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

Bates Motel: “Unconscious”

Illustration for article titled Bates Motel: “Unconscious”

Way back at the end of the very first episode of Bates Motel, over two years ago, Norma Bates and her son were dumping the body of her didn’t-exactly-get-away-with-it rapist into the waters of White Pine Bay. Norma was feeling insecure and self-pitying, and Norman tried to cheer her up by explaining just how important she was. “I don’t ever want to live in a world without you,” he tells her. “You’re my family… my whole family, my whole… my whole life, my own self. You always have been. It’s like there’s a cord between our hearts.” “Honey,” his mother responds, “that’s… that’s from Jane Eyre.”

As we close out the third season of the show, Bates Motel is taking us back to that very first intimate moment, which not coincidentally also took place while sending a body to the bottom of the bay. It’s repeated tonight, in one of the final lines, as Norman watches the automobile containing the corpse of Bradley Martin sink under the surface. Sidling up next to him, Norma/n grabs his arm. “There’s a cord between our hearts. Remember?” Of course Norman does. He’s the one that lifted it from Charlotte Brontë in the first place. And that cord no longer seems to be between Norman and his mother. It’s between Norman and the mother who lives in his head. It’s a cord that’s smothering his relation to the outside world.

The end of the season gave us our first encounter with Norman’s murderous alter-ego taking possession while we watch. It’s the same thing that happened at the end of season one, true, but this is something more significant. It’s a new Norman, the one the show has steadily developed all season. It came in this season’s first episode, “A Death In The Family,” where the show offered a taste of Norman Bates, peeping tom. It came in the middle of the season, when Norman donned his mother’s dress and sashayed around the kitchen. And now, in the final minutes of “Unconscious,” Norman’s mother persona finally completes the task she first tried to carry out on Caleb back in season two—only this time, Norma/n succeeds. Bradley’s head is pounded into a rock. And Norma/n has exerted definitive control over her son’s actions.

Frankly, Norman’s response made sense: He seemed almost relieved at having decisions taken out of his hands. He didn’t have to hurt anyone. He didn’t have to abandon his mother. Things were decided for him, and given the fraught emotional baggage that’s been flying around recently, it’s not wonder his shell-shocked, uncertain hug with Norma/n contained the element of surrender. He may not like Norma/n’s actions—he may even try to stop her, from time to time—but he’s given up any hope of ever leaving her. They’re bound together, because Norman has seen the consequences of trying to slip loose those bonds.

In that sense of concern for others’ well-being, Norman is very much like the rest of his family. Dylan essentially gets his own little one-act play in the first half of this episode, where, after leaving a chastising voicemail for Caleb, the elder son finally has the moment with Emma Decody he’s been longing for. After freaking out at the potentially life-saving lung transplant news, everybody’s favorite dying teen (especially in comparison to the other teen who died tonight) turns to her new crush, Dylan. After flattering her with some dreadfully corny lines, the music (also a bit too cheesy) swells, and the two have their first makeout session. Olivia Cooke and Max Thieriot play this well, with a naturalistic feel that shines in their awkward giggling after the kiss. There’s (temporary) life in this relationship.

Alex Romero also gets his own little arc, one that closes the book on the show’s best season-long storyline: Bob Paris. That brief visit to see Norma crystallized something for the sheriff, namely, that he can’t lose the one thing he wants, even if it comes at the cost of doing what’s right. For a long time, he kept the peace in White Pine Bay by making sure all bad business ran smoothly. But then Norma Bates threw a wrench into all of that. Suddenly, Romero found himself trying to be the man he always wanted. Hunting down dealers, raiding pot farms, making enemies of the most powerful families in town—this was the work of someone who had found a new reason to live. But, like all compromises, it reminds him of the one thing he can’t admit: that his own desire is driving him to do evil. He kills Paris, not because it’s right, but because it’s what may yet get him what he wants, which is a chance with Norma Bates. Even if it turns him into his father, who caused him so much grief. The moment Bob Paris reminded him of that painful fact was the moment Paris died.


As is usually the case, however, the heart and soul of the episode belongs to Norma. Vera Farmiga has had to shift the character into relatable mode more and more this year, and watching her shade the camp theatrics of Planet Farmiga into the grounded, all too human frailty at the base of Norma’s being has been one of the most rewarding elements of the season. The scene at Pineview was an exemplary demonstration of this. As the facilities woman explained the nature of the commitments, then found herself stymied by Norma’s insistence on getting a price quote (“Ballpark. No range?”), seeing the transformation in Norma Bates’ face as she realized there was no hope, was mesmerizing. The shift from hilarious Norma to heartbreaking Norma lasted all of ten seconds, but it was an emotional crane kick to the sympathy nerves.

Plus, it allowed for one of those great reversals this show pulls off in the better episodes: that string of sadness and heart-tugging that Norma plucked early on paid off huge in the final act. When Norma picks up the door stop and clocks Norman in the back of the head, it’s a stunner, both for him and the audience. Dragging her own son into the basement and tying him up, we see both her fear at how far gone her child is, and her determination to protect him from everything, including himself.


All season long, whether it was stopping a driving test mid-exam or finding ever more reasons not to let him leave home, Norma has frantically fought her own impending sense of acknowledgment that Norman needed help. It took her own brother, which the long-time-coming rapprochement made into a tolerable character, to confront her with the fact that she doesn’t like facing facts. And so she tries to tell her son that he needs help, only to find herself tying him up in the basement. Many of you have been happy to point out that this is a bed of Norma’s making, and she has to lie in it. That doesn’t mean she should suffer. Norma’s weaknesses are many, but as this season has shown time and again, she also has a very big heart—one that, when touched, allows her to do her best by her family and the people she cares about.

Which doesn’t include Bradley Martin. The girl that Norma thought was dead really gets good and dead in “Unconscious,” a narrative ploy that almost every single commenter saw coming a mile away. She was brought back as cannon fodder, as someone Norman could kill and get away scot-free, because no one is looking for a girl who’s already dead. Many of you mentioned that this was a cheap move, and you’re not wrong. Even though the show and the actors handled the story well, it still failed to pack as much of a punch as it should have, or as previous deaths have. The Bradley problem is over, for now, but it remains to be seen whether the show has seen the last of it. The fact that it thought playing coy about whether Bradley was “really there,” even as it made all but impossible any plausible way she couldn’t be, suggests that Bates Motel was striving for some unearned mystery points. Setting up the Arcanum Club and its sinister forces was an earned mystery. Pulling Nicola Peltz away from Transformers 5 or whatever just so Norman had someone to kill was not.


But Norman Bates is where we end, and his journey proceeds ever more inexorably toward its foregone conclusion. We don’t know how he’ll get there, but this season marked a turning point, away from the good-hearted Norman who always tried to do right, and toward the Norman who is just trying to please Mother. The vengeful matriarch has staked her claim on her son, and Norman can’t fight it any more. Going forward, Norman Bates will be striving to placate the woman he loves, not realizing the inevitable conflict that will arise between Norma/n and his flesh-and-blood mother. There’s a cord between his heart and one of them, and now, we know which one. It’s the one who seems to stand by him, no matter what. The one who would never dream of letting him go. That’s a quality that Norman values—someone who will always be there for him, the way he has tried to be for her. She’s his everything. Because, as we know, a boy’s best friend is his mother.

Stray Observations:

  • “You’ve given up on me.” Freddie Highmore’s scenes with Vera Farmiga have only gotten better as the season has progressed. At this point, I’d tune in just to watch them read takeout menus to one another.
  • Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: Saying goodbye to Sheriff Romero, an affectionate smile playing at her lips. “Thanks for stopping by.”
  • That scene with Farmiga and Carbonell was a knockout. Both of them smiling wryly at the belief that we’re all doomed in the end? That was the epitome of 21st century Greek tragedy.
  • It’s a rare episode where Dylan also gets one of the best lines! Norma: “So he could really be running away with her?!” Dylan: “Yeah, it’s possible, but it’s also true that he sees shit that isn’t really there.”
  • Now taking bets on where Caleb has gone off to. To take out Chick? To flee the country? It took all season, but I finally got a break from the big lug, just as he was starting to be tolerable.
  • Thanks for all of your wonderful, insightful comments this season. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun. The show wasn’t always great, but the high points of season three were as good as anything on television this year. I hope we’ll all be back again at this time next year, to start tearing into the darkest journey yet for the Bates family. So one last time, in honor of Highmore and Farmiga, for old time’s sake—say it with me: EMMYS FOR EVERYONE!