The final shot of “The Immutable Truth” is damned terrific. It’s an homage to the last time we see Norman in the film Psycho, but it’s also an homage that consciously wants us to know it’s an homage. Famously, that last shot goes from Norman looking down as Mother rattles away in his brain, so we’re caught in his abject humiliation, before he looks directly at us (always an unsettling effect), and Alfred Hitchcock briefly dissolves in a shot of Mother’s taxidermied skull while the whole thing dissolves properly to the shot of Marion’s car being exhumed from the swamp. It’s one of the most famous shots in film history for a simple reason: It conveys nearly everything you need to know about the story you just watched in but a flicker of a few seconds. That, of course, is because Hitchcock was a genius.
The creators of Bates Motel have spent their time alternately running from and embracing the genius of their source material. Cleave too closely, and the show becomes a formulaic thing where we’re just waiting for everything to come to the end. Stray too far away (as the show did at times in season one), and it becomes harder and harder to figure out why this project exists in the first place. Season two found almost exactly the right mix of new material with nods to the film (and novel, I guess), but never more so, I think, than in this final shot. Norman is in the same position as the Norman of the movie, sitting in a chair, looking down and away from the camera. But in this case, the camera doesn’t leave him any choice. He has to look at us, as the camera enters his personal space. At the last possible moment, Freddie Highmore looks up and locks eyes with us, less because he wants to but because he has to. The camera is right there—as are, by extension, all of us in the audience.
What’s even more interesting, though is what the shot does with Norma. We don’t need to see her face flicker across Norman’s visage, because we already know that his secondary persona has finally locked into being some version of Norma. (In a recent interview, Kerry Ehrin said that Norman has dissociative identity disorder.) We don’t need that additional information. Instead, look at what’s happening to the real Norma, who’s entered the room to take her son home and celebrate his passing the polygraph test. She gets blurred out to begin with, but she becomes less and less distinct as Norman becomes all we can see. The real Norma is still there, still living and breathing, her faults and issues more than apparent, but she’s increasingly being supplanted by the Norma in Norman’s head, the one that will come to define his split personality in adulthood. It’s tremendous stuff, and it sums up the simultaneous disintegration and reintegration that has defined this season so perfectly. It’s great work from director Tucker Gates and from showrunners Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse to break out at this point in time.
The rest of “The Immutable Truth” is as quiet and emotional as last week’s episode was loud and piercing. “The Box” needed to lead to Norman’s breakthrough in the box, and that was the sort of violent breakthrough that required a full hour of crazy shit happening, like Dylan beating Nick Ford to death with a fireplace poker. But “The Immutable Truth” is an episode about reintegration—about Norman pulling the Norma persona back into place and Norma protecting her son and Dylan discovering his place in the community and Emma being brought back into the Bates family that may eventually doom her. (Left unsaid, brilliantly, is that all of this reintegration is going to damn every single one of these people.) As such, it proceeds much more quietly and much more thoughtfully.
In its most heartbreaking moment, Norman is revealed to be making a list of things he needs to do, a checklist worthy of a dead man. At first, we think it’s because he fears he won’t pass the polygraph and will have to go to jail or be institutionalized. But it later turns out he’s doing it because he is planning on killing himself. (Norma will eventually interrupt him, tearing through woods in fucking high heels like only a mother trying to protect her child can.) But it gets to the heart of this series’ dilemma, and the problem every parent of a child with a serious mental illness must eventually confront: What’s the best thing to do with that child? Certainly there are things like depression or anxiety that can be treated with therapy and drugs, but then there are things like serious schizophrenia or what Norman deals with, a dissociative identity disorder where one of the personas is murderous. Or what if you’re the parent of a child as in the film and novel We Need To Talk About Kevin? What if your kid is just a psychopath, full stop?
The answer all of us, those of us without troubled children, feel free to give is “Put them in an institution, where they can be safe and others can be safe from them.” Hell, Dylan recommends that to Norma toward the end of this episode. But it’s one thing to say that. It’s another thing to do that do your own child. The ultimate betrayal of a child by his or her parent is to be abandoned, to be locked away from them for the rest of their lives or even just for a few months. And the thing about Norman is that 99.99 percent of the time, he’s normal, the kid who wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s just that the other .01 percent is filled with murderous rage, twisted that way by the suffering of his childhood and then exacerbated by Norma trying to solve the problem herself.
The genius of Bates Motel, season two, which I think is a genuine achievement, is how it places all of us into the middle of that relationship. And as creepy as it can seem, the show makes us see—and sympathize with—how important Norma and Norman are to each other, how lost either is without the other. (It’s no coincidence that Norman has his breakthrough when he’s separated from his mother.) For all of the important emotional moments that occur in this episode, perhaps the most important two seem innocuous at first. In one, Christine tells Norma off in the grocery store. What kind of weirdo is she to mock her and her brother like that? What she doesn’t know is how thoroughly she’s pushing Norma back into the arms of the man she’s sworn to protect, the man who will eventually kill her.
And then the other moment comes around the episode’s midpoint. Norman, expecting that this is the last time he will ever be with his mother, invites her to dance. On its surface, it’s creepy, yes, but Vera Farmiga and Highmore make it heartbreakingly real. They are all each other has. They are always going to have to be enough for each other, because inviting anybody into this life—even someone willing to deal with its peculiarities like Emma or someone who is blood related to them like Dylan—is going to be shut out more and more, because inviting anybody else in dooms them as surely as Norma must know she is just by taking this boy in further and further, loving him as a mother can and must but as Norman Bates probably should not be loved. And the camera pulls back, and we see. She’s in his talons. She always will be.
Finale grade: A
Season grade: B+
- I love the way that Norman inserts Emma in as a sort of proxy for him in case Norma needs someone in the wake of his suicide. I also love how they talk about events that happened under a year ago (I think) as if they happened ages ago, because they are teenagers, and teenagers talk that way. This season did not have enough Emma, but these final two episodes went a long way toward rectifying that.
- Dylan is now the new drug lord of White Pine Bay, hand-picked by Sheriff Romero in a speech about how he knows “the rules” that very easily could have been delivered by Richard on Lost. Also: In an episode filled with emotionally lovely moments, I think my favorite might have been Dylan and Norma finally finding a way to forgive each other and admit they loved each other.
- Norman’s taxidermy skills result in the creepiest suicide note ever, which involves a stuffed and mounted dead sparrow. Norma not only wants to save her son; she also doesn’t want that to be her final memory of him. And who would?
- Romero gets a surprising amount to do in this episode, but I think my favorite thing is how he still seems uncertain after Norman passes the polygraph. He really likes those kooky Bateses, but there’s also something very wrong with them. (Also awesome: sneaking up behind Zane and cutting him down.)
- Norman answers every question but the question of whether he killed Miss Watson in the affirmative, because he’s done some pretty awful shit in his time on the show. I also realized tonight that every series regular but Emma (including the departed Bradley) has murdered someone. Good for them!
- Discussion point: Bates Motel seems almost compulsively obsessed with American iconography from the mid-20th century. Is this just an homage to when the film was made, or is it meant to suggest how Norma and Norman are a timeless story, just playing out in endless iterations? (Or is it just a way for Ehrin and Cuse to work in some cool old movies?)
- Thanks for reading these reviews, everybody! I am genuinely enthusiastic about this show in a way I never would have predicted when suffering through some of the rougher waters of season one. I can’t wait for season three.