This past Thursday night, with the human population of the coastal Pacific Northwest caught in the sonic weapon crossfire, two tribes of vicious, desperate mermaids finally went to war.
It feels egregiously silly to spend even a sliver of time caring about the existential struggles of CGI mermaids right now. More than 100,000 Americans—a plurality of them non-white, and a horrifying sweep of those Native American—have died of a virus that could have been kept manageable had the federal response been even moderately competent when the first cases hit Seattle. Despite the fact that most of the nation has been sheltering in place and staying off the streets for months, multiple black men and women have still been killed by police (or white vigilantes sheltering under the protection of their connection to local police) in that same time. As a direct result of the most recent killing, one of the most vibrantly diverse, immigrant-friendly neighborhoods of Minneapolis, one of my adopted cities, is burning.
So, you know, writing about a fictional underwater war, this week of all weeks, feels ridiculous.
And yet, this is the single, tiny job I have right now. And strangely—or maybe not so strangely, as no art is made in a vacuum—Siren’s latest season has more to say about aspects of the current moment than the images evoked by the “long-awaited mermaid war” at the heart of this very article’s headline might suggest. So, we’re here. Let’s talk about it.
Obviously, I am on the record as a being big fan of what Freeform’s wild environmentalist/murder mermaid show, Siren, has been doing since it first hit the airwaves in 2018. Season 1 proved itself a weird, arresting, anti-military horror show thoroughly disinterested in the romantic/melodramatic geometry Freeform so often forces its best shows to contort to. In Season 2, Siren upped the ante both by underscoring humanity’s deleterious effects on oceanic health (and, as a result, making strategic acts of eco-terrorism heroic), and by bringing Ben (Alex Roe), Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola) and Ryn (Eline Powell) together as a polyamorous trio—not for the audience’s voyeuristic titillation, but out of the characters’ collective love for one another.
This season, we had the introduction of Robb (Deniz Akdeniz), a grounded Arctic mermaid-turned-ambitious eco-entrepreneur working on solutions to clean up the oceans’ giant garbage gyres before his tribe dies out. Then there was Tia (Tiffany Lonsdale), a mermaid from different Pacific tribe who had been captured, tortured, and weaponized as an asset by the Russian military (and who consequently wants to bind all mermaid tribes together to wage war on all of humanity). With all of this and Hope (Alix West Lefler), Ryn’s IVF-born daughter and the first new mermaid baby to hit the ocean in a generation, Siren made itself even bigger and more compelling, without sacrificing any of the wildness and nuance that made it stand out from the start. And then Thursday, in Season 3’s big finale, “The Toll of the Sea,” everything big and compelling and wild and nuanced the series had been doing all along finally came to a head as Tia unleashed her siren song as a weapon against the Pacific Northwest, and her and Ryn’s tribes at last met underwater for the big, bloody, silent war she’d been promising all along.
It was, in a word, explosive. Ryn’s tribe, backed by Robb’s, won, but not without loss. Major characters died: Maddie’s dad (Gil Birmingham), off-camera but definitively; Ben, seemingly on-camera, but less definitively (the probability that he will come back in a potential Season 4 as a full mermaid seems… high). Major relationships also changed forever: The episode ended with Maddie leaving to monitor the garbage gyre operations with Robb, she and Ryn effectively breaking the last of their romantic ties to one another in the process. On a larger, less personal scale, the fallout of the episode’s events, especially as regards the American government, casts an equally dark shadow over Ryn’s victory. (Not least because of the jab one of the military officers helping Ben and Ryn makes early in the episode about not telling the President what kind of terrorist Tia is, because “we don’t need him tweeting [that] shit.”) All victory, Siren wants to make clear with its finale, is temporary; it does not end the work. In fact, if you look at the careful, complex answer Ryn gives Hope when her daughter asks if Tia was bad—that is, that Tia was hurt and had many things taken from her, and she responded badly, but was not in herself bad—victory only means new work has begun.
This, critically, is both where and how Siren aims (and mostly succeeds) at rising to the current moment. Where we are, in the real world, is the result of a collective failure to take active responsibility for the social and environmental devastation caused by generations of colonialism, racism, and neo-liberal capitalism. On Siren, that collective failure has manifested in the series leaning away from the more supernatural elements of its premise (this season’s mermaid-ghost harbingers of war notwithstanding), and leaning instead towards realism and science, using the existence of mermaids—and more specifically, the biotic crisis they and other marine species are facing living in increasingly acidified, garbage-filled waters—as a way to focus on the biological and ecological implications of humanity’s impact on the environment since the advent of the Industrial Age. In the real world, it’s manifested in skyrocketing pandemic statistics, racist state violence, and mass uprising in the streets.
These things are in no way equal. But one thing storytelling does in general—and in this stay-at-home moment, in particular, that television does especially well—is give us the tools to not only imagine a way through even the most intense journeys, but to do so in concert with others. And right now, that togetherness is what I want out of television. For it to best serve, in some small way, building a sense of togetherness to face the collective failures of humanity in reality.
So, thanks, Siren, for your CGI mermaid war. Of course it’s silly. But I’m still glad to have watched it, and will be glad if and when the series comes back for the next chapter.
All three seasons of Siren are streaming now on Hulu, and on the Freeform website via your cable provider.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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