A&E’s Bates Motel, the Psycho prequel overseen by Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), hasn’t just attracted an audience—4.5 million viewers tuned in to the pilot. It has already been renewed for a second season of Oedipal strife between Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his overbearing mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), set against the backdrop of a seemingly idyllic Pacific Northwest logging town that hides more than a few secrets.
Sound familiar? The Twin Peaks allusions are very much intentional here, as is the ominous mood lingering over the action, which so far has seen Norma murdering a would-be rapist and covering up the crime, Norman discovering a human smuggling and prostitution ring, and Norma’s other son, Dylan (Max Thieriot), keeping watch over an enormous pot field. Not to mention that a local cop (Mike Vogel) may or may not have an Asian girl chained up in his basement.
As the halfway point of the first season approaches Monday night, The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob and Anna Klassen debate Bates Motel’s pros and cons, as well as last week’s episode, “Trust Me,” which had both them scratching their heads.
JACE LACOB: I’m so conflicted about Bates Motel. I like it, but I don’t love it. And last week’s episode didn’t resolve my inner turmoil.
ANNA KLASSEN: I disagree. Bates Motel is a cleverly crafted show with complex characters. As we approach Episode 5, we have just begun to touch the surface of Norma and Norman’s relationship, but I am completely hooked and want to see more of their twisted family life unfold.
LACOB: Interesting. For me, Vera Farmiga is by far the best part of the show, but I feel like lately they’ve moved away from exploring the Norman-Norma dynamic. Which is fine, to a certain extent, as I’m intrigued by the Twin Peaks aspect of the show: that in its own way White Pine Bay, Oregon, is in concealing a dark underbelly of drugs, murder, and human trafficking. That’s interesting to me in the same way the denizens of Twin Peaks reflected the darker impulses of society. But we’ve gotten away from that too, as the show focuses more on Norman and Bradley, whose tumble in the sheets this week seemed really, really creepy to me. For one, Freddie Highmore looks like he’s 12 years old, but also it was just so ... odd.
KLASSEN: I hope Bradley won’t continue to be a pivotal character in the show—even in last week’s episode, she was hidden behind giant black sunglasses that obscured her teary eyes (as she mourned the mysterious death of her father) from view. But the odd, somewhat silly obstruction kept the audience from feeling any sympathy for her. Sad, meek, and fragile, the Bradley we’ve seen so far falls into the category of “damsel in distress,” not “leading lady.” She will, I hope, simply serve as a distraction for Norman until he realizes his deeper connection with Emma, a schoolmate with cystic fibrosis who, although terminally ill, has a greater spark for living and adventure than many in that sleepy seaside town.
LACOB: I’m far more intrigued by Emma and her somewhat oddball father, who seems to exist both to remind Norman that he needs to be “decent” and serve as a callback to the taxidermy interests of Psycho’s Norman. Putting that aside, I like the notion that Emma is living on borrowed time, that there is a ticking clock affixed to her neck. (Or her oxygen tank.) Their pairing is far more interesting to me than that of Norman and Bradley. I get that she was perhaps being set up as a sort of damsel in distress here—though her dark glasses read more as femme fatale—but their getting together and Norman losing his virginity to her rang terribly false within the episode. Norman Bates’s entire personality is rooted in the fact that he can’t deal with his sexual desire, which is also tangled up in all of his mommy issues. In Psycho, Norman spies on Marion Crane and kills her when he’s sexually aroused by what he sees—hell, his name is a direct shout-out to onanism—and can’t reconcile his feelings with the jealousy felt by his “mother” persona. But making him a figurative lady killer here who has two girls throwing themselves at him? Uh-uh.
KLASSEN: Perhaps the reason he has two good-looking classmates throwing themselves at him is that he is indeed odd. He didn’t lose his virginity at 12 years old like his brother, Dylan, his vocabulary doesn’t include the words “dude” or “whatever,” and his sense of style—peacoats, tightly buttoned collars, and slacks—is reminiscent of a vintage time of yore. Conceivably these girls see Norman’s abnormality as something attractive. Clearly he behaves and presents himself differently than many modern boys, and if we didn’t already know Norman’s ultimate fate as a serial killer, perhaps we would find his quirkiness appealing, too. To me, Norman is a sweet boy who still might have a chance of being saved.
But let’s talk about that sex scene. How these two timid teenagers got beyond the point of sitting feet apart on a bed and offering each other gentle, awkward kisses, is mind boggling. And the sequence itself, shot with a blue hue, sheets billowing in the wind, and a dramatic piano score accompanying slow movements under the covers, seemed more like Norman’s wet dream than a real account of a teenagers losing their virginity.
LACOB: Ha! I don’t know, however, that Norman’s wet dream would include a wind machine beneath the sheets. Having said that, you raise an interesting point about the show’s use of an unreliable narrator. Should we be questioning the reality of this sequence, just as we’re meant to be questioning that of the girl in Shelby’s basement? Norma’s exploration of the house doesn’t turn up a body or a drug-addled Asian victim, and the audience is meant to wonder whether Norman did find her in Shelby’s house or imagined the whole thing. Which is an interesting element of Bates Motel: how can we trust anything that Norman sees or hears as being true?
But on the note of Shelby, I laughed aloud at the unintentionally hilarious scene between him and Norma when she called him “pretty” like “an old woman.” I think that Mike Vogel is a fine actor, but he’s not exactly menacing here: baby-faced and waxed within an inch of his life, he is “pretty” rather than threatening. And we should, given what Norman has seen, be wondering if he’s dangerous. But he seems, in his interactions with Norma, to be fairly innocuous.
KLASSEN: Bates Motel is the perfect show for Carlton Cuse, a producer who is used to dealing with multiple layers of reality. Looking at his previous work (Lost, specifically) we can assume that in Bates, what you see will never be what you get. While at the winter Television Critics Association panel for the show, he did promise that there would be “no time travel,” the idea of each character’s particular truth will be played with. Norman, as pointed out by Norma, has a history of seeing things that may not exist. In this episode we are given two separate sex scenes: Norman’s soft, perhaps imagined encounter and Norma’s hot, steamy, but ill-intentioned multiple hookups with a police officer who may or may not be harboring underage Asian girls in his basement. Norman’s sexual rendezvous seemed to be initiated by Bradley, just as Emma planted a kiss on his lips an episode earlier. Norman seems completely innocent and unaware—perhaps even a victim—of his sexuality, whereas Norma is hyperaware, using her sexuality as armor to do what she thinks is necessary to protect her family.
LACOB: It’s definitely one of the weapons in her vast arsenal, but I worry that she’s using her sexuality where she should be using her smarts. She just dumped the carpet in a random Dumpster? And then went back after Sheriff Romero indicated that she was the prime suspect in Keith Summer’s murder (because of carpet fibers found under the watch), potentially leading them right to the Dumpster and then the junkyard? (And if they didn’t actually follow her, shame on the local police.) But ultimately, despite Norma’s arrest at the end of last week’s episode, these charges won’t stick. Which is a problem because it potentially diminishes the narrative stakes here: we know that Norma will elude the police, just as we know that Norman will eventually go off the deep end.
KLASSEN: I think it’s hard to make a moral judgment on Norma. We know she is flawed, we know she may be part of the reason Norman ends up the way he does, but she’s also a mother who is doing what she can to protect herself and her son. And in her mind, she sees the motives of the men she needs to control as being sexual, and she feeds their desire. You mention that knowing the eventual fate of the mother-and-son duo will diminish the narrative stakes, but I disagree. No one is tuning in to find out if Norma will die, or if Norman will kill her. We know these things to be true.
LACOB: Wait, wait. I didn’t say that knowing their eventual fate diminishes the stakes (though it does a little), but more that we know Norma won’t end up in prison for the next season and a half. Placing her in peril in such a way, when we know the charges won’t stick, isn’t much of a twist.
KLASSEN: But because Bates Motel is set 50 years before Psycho, there is so much to be explored. I am, however, a bit upset the narrative has strayed from Norma and Norman’s twisted, slightly incestuous relationship. Since the show has been picked up for a second season, clearly other plotlines must develop to sustain the longevity of the series, but since Norma and Norman are so easily enveloped in outside relationships, it makes me think they might have a normal (i.e., nonsexual) relationship after all. But for me as a viewer, that would be disappointing. After all, the show’s tagline is “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
LACOB: Or even his imaginary mother best friend, as the case may be.