Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bates Motel: “A Boy And His Dog”

Illustration for article titled Bates Motel: “A Boy And His Dog”

A couple of months ago, Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker, introduced a type she called the “hummingbird.” The hummingbird is a woman who chips away at her goals—usually noble—via the power of positivity, but the flip side of that positivity is that she can be really, really irritating. It’s a type that, at least so far, seems tilted more toward the feminine than the masculine (though Nussbaum has suggested a few possible male hummingbirds), and it’s been turning up often enough to suggest the codification of a new character in the standard TV arsenal, the sort of thing that’s always exciting. Nussbaum classified Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe as sort of the ne plus ultra of the type, but she also included The Middle’s Sue Heck, Parks And Recreation’s Leslie Knope, and Homeland’s Carrie Mathison as other examples.

Now, I can honestly say that I’ve never once tried to imagine what the hummingbird would look like from the flip side, what would happen if Two Face’s coin landed with the scratched-up side facing up, but I’m starting to think that Norma Bates is the dark hummingbird, the woman who is all about trying to achieve goals that largely won’t benefit society—like protecting her son, who’s already killed a man—but is coming at them through the relentless force of her personality. She manipulates the emotions of those around her as best she can (and sometimes using the power of her sexual attractiveness). She blatantly tries to turn people’s sympathies against themselves. She’s very obviously guarding an internal self that is chaotic as can be, while presenting a tightly controlled outer self. She inserts herself in business she has no real reason to pursue. And, most of all, she’s really, really incompetent, when all is said and done. The hallmark of the hummingbird is that shit gets done; the hallmark of Norma Bates is that things happen almost magically, even though everything is falling apart around her.

I made this realization during the sequence in which Vera Farmiga is doing her level best to make stalking Jere Burns around a darkened marina play. Bates Motel is usually at its most entertaining when both Norma and Norman should probably be prosecuted for multiple crimes, but they manage to slide their way out of said prosecution mostly by leveraging their incompetence against everybody else. I don’t know that I’ve seen a TV show quite like it, nor do I know how long the show can use it as a storytelling engine. But when things get cooking—when Norman is clumsily invading Deputy Shelby’s house, say, or when Norma is sparring with the man in room number nine—then the show makes a virtue out of how all of its characters seem to be just plain bad at almost everything they attempt. The Hardy Boys would do a better job of solving crimes than these people, but, then, the Hardy Boys didn’t have to deal with a town where everybody was involved in either a sex-trafficking ring or a major drug production operation.

Perhaps because of this, the utter weirdness of the show bothered me less this time around. Hell, I was even able to go with the sequences where Emma’s kindly father imparted his taxidermy wisdom (sprinkled with practical life lessons about love and letting go) onto Norman while the two of them stood over the soon-to-be-stuffed corpse and later coat of Juno the dog. The death of Juno at the end of the last episode was a stupid, manipulative moment, designed almost entirely to provoke a necessary audience reaction, but the scenes with Emma’s dad in this episode were better than they had any right to be. Choosing to zig into the more fertile territory of Norman finding a potential father figure was far more interesting than zagging into scenes where he glowered thoughtfully at the sight of a deceased animal being made “like new.” Creating a scenario where Norman associates taxidermy with better times in an increasingly insane and chaotic life isn’t the worst idea the show has ever had, and I found the scenes with Norman in the DeCody compound (including the scenes with Emma) to be some of the better ones the show has offered up.

The rest of the episode I just don’t know about. It’s clear the series is casting about for a direction to take things in the wake of Deputy Shelby’s death, which destabilized the show in interesting ways but also suggested just how little notion anybody had of where to go next. Jere Burns is a hell of an actor, and he’s a great antagonist, but there’s next to nothing to his antagonism, beyond the notion that he was a part of the sex-trafficking ring, a storyline the show seems intent on hammering into the ground. Co-executive producer Carlton Cuse is most famous for Lost, of course, and that was a series that accomplished a great deal, particularly in its earlier seasons, based on the slow accumulation of mood, on things that didn’t seem quite right the longer you looked at them. This series is trying something roughly similar, but it’s easier to accept a plethora of weird agendas, strange murders, and people who refuse to speak up with major secrets on a magical island than it is in a small town. Burns’ character can’t possibly seem all that important or threatening until we know something about him beyond vague threats, but vague threats appears to be what we’re going to get.

That said, I realized this week that I more or less look forward to this show, even if I have next to no idea if it’s actually good television. To a real degree, the series had put all of its chips down on having a season finale that makes some sense of the weird morass of plot elements it’s built up thus far, at which point, Cuse and Kerry Ehrin will reveal if they’ve been playing a mostly solid long game (as “The Truth” suggested) or simply don’t have any idea how to turn this material into a feasible TV show (as too many of the other episodes have suggested). Think, for instance, of Dylan’s “storyline” tonight, a bit of business that seemed mainly designed to offer a way to get seven of Norma’s motel rooms filled up for a few weeks and also seemed to be pointing toward some larger reveal with the marijuana operation. Was there anything to it, other than continuing to remind us that the drug dealers exist, or that Dylan is perilously perched between full darkness and some sort of redemption to be found in his family? And yet this could all seem deeply significant if it pays off in interesting ways in the season finale. (I will say that I love the implication that Norma can’t fill that motel without the help of some criminal organization. She’s damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.)


Yet Farmiga’s performance has such teeth that it’s holding all of this together by its lonesome. The other actors are fine, but they all seem to come alive in scenes featuring her. I’ve opined a few times that she seems to reside on a campier planet than any of the other characters, but the longer the show goes on and the more she gets to work with actors like Burns (someone who’s capable of some mighty fine ham himself), the more she seems to align everything else in the show’s universe around her. I can’t say that I really “like” Bates Motel, but I enjoy checking out its odd little world on a weekly basis. That’s far more than I can say for most of TV’s other, laboriously tortured horror/mystery dramas.

Grade: B- for Bradley’s Pet-Sitting Service: Satisfaction Guaranteed, or Your Money Back!


Stray observations:

  • I really don’t care about Bradley and Norman—Norman and Emma 4-ever!—but she’s being damned cold to him. Don’t come running back to him and act like you didn’t mean it, Bradley!
  • Hey, remember when people were getting burned alive on this show? Yeah, me neither.
  • And then sometimes the show is capable of a moment of surprising sincerity, as with Emma’s fumbling apology/confession of love to Norman, that resulted in the two of them having a stronger friendship than they had before. There are times in this show that I almost buy some of its underlying tensions between the possibility of Norman growing up to be a good man and the possibility of him growing up to be, well, Norman Bates, and this was one of those times.
  • Some of you have been complaining about the weird time warp the show seems to exist in, which is getting up there with Archer in how non-specific it seems to be. I’ll just say that that’s small-town America, at least as I know it, and I think that’s one of the more pleasurable aspects of the show.
  • Oh, right. Somebody put Deputy Shelby’s body in one of the beds at the episode’s end, and Norma screamed. It was a pretty transparently lame attempt at a shock cliffhanger, and it continues the storyline’s weird descent into a Tales From The Crypt comic, but oh well. It didn’t really hurt anything that had come before.