One would think that, after writing two separate takes on Freeform’s Siren in which the greater part of my you should be watching this arguments hinged on the existential murderous mermaid drama’s refusal to conform to the traditional laws of narrative development, I would have known better than to walk into the Season Two finale a complete rube. One would think.
And yet, five minutes before the episode was over, the furious notes I was taking in preparation to talk to Eric Wald (co-creator/EP) and Emily Whitesell (EP) for this debrief: Did you model the hybrid checkpoints and detention centers off of those currently on America’s southern border? How did you determine which side of the moral line each player would fall on? HOW DARE, XANDER, HOW DARE?—came crashing to a self-owning halt. Well fuck me, I typed, as the shot cut back from Maddy (Fola Evans-Akingbola), bleeding out in a pitch-black forest while on the run following the worldwide reveal of the mermaids’ secret, to Ben (Alex Roe), underwater, staring at overzealous journalist Ian Sutton (Luc Roderique) through the window of his crashed and fully submerged SUV and deciding not to save him after all.
Siren! You got me! Again!
Thankfully, Wald and Whitesell were ready to take some time out of their first week on set for Season Three to hop on the phone and help make sense of the wild hour they just left us with. So if you, like me, are reeling over everything that just didn’t happen in Bristol Cove, read on!
Note: The following interview has been very lightly edited for length and clarity.
Paste: Siren has always taken big swings, but this episode was an even bigger departure still from the kind of storytelling fans have gotten used to over the past two seasons. What was the impetus behind making this finale this story?
Eric Wald: All along we’ve been interested in having to keep a lid on this secret, and the danger of the secret getting out, and what that would mean both to our characters and to the world at large. So I think for us it was really exciting in the finale to actually lean into that and to ask, okay, what would happen if the secret of the mermaids did get out?
Emily Whitesell: The whole contrivance of the twist is, we don’t actually want to live in a series that has to go that big and that far. It was a way for us to go to that place in our minds without having to commit to some sort of giant, end-of-the-world production for the rest of the series.
Paste: What made now the right time to go there?
Whitesell: I think part of it, it [just] felt like time. It’s the end of Season Two, which ended up being a pretty long season, and so I think from the start we felt like, here’s what we’re always talking about, the consequences of this whole thing, so here after two seasons, it felt like, let’s re-establish what the danger of this could be, let’s get the audience re-invested in the heightened [sense of] danger of it.
Wald: It also came from a character-place of wanting to give Ben, and Alex Roe, some really great story, too. It just felt like such an interesting decision that he had to make, and so to dramatize that in a really big way [was exciting]. And he’s just so great it in it. All of our cast is amazing, but this episode is just a really great showcase for Alex.
Paste: Once we figured out what the twist was, that did throw the whole legitimacy of the future we saw into question. Like—that’s just Ben’s idea of the future, right? How did you end on his being the lens through which you’d explore that possible future?
Whitesell: When you go back to the pilot, he is so central. He is who the story, in many ways, is about. And of course the story has turned out to be very much about Ryn and where she comes from and her own people, but it started out from [Ben’s] point of view. So to get to go back and land in that place, to give him his point of view back about this whole thing and where he’s evolved to as a character from the beginning, we thought was important.
Wald: And I do have a feeling that some fans will go back and watch the episode again, once they’ve seen the twist. And [when they do], they’ll see that even the stories that Ben is not a part of, they’re still told through Ben’s perspective, and it’s still Ben’s anxieties and what he’s imagining could happen. Like, we bring back that lure that Xander (Ian Verdun) found way back in 1.02—Ben’s worried, oh, god, is Xander going to use that lure to capture more mermaids? Same thing with his father—all the conflict he’s had with his dad sort of comes out in what he imagines his role would be in that [version of] the story.
Whitesell: His doubts about every relationship, how he thinks every relationship would play out in that situation.
Paste: Pretty dark, to see that’s what he thinks about his family and friends.
Whitesell: I think it’s his fear. I don’t think he actually believes that about them—it’s just what comes from when you go to that very dark place, when you’re afraid, where your mind goes.
Wald: And when he’s down in the water there, holding his breath outside the car door, that’s a real moment of crisis, too. So all of his anxieties are amplified in that moment.
Paste: Had you put Maddy (or Ryn, or Helen, etc.) in Ben’s place, what might they have imagined differently about a “secret’s out” future?
Wald: It’s interesting, because this is sort of leaning towards Season Three now, but Maddy has a very different response and reaction to what Ben did, which creates a really interesting dynamic for their relationship [moving forward]. Because Maddy would have had a very different response—
Whitesell: Or at least, she believes she would have had a very different response. But she wasn’t under the water in that stress either, so…
Paste: There are a lot of reasons to be relieved the story of this episode was (mostly) all in Ben’s head, but one story we’re glad isn’t over is the whole hybrid cult/family thing, and the danger they pose (or don’t pose?) to our heroes.
Wald: They definitely represent a threat in the story. Beth [Caroline Cave], she’s sort of caught in the middle of it, there are members of her hybrid group who are much more extreme and worried, whereas Beth is (now) being drawn more into the Helen [Rena Owen]/Ryn [Eline Powell] mermaid camp—
Whitesell: With the discovery that she’s a Pownhall—
Wald: Right. So, the hybrids have existed for a long time in secrecy, which is a cloak of protection they need, and now with all these new developments that secrecy is coming under threat, so they’re going to do what they need to protect themselves. So their story will stay alive in Season Three, yes—and that big cliffhanger, with Meredith [Kiomi Pike] and Ryn’s mermaid baby, that will all play out, too.
Paste: Oh god, that was such a nightmare scenario I almost blocked it out! Okay, so the stolen mermaid baby will come back. What about Levi [Sedale Threatt Jr.] and Nicole [Natalee Lines]? Were we missing them because of scheduling conflicts, or are they fully out of the story?
Wald: You hit the nail on the head. It really was a factor of just actor availability. We were able to sort of wrap Nicole’s storyline up in a very interesting way that ties into a new character we’re introducing in Season Three, she’s a big part of Season Three. So [Nicole] sort of ties into that, but she doesn’t actually come back. And then Levi, he will return for a couple of episodes in Season Three, which we’re really excited about. We love Sedale as an actor, so it’s just all about his availability, how much story we can tell with him.
Paste: On a totally different subject, we know the show films a ton under water, but do you really have a tank big enough for Ian’s Jeep?
Wald: Yes, we had a car in the bottom of the tank! It was amazing to see.
Whitesell: Yeah, the tank is enormous. It takes up pretty much an entire stage.
Wald: We also rigged a second up separately outside the tank that we were able to flood with water, so those scenes where Ian’s trapped in that, it was terrifying for Luc, his performance, he really sold it. He was actually in the car as it was filling up with water, and then for the exterior stuff we had a second car that was in the big tank, where we filmed the scenes with Ben. And Eline is unbelievable underwater, she’s literally able to hold her breath inside that car, turn around, and swim out the back window and swim away and do it all in one long take.
Whitesell: She’s fearless.
Wald: And meanwhile Luc, who plays Ian, he was actually in that car, at the bottom of the tank, and he had regulators when he needed them—but believe me, some of that panic was not acting!
Paste: That’s a real nightmare scenario, too! This whole finale, just one nightmare scene after another, really—thanks a lot!
Wald: Ha! You’re welcome.
Paste: On a final note, I just wanted to touch on Ben, Maddy and Ryn’s relationship, and how good the show has been at maintaining the purity of it without tipping into salacious/titillating territory, even as the military was spying on them in bed. I love that it’s a very naturalistic take on a stable relationship that’s framed first by mutual respect.
Whitesell: That was the idea actually, I’m so glad you feel that way about it. That was the idea from the very beginning, the idea of a real sort of purity in the relationship. We’ve all seen “classic” threesomes and how those play out on television, so we really wanted to do it in a way that felt A) that it didn’t turn into something that was about the classic kind of jealousy within the relationship, or a sense of competition within the relationship, but instead with a real kind of purity from every angle and point of view. [We wanted] that the relationship would maintain itself in its purity, and that the rest of the story wouldn’t become ABOUT that, about the complications of it, it would just sort of happen and be what it is and live within the rest of the story in that purity.
And in fact, moving forward it will change and shift itself, but not in the way that you’ve seen a million times before, where it’s about ugliness and breakups, but just sort of the natural course that relationships take, which I don’t think we get to see on television as much.
Paste: What has the reaction from/interaction with the polyamory community been like?
Wald: Obviously, they’re hugely excited about it. And it certainly has opened up a lot of debate; it’s really the one area on the show that fans are really divided on.
Paste: Divided in what way?
Wald: Well, some people aren’t thrilled with it, they want it to be the more traditional Ben/Ryn [pairing], where obviously others really embrace it and love it.
Whitesell: It’s made people very uncomfortable in certain respects, and others… not. And obviously, especially considering [this] episode, we don’t always think discomfort is the worst thing for people to be feeling. I think it does open up people’s minds, and discussion. But there is a level of discomfort where, if people are going to turn away from it, then we have to make other decisions about it.
Wald: And there’s of course some craziness in the situation, what’s happening adds this layer of danger. So to me their relationship represents this sort of calm, sweet center, these three people really have to connect to save the species. And I love that in the relationship, there’s that sweetness.
Siren airs on Freeform. Recent episodes are available to stream on the Freeform app. Seasons One & Two are available in their entirety on Hulu. Season Three will return in 2020.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.