The ideal for Bates Motel is when it captures the feel of Twin Peaks if it were produced by Greg Berlanti in 2001 as a drama on The WB. That sounds like I’m being snarky, but I’m really not. For as much as the show’s supporters and producers want to compare it to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s seminal bit of TV amazingness, there’s just as much—if not more—WB in the show’s template. It’s a show that can be almost achingly earnest and one that takes its teenager’s problems often a little too seriously. It’s a show where the bond between parent and child takes on the vibe of something almost like fantasy. It’s the parent-child relationship you wish you had, except pushed so far that it becomes occasionally creepy, even as the show is able to pull it back from that brink week after week. Plus, there’s the most important element of any WB drama: I really want to live in the town where this is set, even with the people who get set on fire.
As such, I think Bates Motel is at its best when it heads full-bore toward that weird warmth and keeps the weird stuff on the margins of the story, rather than the reverse. Fortunately, I’m guessing the show’s producers mostly agree with me, as season two hasn’t radically altered itself in this regard but has skewed much more heavily toward the weird scenes of bonding than anything else. Hell, I was even slightly touched by Bradley’s final gesture before leaving for Boston, and she’s not a character I have much use for otherwise. Her note to Norman (proclaiming him an absolutely wonderful, tip-top kinda guy) made for a nice little button on that relationship, which has been effectively put on hold while Nicola Peltz goes off to fight giant robots. (I actually don’t know if she’ll ever be back, but I suspect the show still has her under contract.)
In reading Internet chatter about the premiere, I’ve realized that my belief about what happened to Miss Watson—which is basically, “C’mon! Norman killed her!”—isn’t shared by absolutely everyone, who want to treat the question as a mystery because the show’s characters treat it as a mystery. I think the series has basically confirmed that Norman was behind it (and I believe Carlton Cuse has in interviews). Yet even if you don’t feel that way, I think the series is so much richer if Norman was the murderer than if he wasn’t. For one thing, just based on the character’s name, we know where this is inevitably headed. But for another, having Norman be a killer and having his mother know he’s a killer puts everything she does under a new light.
The strongest scene of this episode was when Norman stormed out of the audition because he needed to get Bradley to Cold Creek in time to catch her bus. Norma, wounded by her son’s rejection of something fun they could do together, races out after him, and the two have a gigantic argument, the thrust of which is that Norman has absolutely no interest in being in the town musical, and Norma basically just decided they would have fun doing it. From one angle, this is just teenage rebellion, a kid trying to get out from under his mother’s thumb (and doing so in the midst of a relationship that must seem to him like it’s incredibly suffocating). But when we look at things from Norma’s perspective, the stakes are that much higher. If she doesn’t have Norman under her thumb at all times, he might kill again. And then he would be taken away from her to prison or maybe even death row. They’re arguing about the musical, but they’re also arguing about life, man.
All of which is burying the lede, because this is the episode when Norma Bates sings. (I’m picturing a novelty album with Vera Farmiga dressed as the “Mother” skeleton from Psycho, sitting in that rocking chair and clutching a microphone, crooner style.) One of the most frequent requests from TV actors to their showrunners is to get an opportunity to sing, because a.) everybody likes singing and b.) it makes for a nice thing to put on a reel when trying to get work elsewhere. And, indeed, if you read that Carlton Cuse interview I linked to last week, that seems to have been the impetus for this particular storyline. But that’s no matter, because the chance to see Norma and Norman sing “Mr. Sandman” together while Bradley’s disappearance and several murder investigations are swirling all around them is one of those perfect little WB moments. And then Farmiga gets to tear into “Maybe This Time,” which is the exact kind of cliché choice that Norma would make, even if I’m half convinced the writers don’t know the Great American Songbook that well, and it’s weird and transcendent and kind of beautiful. Just like the show at its best.
Alas, it can’t all be Vera Farmiga singing, because like that other show about a serial killer, Dexter, the plots on Bates Motel are only interesting if they run through one of the protagonists. The drug trade around White Pine Bay is an interesting bit of background information to make the setting seem more intriguing, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been terribly excited or inspired by the storylines around it. (Also, I find the notion of having giant crime syndicates primarily devoted to marijuana kind of ridiculous, but now I’ll bet you’ll point me to 500 stories about organizations just like the ones in this episode). Anyway, everybody in the families is interested in finding out who killed Mr. Boring last week, and somebody is made to pay for the crime. Also, poor Nestor Carbonell gets dragged into this, even though he’s so much more fun spending time with Farmiga. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it feels very boring and very rote, and Bates Motel is always better when it feels like it could come flying apart at any given second.
That’s no matter, though, because this is all about the final few moments, when Emma DeCody (the sole character who’s interesting without Norma or Norman around and, also, the only character who’s gotten shit-all to do so far) arrives to tell Norma and Norman as they return home from the audition that Miss Watson’s killer has been caught. We know it’s not the killer, and Sheriff Romero knows it’s not the killer, and Norma knows it’s not the killer, but it’s a moment for celebration nonetheless. Norman Bates stays out of jail another week! A killer is free to roam the streets, and that makes his mother happy! It almost looks like the ending of an episode of Everwood if you squint.
- The last scene of the episode brings Norma’s brother into the story, though he hasn’t made it to hanging out with his sister just yet. I’m wary of what this story will do for the show, which has trouble handling these sorts of ultra-serious bits, but it was necessary to have him come along at some point, if only to have more scenes where Norma reveals just a bit of her true self.
- Are we meant to take the fact that the police found two semen samples to be that the other was Norman’s? Because I don’t really know if I want the show to go that far, though I guess it may eventually just have to.
- This is rapidly developing into one of those shows (The Americans is another one) where I spend roughly the first half of every episode going, “What the fuck is this shit?” and then am rapturously excited for the next episode by the end. That said, I really do hope that the drug-trade stuff gets moved to the back burner now that Bradley’s gone, because you can tell the show’s heart just isn’t in it.
- Norma finds Miss Watson’s pearls under Norman’s mattress. Dun dun dun.
- I have to admit that on the list of plots I thought I would see this show do, “Norma tries to convince Norman to try out for a musical” was not one I thought would be on the list. And yet it turned into one of the better things the show has ever done and an excuse to bring in the fun actress Rebecca Creskoff, who will presumably be around again, because she’s great, and you don’t fly her in to Canada for nothing.