At its best, at its core, Bates Motel is a tragedy about a mother trying to protect her son from a fate she knows awaits him—and that we know she will fail to protect him from because this is a prequel. I’ve repeated that ad nauseum this season. But this is also a tragedy about a mother who doesn’t get to have a remotely normal life because she’s protecting that son, trying to keep him from descending into the murderous chaos she knows he’s capable of. Making sure that Norman doesn’t become his darker half is a full-time occupation for Norma Bates, and it largely means she can’t do anything but try to keep him happy and distracted, so the dark side doesn’t take over. And, yes, being a parent means sacrificing things for your child, but think of all of the things Norma doesn’t get to have and hasn’t gotten to have because of her son. Even something like a romantic relationship will always be colored by the fact that if she spends the night with a man, she has to be worried that something might happen to her boy, something that might make him turn into a danger to others.
I don’t need to tell you that, though. Bates Motel is already telling you visually.
See that decorative owl that Norma takes a brief look at as she walks into George’s house for their dinner date? Does it remind you of anything?
See, even when Norman’s not around, he’s affecting the way that his mother approaches the world. Bates Motel is usually at its weakest when it’s not focusing on either Norma or Norman, and it’s at its best when it’s focusing on the two together. Yet the two can’t constantly be a symbiotic unit, no matter how much Norma might want that to be the case. She inevitably has to go off and live her own life, but what makes these two such a convincing spiral toward an end we know is coming is that every time she leaves her son alone for an instant, something terrible happens. This week, that involves Sheriff Romero wondering just why Norman’s semen sample turned up in Blair Watson and trying to direct Norman toward an answer to that question. (Norman reacts poorly.) And then, as if that weren’t enough, Norman gets taken by someone, presumably part of Nick Ford’s gang, raining down terror on Dylan’s family, just like he promised he would. (I suppose this could be someone else, but come on.)
So much of this season of Bates Motel has been about Norma and Norman worrying about things and then those things coming true. It’s a show about how when you’re preconditioned to look at the world and see only the worst things that might happen, then those things immediately start to follow. The opening shot of this episode—which director Ed Bianchi holds for a long time—is just Norma Bates lying awake in bed in the morning. But we don’t see her open her eyes. We hear the birds chirping and see the morning sun hitting her face, but she’s already awake and worried. She’s been laying here for hours, maybe, thinking about all of the things that could go wrong, maybe because she lives in a universe where those things are going to go wrong.
“Meltdown” is a terrific episode if what you want out of this show is some awesome Vera Farmiga acting. She gets to be involved in just about every storyline on the show here, from dealing with Norman to visiting Dylan’s office at drug headquarters and being quietly impressed with how nice it is. She faces off with Nick Ford and manages to get her way—if only temporarily. We even get a wonderful scene where she tells George all about how she’s been lying about her past and how she’s not worthy of a guy who went to Brown and then left everything behind to be a ranchhand. She’s not smart. She’s not sophisticated. She’s just a mess. And the sooner everybody realizes this, the better off they’ll be. The episode even takes the time to have Norman learn from an evil drug lord that his relationship with his mother is so important, which we know he’ll take to heart, and it also has Norma face off with a taxidermied bird for a while.
The problem is that “Meltdown” has by far the most drug stuff of the whole season, thus making it easily the season’s weakest episode. There’s enough Norma goodness that I didn’t hate watching it or anything, but on a show that’s so emotionally complex at best and so downright weird even when it’s just coasting, it’s all the more disappointing to be dropped into the middle of a story about rival drug gangs facing off over the local drug trade. I know that we’re supposed to be getting some lesson about how pointless all of this is, since it was, after all, touched off by Bradley killing the man who killed her father and not one crime syndicate striking the other. But Dylan by himself simply isn’t a compelling enough character to hold all of this together, nor are any of the other figures in this drug war. Do you really care about Zane or Jody? I sure don’t. And Nick Ford is an enjoyably menacing figure, but I think it’s telling that he’s at his most interesting when he’s being menacing toward Norma or Norman, not when he’s having a hushed exchange of threats with Dylan in a pizza parlor.
I suspect what we’re meant to be taking away from this are some thoughts about the continuing growth toward manhood of young Dylan Massett. But the dynamic between Norma and her two sons is so strong that I keep wishing he would just go back to the house and argue with them again. Think back to the introduction of Caleb and how much juice that jolted into the connection among the three characters. And I get that Caleb couldn’t stick around because the actor had other jobs and/or the show couldn’t make him a semi-regular. But it’s still disappointing to check in on the drug story every week and realize that it’s just the same old filler in a show that’s capable of so much more.
Look at Norma and Norman on the stairs, he yelling at her about how she changed the rules on him. That’s what this show is capable of, this raw, emotional stuff that hits so hard to anyone who’s been frustrated with a parent who seemed unwilling to let them go or to anyone who’s worried about a kid staying out too late. At its core, Bates Motel is a show about worry, about all of the owls hiding somewhere that we can’t see that might swoop down out of the sky and catch us in their talons. But the drug storyline doesn’t work because it’s a story where the things to be worried about—namely, bullets ripping through your flesh and killing you—are the same things everybody else is worried about on the rest of TV. Bates works when it embraces that existential anxiety, that sense that everything is heading toward personal apocalypse, no matter what we do. And for that, we need Norma and Norman, not men with guns threatening each other with more guns.
- Not only had I mostly forgotten that the drug war was kicked off by Bradley killing the man who killed her father, but I had largely forgotten that Bradley even existed. I think it’s kind of a nice touch that all of the terrible things that happen in White Pine Bay can ultimately be tied back to Norma and Norman’s arrival, but the show struggles to make it all feel as organic as, say, everything on Breaking Bad tracing back to Walter’s decision to cook meth.
- This week in Emma DeCody: She knows where all of the drug operations are in town, apparently. But she’s wondering if Norma really knows what her son does for a living.
- The scene where Norman starts sticking taxidermied birds around the living area in the big house is both a tie to the movie and hilarious. “That’s the great thing about taxidermy. It goes with everything. It’s nature!”