Well, I’ll give it to Bates Motel: That was a pretty neat way to construct the season. Granted, a lot of us guessed that the season would loop back around and reveal that Norman killed his father before the series began (with a blender, no less), but I liked the structural gambit of having so much of the season play out without us knowing this crucial bit of information, then filling it in at the last possible moment, so Norma’s actions throughout the season make a bit more sense. She’s a too-devoted mother trying to cover up the trail of a potential psychopath—or the one person who was able to save her from a destructive marriage. It’s a pretty cool bit of writing, and as a way to structure the season, I like it intellectually, even as I think it led to too much dithering around the central fact of the show.
Here’s the thing: We all know what show we’re watching. The only reason this show got sold was because it was a prequel about the Bates family, mother and son. There are new things the show has added—like Dylan, or the Venus flytrap of a small town the characters have moved to—but for the most part, we’re watching a show about a woman realizing she’s raising a serial killer and/or a serial killer being formed because of his relationship with his mom. So, basically, we’re waiting for Norman to kill somebody. Revealing that he was killing people—well, at least one person—before the show even began is an interesting way to tell the story, but by holding that reveal for the middle of the season, it runs the risk of unnecessarily muddying up everybody else’s motivations, which is exactly what the show has done. Does this make all of the characters’ bizarre behavior and some of the show’s more questionable storytelling decisions “work”? I mean, maybe. It’s easier to fan-wank it away, now, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists.
What sort of hangs over all of this is that it debuted a few weeks before Hannibal, another serial killer prequel that does a much better job of playing around with the elements of the “how this all came to be” storyline. There, the pilot immediately drops us into a story where Hannibal Lecter is an active serial killer, and that simple fact gives us a better sense of both who he is, what drives him, and what drives the characters around him, even though they don’t know this simple fact of his existence. Now, obviously, Bates Motel is an origin story of sorts and a coming-of-age story as well, so it can’t play around in the exact same territory, but it’s still close enough that Hannibal’s successes have thrown Bates Motel’s failures into that much sharper of relief.
“The Truth” is likely the best episode of the season so far, but that’s also not saying a whole lot. It’s filled with characters making stupid decisions—chief among them Norma deciding that when she needs to have distraction sex with Shelby, she should do so down at the motel, where she’s keeping his sex slave until she figures out what to do with her—just so that the plot can reach the big “climax” it’s been building to all season. I have a certain perverse fondness for this show, and “The Truth” simply cements that even more: If the first five episodes had been better constructed—or if the behavior by the characters in them had made any sense whatsoever—then the pell-mell pacing of this episode would have been much more exciting, and the reveal at the end would have felt all the more satisfying, regardless of whether we’d all guessed it or not.
And let’s face it. The bulk of this episode—everything up until the reveal—is stupid, stupid, stupid. Characters do things just because the story needs them to. The show gives into its horror roots in a way that’s blatantly unbelievable and suggests the producers just really want to be Breaking Bad. The big investigative moment of the episode involves Dylan and Norman going back to Keith’s boat in a way that simply repeats last week’s exact story point because somebody needs to kill time. Emma gets a ton of on-the-nose dialogue that’s best described with the old Television Without Pity term “anvilicious.” Norman’s father isn’t a character so much as a stock type hauled out that Norman can kill him (and can you really hurt someone that badly with a blender?). There are a handful of okay moments here and there, mostly stemming from the few moments when the characters try to find a way out of the terrible jam they’re in and talk about it like real adults (such as when Dylan tries to convince Norman his mother isn’t fit to be his guardian), but most of the episode feels as if somebody looked at episode six in a 10-episode season and said, “That’s when we’re going to make the big reveal,” then did too little work to build to it.
I think it’s also safe to say that now that the sex slave has escaped into the woods—and Jere Burns will apparently be replacing her next week, which, woo hoo!—the whole sex slave thing has been an incredibly dumb thing to build into this story. It’s so real-world and serious and important, and then it’s bumping up against a man who’s been shot through the eye walking down a flight of stairs, then another flight of stairs, then a long path, to attempt to put a bullet in his girlfriend’s brain before crumpling to the ground in death. The two tones don’t work together at all. The former is something that should turn the person who’s held that sex slave into something more depraved and horrifying than a bad guy in a video game, but that’s, ultimately, how Deputy Shelby goes out: just another garden-variety baddie in a show full of them.
The problem with Bates Motel is that even when it’s good—as it was in this episode, I’d argue, thanks to that reveal—it’s still pretty bad. And what’s frustrating about that is it's the kind of bad where you can sort of squint and make out a version of the show that works. This isn’t like The Following, a catastrophic train wreck that leaves viewers gaping in amazement at just how wrongheaded everything is. Instead, it’s a show that gets just enough right to keep someone like me watching, while also pointing to a bunch of things it could have done so much better. Nor does it help that at all times, over on NBC of all places, there’s a grinning reminder of just how powerful this could have been, without all of the trickery and frippery.
- “A guy you were really into turning out to be a monster like that,” Emma says to Norman, in an effort to explain why Norma seems so shocked by the knowledge of Shelby’s secret life. And in that moment, anvils were general all over East Pine Bay.
- “No one will believe us that there was an Asian sex slave ring without her,” Emma also says, revealing just how thoroughly the sex slave storyline has lost the plot.
- One of the first things we hear Stan say is, “For the woman who has more clothes than a Park Avenue whore!” in reference to Norma wanting finery. From that moment forward, his fate was sealed, as he lives inside of this show.
- Norman Bates alert: That shot of Shelby walking up the stairs to stalk Dylan through the house was reminiscent of Arbogast heading into the Bates home to look for “mother.”
- Norman Bates alert 2: As Alfred Hitchcock must have known, Norman Bates was a smoothie enthusiast.