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

Bates Motel: “Underwater”

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Over the weekend, Carlton Cuse stated at a Paley event for this show that what he and Kerry Ehrin are really trying to do is make an additional 70 episodes of Twin Peaks to go along with the 30 we already got. Which is nice, so far as these things go, since Twin Peaks is an awesome TV show, even in what I believe to be a somewhat unfairly maligned second season. (Things fall apart there in the middle for a while, but it recovers nicely.) And you guys have been discussing the heavy Twin Peaks influences for a few weeks now, in a way that makes me wish I’d been playing them up far more. But as I watched “Underwater,” an episode where I felt more or less in tune with the show’s crazy wavelength, I realized what’s making me feel a certain detachment from the Peaks comparisons: dread.

For me, Twin Peaks was like few other shows on TV history in how thoroughly and completely it tapped into a sense of foreboding and dread. Yes, there were funny moments. Yes, there were campy moments. And yes, there were moving moments. But the overriding sense I get from watching the show is one of a barely suppressed fear of what’s just around the corner, a fear that goes beyond even something like Bob, the evil spirit who killed Laura Palmer (spoiler). At all times, this dread crept into the fabric of the series, so you’d be watching something clearly meant to be goofy and wondering just when somebody was going to slice through the thin fabric of your TV screen and attack you with some sort of existential dagger made of shadow. It had an effect utterly unlike any other TV show before or since, and I suspect it’s an effect that can’t be replicated.

So that’s the missing element in Bates Motel, at least to me. Not once in this series have I felt that dread. I’ve laughed—a lot in this episode, and mostly at things I was supposed to—and I’ve felt a sort of interest in the plight of the characters and I’ve felt suspense. But I’ve never once felt the creeping horror that it sometimes seems only David Lynch is capable of summoning (usually in league with Angelo Badalamenti). When Abernathy grabs Norma around the throat and puts a gun to her head, it doesn’t scare me or unsettle me or even faze me all that much. It’s just a thing that’s happening so the show can introduce the MacGuffin that will drive next week’s finale: the $150,000 he came to town to find. (And if we’ve seen this cash at some point this season, I don’t recall, so it must be tied to some item we’ve already seen but overlooked. Your thoughts?)

To be sure, I’m not precisely certain we’re supposed to be feeling that dread. Maybe Cuse and Ehrin got most of the other tones of Twin Peaks, then figured they were close enough. “Underwater” is terrifically funny in places, for instance, almost playing as a parody of anti-drug episodes of other shows, as Norma freaks out at the people renting out her rooms smoking pot on the sidewalk outside, while the sheriff himself doesn’t so much as attempt to see if they’re up to anything funny when he stops by. (To be sure, he doesn’t really have reason to, but has that stopped the sheriff before?) Pot is just such a part of the fabric of this town most people simply accept it. Not Norma, though. She’s paranoid enough, thanks. She doesn’t need a contact high taking her over the top.

The storyline is sold almost entirely by Vera Farmiga saying things like “smokin’ a doobie” and imploring Emma to “bust it up!” if she sees anyone smoking the marijuana like a cigarette, but there’s also time for Emma to consume a pot cupcake and act pleasantly spacey. (Plus, unlike most times characters get high on TV, she mostly behaves like a high Emma might actually behave—wandering around and talking about the wonder of stairs, then giving in to her extremely mild paranoia, which Norma amusingly thinks is dead on.) Is there anything to this? Not really, but it’s the kind of wacky comic relief that Twin Peaks would throw in when adventures with Bob and company were getting to be too much. It’s similarly welcome here, but it’s essentially becoming the center of the show, which is living up to that Gilmore Girls with more murder pitch I offered up in my review of the first few episodes. Also? There’s judicious use of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide,” as performed by a guitar-wielding hippie, because the most timeless of all music is that of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

Here’s the thing: If the show is attempting to bring together a bunch of plot threads to head into a barn-burner of a season finale, this episode in no way, shape, or form did such a thing. The $150,000 is sort of a pointless reveal, and even worse, Norma and Norman’s storyline revolves around whether she can sell the hotel because the realtor never told her about the new highway bypass that’s coming to town, a highway bypass the show established early on, then fitfully forgot about before it drowsily said, “Oh yeah!” last week and returned to the storyline. (One bit of gold in this: the realtor racing when he sees Norma entering the office, “Oh shit!” leaving his lips as he heads for the back.) Norman’s romantic travails don’t seem particularly pointed, and he’s also got a very important short story that seems airlifted in from a Sundance movie. Also, Emma flirts with one of the hippie guys (his name is Gunner, I think), and Norman stares at a banner advertising winter formal and fantasizes about drowning Bradley.


The show is now actively playing to where it was obviously headed with everybody’s favorite locomotive of sexual energy, tossing her into the midst of a love triangle with Norman and Dylan, and this is probably the clumsiest thing in the episode. The only thing drawing these two characters together is that they’re good looking, and while that’s often good enough for TV, I’m not sure it’s good enough for a show that’s already skating by on making everything look dream-like and hypnotic. Anyway, Bradley gets into her dead father’s office with Dylan’s help, and she finds a bunch of love letters from his mistress, so I guess we have that to look forward to as a new mystery worth solving, except not really.

No matter, though. This episode had a lot of Norma and in particular scenes where she and Norman’s relationship grew oozy and creepy, like when she crawled into bed beside him to feel “safe” from Abernathy, or when Norman angrily exploded at her that she was “crazy.” (Freddie Highmore has taken his lumps in my reviews and your comments, but I think he’s pretty good at the sudden rage explosion thing.) Or, hell, even the scene where Norma tried her best to encourage Norman’s new taxidermy interests was more fun than most stuff on this show. So long as this show is centered on the world’s oddest mother-son relationship, it will have an engine to keep going, no matter how much of the rest of the show seems to be assembled from half-remembered Twin Peaks moments and After Dark: In The Outdoors screensavers.


Grade: B for Bash Out That Blunt, Man, And Get High On Life With Norma Bates!

Stray observations:

  • I love the Sheriff’s interactions with Norma after he drops by to see her threatening flower card. Should she just not call him again until there’s another dead body in her bed? Maybe, yeah, he says. Because that would be great evidence!
  • Norman’s teacher is hiding some dark, bruising shit, and I’m betting we’ll find out the full story next week or possibly in season three, when we’ll have completely forgotten it even exists.
  • Dylan is really getting ahead at work. He has an office now and everything! Well, he’ll have one if he wants it, but we all know Dylan. He’s going to sulk about it a bit, then sit down in the big chair. Way to go, guy!