When a few of you guessed in comments last week that Dylan was probably Norma’s son by Caleb, her brother, I first thought that, hey, that could be a good story turn for this show and give everybody lots of great stuff to play. And then I thought, oh no, they’re going to drag out the reveal for several weeks, until everybody’s already guessed it, and it feels anticlimactic. Then in the final scene of tonight’s episode, there it was. Dylan is yelling at Norma that she’s just making up a story about her brother raping her to get her way (in a moment that played as legitimately chilling), and Norman comes home and attacks his half-brother. And then, before Norman can beat Dylan to a pulp, Norma just comes out with it: Caleb is Dylan’s father. When Dylan is so instantly companionable with him, it just makes sense. He can’t help it!
It’s a hell of an ending to an episode that’s otherwise pretty quiet, even by early-season Bates Motel standards. Norma goes to a party she gets invited to by Christine, the woman she met at auditions. (Norma didn’t get the part, but that’s because they made Christine give the part to Libby.) There, she meets a nice young fellow (Christine’s brother), played by Michael Vartan, and the two of them hit it off, Vartan apparently unaware that the woman he’s just met lives in some nightmare version of his own reality. Meanwhile, Norman goes down to a beach party in memory of Bradley. Emma goes, too, vowing to make some bad choices with a good-looking guy, while Norman hangs out with Cody, the cute girl from the grocery store, who also just so happens to be on the musical’s tech crew. Cody makes out with her gay best friend. She also assumes Norman’s gay. It’s all another gentle good time on Twin Peaks: WB Edition.
Except, okay, yes, also, everybody is mourning Bradley’s suicide, and Dylan and his drug-company pal come across a couple of dead bodies in a tent, possible retaliation for last week’s killing of… zzzzzz. (Are there any of you who are super into this drug war stuff?) The weird thing about Bates Motel is that it has piece-moving episodes, in which it makes sure everybody is ready for the giant storms to come, but it also seems sort of lackadaisical about moving those pieces around. Things that would be major revelations on other shows are mostly shunted to the background here, and the true focus is on the characters’ emotional journeys. Which, don’t get me wrong, is my preferred approach when it comes to these things, but it still seems weird, because these are still technically episodes designed to just get everything and everybody in position for whatever’s coming, except on, like, an emotional and psychological level. It’s a kind of story structure unlike about any other show on TV, and I’m not sure I’ve entirely cracked it yet. I know it’s working better this season, though!
Of course, all of “Caleb” is building toward that final revelation, so the whole episode could suck, and it would still work if the final scene is a doozy. Since it is, it’s easier to forget that “Caleb” had the most dull patches of any episode this season, even if we got more Emma DeCody than any of those other episodes. Even though Bradley is gone, for instance, the episode is still about her, because we need to allow everybody to process their feelings and see Norman attempt to navigate this situation where he knows the truth but can’t say anything. And though I would be just fine with the show turning into The Vera Farmiga Makes Out With Michael Vartan Hour, TV has a lousy track record with stories that exist primarily to introduce a “normal” person into a crazy-ass universe. Maybe Vartan has something up his sleeve, but he’s the kind of guy you hire to play ridiculous straight arrows, because look at him. I like seeing Quick, Vaughn, The F-150 on my TV screens again (at least in a show I’m watching), but the party over at Christine’s was not exactly an auspicious debut for Vartan on the show. (His character is named George. I’m mostly putting this here because it seems like it will come in handy in the weeks to come.)
But the episode is called “Caleb,” so it necessarily requires the guy whom it’s named after to suck up all of the oxygen he can. Fortunately, The Shield’s own Kenny Johnson is a hell of an actor, and when he swaggers onto the scene, he immediately makes an impression. Norma kicking him out of the house was one thing—and let Farmiga do that thing she does so well where she starts in a relatively calm state and instantly flies into a rage—but when he takes Dylan out for a drink and starts telling him all about how he was Norma’s protector from their abusive father, or about how he’s got this super sweet place to go down in Costa Rica, he’s so good at being on just the right side of sleazy that I found myself wanting to believe him, even though I knew everything he was saying was a lie. (Okay, maybe he really does have something going on in Costa Rica.)
The scenes where Johnson is onscreen are the real reason to watch “Caleb”—and to hope that the rest of the season turns on the conflict between him and Norma. Farmiga is almost always at her best when the show is giving her something huge to play, so she can drag it down and attempt to strangle it, and this is big, big stuff. When Norma keeps yelling at Dylan that he can’t pal around with Caleb, because Caleb raped her, it’s the kind of thing another actress would try to turn into an Emmy clip. Not Farmiga, really. She turns it into something ugly, something that Norma doesn’t want dragged out of her but is willing to put out there because she needs to protect her son from the monster that’s lurked in his back-story all along. It’s a dark, deep confession, pulling off a scab from her own heart, and it’s only topped by how she underplays the moment when Norma reveals Caleb’s true parentage. Lots of actresses would make Norma Bates a campfest. Farmiga goes to that place at least a few times per episode, but what makes her work so special is how she’s also able to locate the parts of this rigidly compartmentalized woman that burn with anger or sadness and give those pieces full voice. It’s great stuff.
So “Caleb” is a snooze for a lot of its running time, but it taps into the shows weird, Freudian power with that final sequence. Yeah, it sucks that Emma’s first story of the season involves her deciding to make bad choices and then having those bad choices end because she throws up. (This is straight out of the WB good-girl heroine playbook.) And it feels like so much of what goes on is about making sure that things are in place for stuff to be determined later. But the nice thing about Bates Motel is that when the storm clouds break—as they do in that final scene—they have a tendency to wash away everything and everybody in the flash flood.
- Emma thinks she’s a terrible person because even though Bradley is dead, she still doesn’t like her. It’s okay, Emma. We understand. All too well.
- Also: What’s up with Norman’s two main love interests this season both having “Cody” somewhere in their names? Unless the show is giving up on the idea of Norman and Emma ever having a fling, which you know it’s not, because Norman killing Emma somehow is almost certainly part of this show’s end game, I would think.
- The show’s thrilling city council plot continues with Norma meeting a guy who knows everything goes straight to the top! He’s played by Michael O’Neill, so I look forward to seeing more of him.