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

Bates Motel cordially invites you to the tragedy of Norma Bates

Illustration for article titled Bates Motel cordially invites you to the tragedy of Norma Bates

“Can you lean in to me a little?”

One of the great hooks of tragedy is watching people struggle after it’s too late. Bates Motel is a veritable playground of it—this is a version of the story whose earliest minutes turned out to be evidence Norman’s doomed, and it’s never stopped seeking out impossible things for its characters to rail against. This pall of predestination falls across the series’ of humor (sometimes balancing pathos on a knife’s edge of camp), across its noirish season arcs, and darkest of all across the house on the hill.


Though the showrunners have done a great job tweaking expectations and making use of the world around the Bates Motel, this is still a prequel to one of the most famous psychological horrors ever committed to film. It’s too late for Norma. It always has been. We watch her struggle fiercely, with so much anger and so much delight in any hardscrabble victory, that sometimes it seems like her body can barely contain her. We watch her yearn for love until it digs a pit inside her and no one can ever quite climb out of it, and the whole time she tries to build a sturdy life on sifting dirt, we know what we’re measuring towards. This show is a tragedy; we know just how this ends.

But what makes Bates Motel more than just a lengthy pastiche or an exercise in Coastal Gothic camp is the terrible, fumbling tenderness of some of those struggles. After an abusive household and two wretched marriages, it feels almost supernatural that Norma can fight to forgive Caleb, that she can fight to protect Norman from himself even after she realizes he’s hurting people and will someday hurt her, too. It’s too late, always—when she shows up at the facility to see Norman and begs him, “I want you to forgive me,” we know it’s a lost cause—but that’s what keeps her human.

And in “Til Death Do You Part,” she gets married.

The proposal was pure Norma: show up on Romero’s doorstep and suggest marriage-for-sex like it’s baseball cards. But her shaky moment after he said no, and the look on the phone when he finally agreed, were also pure Norma: wanting desperately to be loved while struggling to climb out of the pit of her own making. One of her most heartbreaking moments of the entire series was telling Romero, “I always felt safe when you were here,” which was both a last-second cover for whatever she might have said, and accidentally the most vulnerable, honest thing she could have told someone else. Hers has been a life with so little tenderness in it except from Norman, and even that’s too toxic to survive; any given man is a trap waiting to spring. Romero is a trap that was already sprung and opened up later, which in some ways is more frightening. Their honesty is amazing, when it works (“I hate you.” “I hate you too, so what?”), but they both know it’s on a case-by-case basis. She’s seen that trap sprung; she knows exactly what she has to lose, if this ever falls apart.

That’s part of the reason she’s fought her own urges for connection when it comes to him; he’s fought his way to her, such as it was, through a maze of her own booby traps (and, admittedly, some hilarious subplots and a significant body count—it’s Bates Motel). But keeping her real feelings unspoken is Norma’s safety against the world, and we know that for Norma, keeping Romero at a distance is her attempt to keep him safe, too. When he manfully begs her to look cozy with him in that lovebird municipal lobby, and she tips over with all the pliant trust of a bowling pin, we know why she hesitates. She genuinely doesn’t know if she can risk leaning into him; she can’t trust it. It’s self-protection…it’s just way too late.

This has been building for a long time. Norma tends to consume who she loves; this show occasionally hints that Norman only lasted as long as he did because the parts of him that are wrong fit so nicely with the parts of her that are wrong. (Not a euphemism…yet.) She and Romero are a different story—two people who know better and, inch by inch, risk it anyway—and Vera Farmiga and Nestor Carbonell’s chemistry pays off the slow burn on every level. Their first few scenes have an almost screwball comedy-of-divorce energy; it slowly gives way to halting moments of trying to get to know one another without a corpse in the way. (Yet.) And I appreciate that it’s not easy going, either. Farmiga’s wordless beat of listening to Romero upstairs and flinching—fear of another husband? Fear of screwing up something she wants?—and the scramble to look like a Normal Wife before he enters is one of the episode’s most heartbreaking. And sure, the kiss was great, but their most intimate moment happens at that counter, when Norma throws up her usual defenses, and Romero—with Carbonell offering that understated, intermittent tenderness that’s spooked her in the past—doesn’t force it. He’s hoping it’s safe to care; for different reasons, so is she. And what do you know: Norma Bates is nearly always out of control and furious about it, and the power to decide is the most romantic wedding present you could give her. Nice one, Romero.


And of course, the episode deliberately contrasts their private wedding dinner with Norman’s first institutional days—the champagne/ecotoplasm continuum. I appreciate that the episode doesn’t make a caricature of mental institutions, and neither does it flinch from the the reality that being in one strips you of so much control. Norman reacts exactly how you’d expect; great stuff from Freddie Highmore, who plays this entire episode so ill-at-ease that he looks like an angry marionette being operated from offstage. And because he’s his mother’s son, he exerts control at the earliest opportunity by lashing out as hard as he possibly can. When Mother comes to see him? “You’ve painted me into a corner I cannot get out of and I’ve never been so disappointed in anyone.” It’s the worst thing someone could level at her, of course, and he wields it like a scalpel. Several people this episode assure Norma she’s done the right thing for Norman; she seems, moment to moment, to believe that herself. But her heart is a pit, and while she’s afraid it will bury him, she’s equally afraid he’ll climb out.

It’s all the more painful because we see her struggling to be human—that moment she accepts comfort from Romero, lets her guard down, tries to give herself permission to be happy. It’s such delicate stuff, and so, so much is going to go wrong. “I think maybe it’s all going to be okay, Norma,” Dylan offers, once he’s gotten over the shock of either one of them admitting weakness long enough to actually say the vows. And for the split second after, her look says it all. She knows better, and so do we; it’s already too late.


Stray observations

  • Freddie Highmore, Nominee for Most-Angrily-Consumed Broccoli in a Drama Series 2016.
  • Highmore nailed this episode; he was decidedly the B-plot, but his fidgety struggle to look enough like a real person to get out of there was affecting.
  • There was a C-plot; it occurred.
  • I laughed out loud at the size of that ring. Surprised it didn’t give him a concussion when she grabbed him and went for it.
  • Hey, the pit’s being covered! That’ll go fine, probably.
  • I don’t even want to speculate how doomed it is, but honestly, Farmiga and Carbonell can play awkward, stilted, occasionally-simpatico house for three straight episodes as far as I’m concerned.
  • Romero is sometimes an asshole and it’s sometimes great: “Why? Because you were laundering his money? Did you do a good job?”
  • See also: “I was actually hiding a bunch of money down here.”
  • “Sooner or later I’m going to break my neck on those stupid stairs.” Good God, Norma, don’t say that! Why would you say that? We know how this ends!