The last time I sat down to write about Freeform’s horror-adjacent mermaid series, Siren, it was early in the first season’s run. On the whole, I liked it. But after concluding that its central story—which at that point followed the violent adventures of a predatory, barely articulate mermaid come to land to rescue her kidnapped sister—was A) bloody, unsettling and ecstatically unpredictable and B) quietly getting away with subversive, genre-muddling murder, I became overwhelmed with network-specific anxiety. How long would it be, I worried, before Freeform’s documented pro-’shipping agenda managed to undermine all the weird, wild work the Siren crew had put into making theirs a show that defies sexy simplification? How long before Ryn’s (Eline Powell) feral animalism was itself forced to shapeshift in favor of fulfilling the fairytale fantasy of a beautiful mermaid falling in love with the handsome human man (Alex Roe) her siren song had bewitched?
(Nevermind that said song, in the world of Siren, is a defense mechanism so ruinous to the human brain that it literally leads another character to drown himself in the ocean—Freeform may slay when it comes to The Bold Type and Good Trouble, but it is also the network that saw a high school teacher enter into a relationship with a student he knew was both sixteen and in the midst of being terrorized by a masked villain and was like, yes, this is sexy and good, let’s get them hitched. Mine are not unfounded concerns!)
Well, good news, friends: In spite of my fears, Siren, which returns for the summer half of its second season this week, has managed to stay ferociously anti-formula. In fact, not only has it maintained its feral unpredictability, but as the bond between Ryn, Ben and Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola) has deepened, and as both the human and mermaid worlds have each expanded, Siren’s sophomore outing has played out almost like a game of supernatural chicken. You want a titillating ‘ship?, the show spent the winter half of the current season asking, pulling Ryn into Ben and Maddie’s relationship not as a mermaid ex machina wedge, but instead as a very willing third. Well then we’ll see your titillation, and raise you a stable polyamorous throuple.
Yes, you read that right—while most of us spent February distracted by Russian Doll, PEN15 and Schitt’s Creek, Siren went ahead and made Ryn’s default observation of humanity, “Ben and Maddie are love,” extremely literal. But where a different show might have taken the prospect of a mermaid-inclusive throuple and squeezed it for all the visual titillation it might be worth, Siren has leaned instead on the deep emotional bond the three characters have been working to develop since the pilot. This isn’t to say that nothing of the physicality of their new relationship is shown; Roe, Powell and Evans-Akingbola are young, attractive and smouldering with chemistry, and there is very real value both on a representation level and in terms of dramatic propulsion to showing a mutually supportive polyamorous relationship at work (and at play). But while this physicality has been given enough screen time to make it clear both to viewers at home and to the trio’s friends and family in Bristol Cove just what is going on, the camera never lingers so long that any of us risk becoming voyeurs. Moreover, the writers have been careful from the start to separate Ben and Maddie’s sexual attraction to Ryn as a person from their supernatural attraction to her mysteriously powerful song, and to separate Ryn’s attraction to the two of them from her own internal reaction to singing. It helps, of course, that her song induces in both Ben and Maddie not sexual fantasies, but rather violent visions and self-destructive behaviors. Still, to introduce your physically-dreamy mermaid lead as being in possession of a bewitching, obsession-inducing song and to then not fall into the trap of mixing that up with the sexual and/or romantic attraction she might command just as a person, that’s a real coup.
That said, as excitingly anti-titillating as the reality of the Ben-Ryn-Maddie power throuple is, it’s the utter audaciousness of the various narratives woven together all around them that have made Siren’s second season such compelling television, and the series as a whole so worth catching up on (even in the Age of Too Much Damn TV). For one thing, the series is unapologetically political: As marine biologists-cum-environmental activists running a nonprofit sea lion rescue center in a small town (kept afloat by an increasingly deleterious commercial fishing industry—an industry in which Ben’s family, already bearing the centuries-old legacy of mermaid genocide, is local power player), Ben and Maddie’s ideological leanings have been clear from the start. That the show shares their ideology has only grown more evident as the obstacles faced by mermaids and humans alike have come to include not only the ruthlessness of the American military industrial complex (i.e., the people who kidnapped Ryn’s sister for stem cell experimentation and drugged Ben’s friend into oblivion to keep him quiet about it), but also the cold-blooded avarice of those who stand to make a profit off of deepwater drilling (i.e., the oil company Ben’s dad made a deal with to drop a well off Bristol Cove’s shore). For a particularly, erm, earnest look at Siren’s sociopolitical mission, surf on over to their mortifyingly self-serious Earth Day ad spots.
Of course, Big Oil, Mean Military Men and Callous Capitalism are all par for the course when it comes to dredging up antagonists for ocean-adjacent supernatural stories. Just a few time slots over, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger is following its own pair of superpowerful teens as they navigate the rig-polluted, government-patrolled, thoroughly corrupt waters off the New Orleans coast, but the balance Siren has struck between going big when it comes to the single-minded villainy of all three liberal bogeyman and small when it comes to the economic pressures and social fractures being sustained by Ben’s and Maddie’s human friends family and Ryn’s feral mermaid pack alike is impressive.
Interestingly, it’s not Ryn or Ben or Maddie who have been holding the center amidst all these pressures, but rather Ben and Maddie’s lifelong friend, Xander (Ian Verdun), an independent, apolitical fisherman whose father was killed early in Season One by a member of Ryn’s pack. The embodiment of lawful neutral (at least on an interpersonal level), Xander has grown increasingly frayed as the arrival of mermaids to Bristol Cove has left him feeling trapped as the sole voice screaming for reason in the eye of Ryn’s siren-shaped storm. He’s not always right about how they should all be handling the paradigm shift from “only humans exist” to “okay but also mermaids,” but his unwillingness to accept changes to reality based solely on Ben and Maddie’s say-so, or to just move on from his father’s death in order to keep the mermaids who killed him safe, has been a sobering and useful counterbalance to the gee-whizz eagerness to go all-in with Ryn that his friends can’t seem to shake. That his was one of the two lives still in danger after the humans and mermaids blew up an oil rig in the mid-season finale is telling—as the character best able to provide the kind of perspective that Ben and Maddie, close as they are to the mermaid of it all, can’t regularly access, Xander is the character outside of the central trio the show knows it would be most devastating to lose.
As if thoughtful polyamory, the Big Bad bogeyman trifecta, full-on eco-terrorism and the show’s main voice of reason possibly getting blown up weren’t enough, I haven’t even mentioned how satisfyingly intense the teeth-clenching body horror of Ryn’s transformations has continued to be in Season Two, or how believably wild and inhuman her whole pack of mermaids are, nor have I touched on the implications of Helen’s (Rena Owen) discovery of the distant mermaid-human relatives she grew up knowing nothing about. To try to articulate the ways in which Powell and her colleagues inhabit their own bodies as if they are entirely alien would be an exercise in futility, though, as would be any attempt to guess at where Siren’s writers will take Helen’s story. But at this point, you’re either ready to dive into Freeform’s vicious polyamorous mermaid show, or you’re not.
For my part, I hope you are. The water’s dark and dangerous and a far cry from warm, but don’t let that stop you. What better place to spend a long, hot summer, anyway, than in the murky depths of a mermaid’s hunting grounds?
Siren airs on Freeform on Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.