk away from that room,” says Griffiths. She adds that Christopher Briney, who plays Conrad, “really understood where Conrad was for these beats, and he was ready to be vulnerable.”
But not all is lost for Conrad. In the final moments of the episode, the older Fisher brother is back at the beach house, fixing it up for their official move-in.
“I think to me, the season ends in a very hopeful place, really for all of the characters, even Conrad, because we get to see him putting the house back together,” says Han. “In the season, what he wanted was that house and he got it. So I think there’s something really hopeful in that too.”
With a little encouragement from Steven, Laurel attends an intimidating author meetup in Fishtown. (It turns out at least one of the writers there is intimidated by her too.) But before she steps in, Belly calls her for some relationship advice. “What did it feel like when you weren’t in love with [dad] anymore?” she asks, alluding to her own feelings about Conrad. Laurel says it’s complicated, but she asks Belly, “Is what you’re feeling remembering what you had together, or looking forward to what you could have?” It’s a sweet, intimate moment that shows their mended mother-daughter relationship, after they spent most of the season closed off from each other.
At the author meeting, Laurel reads from her book, It’s Not Summer Without You, a memoir about her life with Susannah—her best friend and “real soul mate.” She chooses an excerpt about her giving birth to Belly and Susannah being there when her husband wasn’t.
“To me, one of the really interesting elements of the story is that Laurel is really mad,” explains Han. “She’s mad at the unfairness of it all, of Susannah not being there. But she also was mad at Belly and she didn’t know how to process that anger either.” As she and her daughter discussed in the previous episode, Laurel held all her emotions in, fearing that “once you loosen the faucet on any kind of emotion, then everything comes pouring out and you don’t know if you can withstand that level of emotion and rawness,” Han says.
“And Belly could sense Laurel’s feelings,” she continues. “I think that Laurel and Steven have a much easier relationship. I think she sees Steven in some ways like an easier child. It’s like her boy who’s valedictorian, he’s going to Princeton, and she can look at him and feel like she did a good job. And I think with Belly, it’s harder to connect in some ways, and especially the way that Belly has always felt so connected to Susannah and Susannah was able to be a bit of a bridge. But I also think that, for Laurel, part of it is looking at Belly and thinking about Susannah, and it is all really interwoven together.”
A flashback brings us back to one of the last times Belly saw Susannah. It was after her prom breakup with Conrad, when Susannah had fallen ill again but her health was worsening. Now bedridden, Susannah tells Belly that Conrad loves her, and asks her to look after him. They embrace on the bed knowing the end is nearing. Jeremiah finds them together but quickly leaves. Susannah can sense the tension and tells Belly it won’t always be this way; the three of them will all come back to each other. She tells Belly she loves her.
“I cried watching it on the monitor when we were shooting it,” Griffiths recalls. “The connection between the actors and the characters, I think, is so apparent in the scene.”
“I think that there always is something really heartbreaking about when you as a child lose somebody who saw you as important and special, and it feels like you’re no longer that anymore,” says Han.
Witnessing that interaction is important for Jeremiah too. At the time, he’s struggling seeing his mother endure her illness, and he and Belly still have a strained relationship from the previous summer.
“He’s seeing her reckoning with the same thing he’s been witnessing all year, and so I think that he’s not ready to join in and have this vulnerable beat with them, but I think he sees and recognizes what she’s experiencing,” Griffiths explains.
Taylor and Steven
Let’s not forget the other key couple in the TSITP universe! In the finale, Taylor and Steven meet for an awkward first date. It starts off as a group outing and then ends with them bickering over whether Belly should end up with Jeremiah (according to Taylor) or Conrad (per Steven). The night gets worse when Steven hears the awful diss album Taylor’s ex-boyfriend Milo made about him. The next morning, when Steven meets Taylor before she leaves for volleyball camp, they bare their hearts to each other.
Taylor reveals she’s had a big, embarrassing crush on Steven for years, but with him leaving for Princeton soon, she’s worried she’ll get hurt. But he promises that won’t happen. They make out on the hood of his car.
“I think that Taylor has just been in love with Steven her whole entire life, so it’s a kind of scary thing to admit that, out of fear of rejection,” says Rain Spencer, who plays Taylor.
Spencer says one of her favorite parts of portraying the Taylor-Steven romance was their endless banter. (Their love language, if you will.) “It’s like neither of them want to show how they really feel, so they just make fun of each other the whole time. And that was really, really fun, because I think it brings a lot of nuanced moments,” she says.
“We just ended up improv-ing, and I’m pretty sure there are some moments where we actually did, and it ended up in the show,” says Sean Kaufman, who plays Steven.
At volleyball camp, Steven and Taylor are surprised to find Jeremiah and Belly arriving together. Steven, who had been encouraging Conrad to “shoot his shot” with Belly, is taken aback.
“Steven sees a lot of Belly and Conrad in him and Taylor,” Kaufman explains. “He is Team Conrad because he is Team Taylor, and I think there’s a clear resemblance of first love, first spark. Who’s been there by your side through all of this, and not just like recent stuff? So he knows that Conrad was that for [Belly], and he knows that he was that for Taylor, so I think he’s kind of rooting for that.”
Taylor, on the other hand, is playing the protective friend. “I think that Taylor’s really looking at Belly from an outside perspective, and I think anyone that hurts her friend that much is going to be x-ed out, in Taylor’s eyes,” Spencer says.
Next season, Spencer hopes to explore Steven and Taylor’s relationship even further. “I hope that they can continue to learn from each other, that it’s okay to create a safe space for each other, that it’s okay to be vulnerable,” she says. “It’s okay to communicate how you’re actually feeling in any given moment, and really just be there for each other. I mean, they grew up together, so it would make sense that they should feel safe in each other’s company.”
Belly ends the season not just with Jeremiah, but also back at volleyball camp with her friends. “The future is unclear, but it’s still mine,” she narrates before the credits roll.
“I love that it ends on a scene where Belly is pursuing something that she loves, and that we can have a moment that is about Belly and her own journey. Because at the end of the day, I think we’re all Team Belly,” Griffiths says.
The series is, in the end, focused on Belly’s growth, and all those Hunger Games references you might have spotted throughout the season point to that, not just the love triangle trope. “It’s a really great coming-of-age story: a girl growing up in the midst of war and chaos,” Han says of the hit sci-fi series, “And I think so is The Summer I Turned Pretty.”
Of Belly’s choices, Han says:
“I think that whatever decisions Belly is making, they’re her own and she’s deciding what she wants to do. I feel, at the end, really hopeful for her and happy to see her be able to come out from under the cloud that she’s been under the whole season, and feel that she really wants something, and feel her drive and determination towards her own happiness—I think that’s important. It’s very satisfying for me just to be on that journey of grief and then feel like she’s allowing herself to live and want things and just be part of the world again.”
Interviews with Sean Kaufman and Rain Spencer were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.