May 21, 2013



The first season of BATES MOTEL pulled one of the season’s more interesting sleights of hand.  In theory a prequel to Psycho, more often than not it used the source material as pretext for a quite different kind of series.  (Unlike Hannibal, which for all its distinctive, archly disgusting visuals and doomy mood has never stepped seriously away from the world of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.)

Until the last few minutes of tonight’s season finale (written by series co-creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, and directed by Tucker Gates), Bates only occasionally drew attention to the fact that Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) will become a psychopathic killer of women. (And wisely it’s rarely attempted to be “Hitchcockian”.)  That fact, though, thrummed in the background of all Norman’s interactions, making the show something like a fatal explosion seen in extreme slow motion.  It was reminiscent of the old time-travel saw about whether you’d kill Hitler as a baby if you had the chance–this Norman, fresh-faced, still capable of warmth and good humor, a friend to sweet fellow student Emma (Olivia Cooke), who has a hopeless crush on him to carry along with the oxygen tank she needs for her cystic fibrosis, seemed like he could still be saved.

But, as the episode’s ending suggested, probably not.  Barring a trick (and co-creator Cuse was one of the men behind Lost, so that’s not impossible), Norman has now committed the brutal murder of an innocent person, his teacher Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracey), although he blacked it out afterwards.  (As in Psycho, he engaged in an imagined conversation with his mother about the woman’s sexuality before attacking.)  This will likely change the creative direction of the show in Season 2, since it becomes harder to view Norman as an innocent victim.  Victim he is, though, of the show’s most inspired creation, his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), a virtuoso mix of passive-aggressiveness, inappropriate boundarylessness, and impulsive, damaging actions.  Tonight’s scene where Norma felt the time was right to tell her son about her history as a victim of incestuous child molestation by her brother, just before he went off to his first high school dance, was both emotionally comprehensible (she thought she might be killed before the night was out) and one of the most awful examples of motherhood since Margaret White in Carrie.  In Farmiga, of course, the show has an actress capable of carrying off all of this, and even adding vulnerability, lustiness and wit to the character (tonight her gun lesson alone expressed about half a dozen different levels of emotion), while Highmore is remarkably capable of holding the screen with her.

Not all of Bates Motel was up to the standard of the relationship between Norman and his mother.  The storyline about the female-trafficking plot in White Pine Bay never reached the Twin Peaks-ian level of creepiness that it may have been aiming for, and just felt like something from a pulp soap (although it’s always great to see Jere Burns as a smooth-talking heavy).  Perhaps Nestor Carbonell’s sheriff–thinking of Lost–will make sense as a character next season.  The pot-growing business of the town also amounted to very little.  Norman’s hunky half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) felt like he belonged in a CW serial, and his likely involvement with Bradley (Nicola Peltz), the beauty who slept with Norman and then rebuffed him, has interest only because Norman might murder either one of them.

In the story at its heart, though, the twisted, fatally damaging bond between Norman Bates and his mother, Bates Motel has been extraordinarily absorbing and disturbing in all the right ways.  The show has been a solid hit for A&E, not in a league, perhaps, with the network’s reality show duck hunters, but an easy call for renewal.  Its second season should be one of the more intriguing of 2014.


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."