May 5, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Bates Motel”


The second season of BATES MOTEL has been two largely separate series, and one of them is well worth watching.  That’s the one about teenaged Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), the sensitive and high-strung taxidermy enthusiast who is in the process of becoming a serial killer of women, and his relationship with his intemperate, unstable, smothering and obsessively loving mother Norma (Vera Farmiga).  Their symbiotic bond is disturbing and quasi-incestuous, but it’s also darkly funny, and as brilliantly played in all its complications by Highmore and Farmiga, it convincingly provides a psychological backdrop for the schizophrenic adult murderer of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho.

The other Bates Motel of Season 2 was a tale about the marijuana trade in White Pine Bay, Oregon, and it represented a major change in tone from Season 1.  Originally, the non-Psycho prequel parts of Bates were a somewhat surreal soap, heavily influenced by Twin Peaks, that was filled with stories about women being held captive and tortured, as well as menacing men who had to be murdered along the way.  It may be that A&E, and/or the show’s producers, decided that this overall weirdness was alienating viewers, because there was a concerted effort this season to ground the stories, however violent, in familiar genres.  Unfortunately, that made for a dull, rather familiar slog that had almost nothing to do with Norman or his mother, concentrating instead on Norman’s goodhearted bad-boy brother Dylan (Max Thieriot).  A late storyline finally had local drug kingpin Nick Ford (Michael O’Neill) abduct Norman and imprison him in a box in the woods, where Norman recaptured his buried memories of having killed his teacher Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy)–who happened to be Ford’s daughter–in a murder that was the prototype for Marion Crane’s slaying in Psycho.  Even so, Norman could have regained his memories without any need for such plot contrivances, and the crime-story part of Bates Motel has never felt like much more than filler.

Perhaps because the show was in the midst of shifting tones, a lot of the Season 2 plotting was messy.  The female characters other than Norma were particularly affected, as Norman’s schoolmate Bradley (Nicola Peltz) was sent off midway through the season never to be seen again, and Emma (Olivia Cooke) mostly hung around the motel looking depressed (although she did manage to lose her virginity to a motel guest), finally threatening to quit because she, very possibly like the actress who played her, felt excluded from everything that was going on with the Bates family, although she was talked by Norman out of leaving.  Midway through the season, Norman was given a townie sort-of girlfriend in Cody (Paloma Kwiatkowski), and she, too, was soon on the bus out of town.  Even the very big revelation that Dylan was the child of incest between Norma and her brother Caleb (Kenny Johnson), which she claimed was the result of rape, but which Caleb told Dylan had been a consensual relationship, dropped out of the drama once Caleb had departed.

The season finale, written by series co-creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, and directed by Tucker Gates, tied up the season’s storylines, as just about everyone above Dylan’s level in the local drug business was killed, and Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell, his character much less threatening than in Season 1) implied that it would be OK if Dylan took things over.  Meanwhile, after Norma convinced her son not to commit suicide out of guilt over killing Miss Watson, Norman managed to pass a polygraph test by assuming the split personality we remember from Psycho, “truthfully” saying that he hadn’t committed the crime because he believed that his mother had done it.  The season ended with a blatant callback to the movie, Norman alone in the polygraph room staring at the camera with the expression Anthony Perkins had on his face in Psycho‘s final shot.

Bates Motel has done very well for A&E, and it’s already been renewed for a third season, but it’s not entirely clear where the show is going from here.  Further adventures in the drug trade will be a yawn, it appears from the season finale that Norma’s foray into White Pine Bay politics is coming to an end, and at this point just about all the pre-Psycho cards are on the table, since Norman has killed and assumed his mother’s personality to do so (although he’s not yet dressing up as her).  What’s been tantalizing about the show in its first seasons has been its willingness to paint young Norman as a potentially nice guy who went horribly wrong, but the trajectory from here on seems relentlessly downward.  (As Bates becomes less satisfying, it’s hard not to recall Carlton Cuse as the co-perpetrator of Lost.)  Highmore and Farmiga are giving superb performances in roles with a high degree of difficulty, but it remains to be seen whether their show can keep up with them.  Season 3 is likely to reveal whether Bates Motel is a series that can genuinely thrive independent of its classic film roots, or just a stunt that’s running out of time.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."