“Midnight” is a surprisingly elegant, complicated, even beautiful piece of television right up until the last. Fucking. Shot. For 99.9 percent of its running time, I found myself thinking that the show, with all its weird missteps and strange decisions, had found its way to a version of itself that worked, one pitched equally among high camp, weird mystery, and disturbed character study, and I found myself really excited for a season two where the show, awkward growing pains behind it, would just get down to telling the story it came here to tell, leaving behind the sex trafficking rings and the people being burned alive and all of the stuff it was so obviously doing just to make sure the audience didn’t get bored. Too often in the first season I got the sense that Bates Motel didn’t trust the audience, to be sure, but also that it didn’t trust itself to turn this story into a compelling narrative. It always seemed to be distracting itself with pointless mystery subplots, just in case.
“Midnight” changed all of that. I said last week that Vera Farmiga is simply dragging the show toward herself through the sheer gravity of her terrific performance, and that became even more apparent this week, when the show was able to bounce between the campy comedy of Norma screaming, “Screw off, shithead!” at a guy who wasn’t sufficiently apologetic for her bumping into him and the more quietly devastating, genuinely emotional moments. I don’t know how much Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin told Farmiga about her back-story when she began this season, but her revelations to Norman—right before he headed off to a school dance, no less—very clearly made sense within the prism of how her character has been developed so far and as a way to pull together her many disparate elements. Her big confession to Norman is clearly meant to be an Emmy tape moment, but Farmiga takes something that could be cloying and makes it genuinely heart-breaking, as you see how this tightly controlled woman is slowly coming apart at the seams.
And then the show has to go and underline something it had left ambiguous and ruin the affection I was building for it.
The Psycho question seems to have bedeviled this show from the first, so I’m leery of making more comparisons to the source material (simply because the show is very obviously at this point trying to do its own thing, except when it can draw an explicit connection to the movie). But if there’s one thing Alfred Hitchcock understood, it was that sometimes there’s more suspense in what you don’t see than what you do see. The famous shower scene in Psycho never shows you “Mother’s” knife meeting Marion’s flesh, instead leaving that much to the viewer’s imagination. It’s one of the most famous scenes ever made, perhaps for that very reason, and it became so famous that we all get to watch Bates Motel today.
You’ll notice, I hope, that I’m highlighting the essential ambiguity of the shower scene. Granted, it’s not very ambiguous as to what’s happening—Marion Crane is being murdered—but it leaves so much of what happened to our imaginations. Bates Motel is in an even better position as it ends this episode. The audience knows that Norman has killed his teacher, because the audience knows how to read all of the signs given to us both by the movie—Norman’s vision of his mother telling him he knows what he has to do—and the series—Norman’s blackouts can only mean something terrible has happened. Even better, the next-to-last scene, with Norma comforting her son, even as she realizes that he’s probably done something horrifying, then the two of them retreating into the house to sit by the fire and get warm from all the rain, plays all of the unease we feel against us by making the scene a genuine moment of reconnection between the two. We know the teacher is dead, but by leaving things ambiguous, the finale makes Norma’s attempts to resume her “normal” life that much more stomach-churning. (It even left a part of me vaguely fantasizing about each season of this show taking place in a new location, Norma and Norman taking over a new hotel every season while Norma tried desperately to keep her son out of the law’s hands.)
So the finale doesn’t need that final shot. We don’t need to see Miss Watson dead. We already know she is, and even if we didn’t, there’s a second season to tell us that, yep, Norman killed her, and now Norma has another mess on her hands (though I almost wish the second season would make a time jump and have this string of unexplained murders plaguing the town). Showing her dead just reveals the show really doesn’t trust its audience to figure this out on its own. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge deal. I still liked this finale a lot, and if you took those last 10 seconds off, it would be even better. But it does indicate the show still has this fundamental inability to let go and expect the audience to keep up. That’s the sort of thing that separates the truly great TV series from the ones that haven’t mastered the moves, and it would be nice to see Bates Motel move closer to the former category at some point in the future.
As mentioned, the rest of the episode was strong. The show has gradually pruned the storylines and elements that didn’t really work—the sex trafficking storyline appears to be completely over at this point, and thank goodness for that—and doubled down on giving its excellent cast juicy material to play. So much of this episode is given over to the central foursome of Farmiga, Freddie Highmore (who’s gotten much better at sounding American when angry), Olivia Cooke, and Max Thierot, and that proves to be a smart decision. Emma’s continued certainty that Norman will notice she’s so much better—and, if we’re being superficial, so much prettier (though, obviously, personal taste)—than Bradley provides several heartbreaking moments, while I like how Dylan continues to be a character who seems to realize that his crazy family has moved him into a TV show.
But it’s Highmore and Farmiga who keep this show rattling along and particularly the latter. I realized as the season went along that even as the plot around the two was a mess, I could always look forward to their scenes to keep me engaged. Thankfully, it seems like the show itself has realized this as well, and their weird, twisted relationship, which has wisely been played as something that could save both of them even though we know it will inevitably doom them, has become the shaky foundation upon which this whole series stands. Normally, a foundation that erodes out from underneath a show is a bad thing, but with Highmore and Farmiga holding up their end of the bargain, Bates Motel has found room to be more emotionally adventurous as the season has gone on. Not everything works here yet, but this is a show that’s finally finding itself, and I’d be even more excited for season two if not for those 10 seconds at the end.
Finale grade: B+
Season grade: C
- It may seem like I was being slightly dismissive of Norma’s confession to her son about her sexual abuse at the hands of her brother, writing it off as an Emmy tape, but Jesus Christ, does Farmiga make that moment powerful. She can make just about any moment play, and on the writing side, I was glad to see the show decided to just tell us about her past, rather than making it another pointless mystery.
- I was talking about that last shot on Twitter, and Joe Adalian suggested that maybe Cuse has fear over how the Internet reacted to the ambiguity at the end of Lost’s first season—that long backwards tracking shot down the open mouth of the Hatch. Maybe!
- Bradley’s boyfriend is just the worst character on this show. He exists purely to be an obstacle and/or punch people in the face.
- He wasn’t in as many episodes as I would have liked, but Nestor Carbonell did similar work with a bunch of pieces that didn’t seem to add up in creating Sheriff Romero, and it paid off when he gunned down Jerry Abernathy during that confrontation at the docks. I’m hopeful Carbonell will be upped to a series regular in season two, because his relationship with Norma is a potentially fascinating one to explore.
- The Emmy campaign drums are beating loudly for Farmiga. While I wouldn’t want her to get in over Keri Russell or Kerry Washington (both clinging to the edge of the bubble), I wouldn’t mind her bumping, say, Glenn Close or somebody from Downton Abbey. (I’d talk about how Tatiana Maslany needs a nomination for Orphan Black here, but we all know that’s crazy talk, because she’s on a science-fiction show on an out-of-the-way cable channel, and if the Emmys have taught us anything, it’s that performances in science-fiction shows on out-of-the-way cable channels should be ignored.)