“You scare me; I think you might need help,” said Norman Bates to his mother, Norma, on a recent episode of A&E’s shrewdly insinuating Bates Motel.
Given that we know Norman is eventually going to start dressing up like said mother and commence to knifin’ folks once he goes Psycho, this bit of Norman insight into the Norma psyche is both significant and indicative of what could have, should have, gone wrong with a TV quasi-prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller. Bates Motel, as co-created by producers including Lost man Carlton Cuse, did a fine job of casting Freddie Highmore as its adolescent Tony Perkins—he’s got Perkins’ wide-eyed, gulping demeanor down (very) cold—but the character of Norma had to be built from the ground up as the element that grounds the series.
Which is where the performance of Vera Farmiga comes in, with its impressively sly approximation of neurotic spontaneity. It’s a considerable achievement to make it look easy to blow off George Clooney’s charms, as Vera Farmiga did in her movie breakthrough Up in the Air; it’s another to make it look easy to blow up a movie touchstone like Psycho and not come across as either an interloper or a loon. In a role that requires its actress to smother her son’s sanity and libido with mother love and still seem non-icky enough to both run a motel and remain a sympathetic protagonist in a weekly series, Farmiga has probably had weeks where she wishes she’d done something easier, like freeze in Croatia while learning to speak George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones.
Instead, she’s steadily perfected a new kind of TV protagonist: the sensual hysteric, the volatile reassurer. Yes, Norma has already killed and chopped up a would-be rapist and helped cover up a couple of other crimes. Yes, she has stalked her son’s budding girlfriend by peering through the glass of a storefront yoga class and fogging the window with her panting jealousy-fury as she watched the innocent young seductress stretch into a languid cobra pose. Farmiga has invested a considerable amount of snakiness in Norma herself. A single mom looking to support herself and a son she wants to protect from that mean old world out there, Norma has deployed her wily intelligence and casually devastating good looks to beguile everyone, including a suspicious sheriff (Nestor Carbonell, using his heavy-lidded eyes to try and penetrate her defenses).
As a chunk of plotted drama, Bates Motel is highly uneven and still trying to find the right balance between murderous melodrama and domestic family saga gone screwy. But right from the start, Farmiga has been giving a fully thought-through, utterly distinctive performance. Although she’s acted in TV shows before (anyone recall UC: Undercover or the pre–Burn Notice Jeffrey Donovan vehicle Touching Evil?), Farmiga brings a classic-movie-star hauteur to Bates. She’s doing some of the most interestingly naturalistic acting on TV—her efficiently precise reactions in any situation, from the news that her new lawman lover (Mike Vogel) may be keeping a girl tied up in his basement to Norman’s stubborn-kid refusal to eat the bacon and eggs she’s prepared, are always casually complex mixtures of sighing resignation, masked agitation, or who-gives-a-shit cynicism cast as polite disdain.
In any given scene, my eyes are invariably drawn to Farmiga’s movements, the way she stops to adjust her shoe as she trudges up the hill to her house from the motel, or how she sometimes looks away from the person she’s talking to, as though she’s either lost interest in or is hoping to deflect attention from the words she’s reciting. When the subject of Norman comes up, she’ll frequently cut her eyes at the person across from her, the only hint of fierce protectiveness, and then let her orbs grow wide with a patently feigned interest, as if to say, “Do you really think you know my son better than I do? No one does.”
In the show’s more florid moments, Farmiga is like Marlene Dietrich crossed with the Elizabeth Ashley in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, conveying the way a worldly woman has learned to cope with being brought down to a lower station in life. Half the time, Farmiga doesn’t need the lines of the script to communicate just how demeaning Norma finds the act of scrubbing blood off a cement floor or handing the keys to a clearly devious room renter (Jere Burns, working his hawk-wing eyebrows overtime in a postseason Justified performance).
So far Farmiga has been faultless in her scenes with Highmore. You can almost see Norma pouring schizo rage and flibbertigibbet snappishness into Norman’s fragile psyche—it’s as though she’s transmitting through her glaring eyes and fierce hugs. I don’t know whether Bates Motel can sustain the tone necessary to keep up both its weekly suspense plus the ultimate endgame of Norman’s tip-over into cross-dressing convulsiveness, but right now, Vera Farmiga is making Norma one mother of a briskly contained basket case.