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

Bates Motel: “What's Wrong With Norman”

Image for article titled Bates Motel: “What's Wrong With Norman”

Well, of course Deputy Shelby is hiding one of those Chinese sex slaves in his basement! Of course he is! The good ol’ boy network of this small town is strong, after all, and they’re going to take care of one of their own. And, what’s more, the whole idea that Deputy Shelby could be this genuinely good-hearted guy in the midst of all of these weirdoes and potential murderers seemed just a little bit off. It also seems like really obvious foreshadowing when Norman yells at Emma in school about how he doesn’t want to get messed up with the police, because the girl will still be dead, and Emma will still be sick, and Norman will still be Norman, even if it’s a pretty good moment. He immediately apologizes, but it’s the first time I really got what Freddie Highmore is trying to do here, and even if there’s some goofy stuff elsewhere in the episode—him sitting on the floor of his bedroom and chastising himself with “What is wrong with me?” is a .GIF waiting to happen—“What’s Wrong With Norman” gives me a better sense of what this show is trying to do. Or at least it would if this were to be some sort of miniseries. The open-endedness of the show is still concerning.

What I think works best here is the way that Norman visits all of this upon himself. When he kept Keith’s belt, it felt as though the show was just having him do something stupid that the police could find later. But by having the police find it so quickly, the producers are gambling on steering into the skid, on saying that Norman did this because some part of himself, deep down, wanted to always remember the moment when his mother stabbed a guy and then the two of them covered it up. The show seems to be portraying his increasing number of psychological breaks with reality as a sort of sudden onset serial killer syndrome, which is patently ridiculous, but at least the show is really committing to it. Norma comes to Norman in the middle of the night as a hallucination. Worse, Norman doesn’t remember trying to kill Dylan with a meat tenderizer. Oh, and he’s imagining his teacher tied up in sexually suggestive positions, then passing out in the middle of class.

Now, as mentioned, this is all just a bit stupid. There’s really no way that a human psyche—even a teenage human psyche—would be this influenced by this many things happening at once. So far as I can tell, Bates Motel is arguing that Norman Bates was created by the environment he was raised in, with a healthy layer of the environment his mother moved him to. He was already weak-willed and dependent upon his mother, so when she moved him to this little town with its good-ol’-boy network of sex abusers and casually violent people (who burn folks alive, mind), it caused said fragile psyche to snap, sending him down the path of sexually frenzied serial killing. And, sure, you could probably point to a case where an otherwise normal childhood was followed by an adolescence like this, then an adulthood filled with murder (Norman Bates influence Ed Gein might qualify), but it wouldn’t happen this suddenly. This is the main point we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief on in this show, and I’m having a little trouble swallowing it.

Yet I also liked this episode for the way it subtly apes the original Psycho structure: It takes Norman Bates—a figure we think we know the story of—and makes him the hero of the tale. First, he’s just a guy who has to cover up his stupid mistake, and the suspense that results from him becoming convinced that he’s going to be felled by his own carelessness is pretty potent. But by the end of the episode, once he’s discovered the young woman shackled in Deputy Shelby’s basement, he’s thrust into the middle of a story that requires him to step up and save the life of someone who’s been horribly abused by the men who run the town, perhaps at the cost of his own life. It’s a tricky course to run, and I’m not sure the show has the goods to pull it off (in particular, Highmore’s intentionally robotic performance may end up being a bit of a demerit), but it’s at least more interesting than anything else that’s happened so far.

The discovery of Deputy Shelby’s captive also hammers home something the show has been trying to do and mostly failing at so far: Sexual violence is real, and there are terrible consequences for it. Granted, this is an over-the-top version of sexual violence that none of us will run into in our lifetimes, most likely, but women being kidnapped and sold as commodities is a real thing, one of those dark underbellies of human existence that many of us likely try not to think about too much. When Norma was raped in the first episode, the whole thing was filmed incredibly realistically, then treated almost campily after it was over, because that’s how Vera Farmiga is playing the character. (Even tonight, she gets a really weird line about how she was sexually assaulted, and why would Norman want to remember that?) But I’m vaguely impressed by the show’s determination to, once again, take something that could have been a flaw and directly confront it, rather than simply ignoring it. Will this work? Who knows! But it’s a better choice than trying to pretend this element isn’t a part of the show (or the source material).

Unfortunately, everything outside of the “Norman searches for his belt” arc is kind of pointless. I guess I can get what the show is going for with the Norma and Deputy Shelby thing—how far will she go to protect herself and her kid?—but I don’t really feel any chemistry between the actors, and that would make this plot really sing if it were present. Sheriff Romero continues to feel like if Richard from Lost were given the job of small-town sheriff, and Bradley is still something of a nothing character. There were some okay moments in the “Dylan takes a job as a pot farm protector” storyline, mostly stemming from him just hanging out and shooting the breeze with that one guy who cried in the strip club last week, but it was also all undone by that opening montage of him with his gun, which felt like something Deputy Dewey would have done in the Scream movies, right down to the scoring.


Look: No one’s going to confuse Bates Motel for great TV at this point in its cycle, but I do like its willingness to keep the revelations coming at a fairly steady pace, and I like how it’s willing to at least nod toward how serious some of the problems it’s dealing with are. This is often a gloriously stupid show, but it’s gloriously stupid in a way that sort of understands just how stupid it is and just how little sense it makes to do a series about Norman Bates and his mother trying to run their motel. “What’s Wrong With Norman” was the first episode of this show that made me legitimately curious to see what happens next, even if I don’t buy large swathes of what it’s selling me.

Stray observations:

  • This episode gets an extra point for mentioning South Dakota and for being accurate that there isn’t much to do around Aberdeen other than go hunting. There isn’t even that good of a mall!
  • So I’m sure next week’s episode will open with Norman escaping the house via some bullshit means, but how’s he possibly going to accomplish that? The signs of his entry are all over, not least of which is the dog he locked in the bedroom whose teeth marks have gotten all over the baseball bat.
  • I think we’ve found the flaw in Emma’s “saintly person with a disease” guise! She apparently thinks hauling a potential boyfriend out to the woods to look for the body of a dead Chinese sex slave is a great way to spend time together.
  • Speaking of Emma, she finds a Chinese character scratched into the sink of room four, where Norman found the journal underneath the carpet.
  • Speaking of the journal, how the fuck did it end up underneath the carpet?