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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In “Hidden,” Bates Motel goes full horror movie

Illustration for article titled In “Hidden,” Bates Motel goes full horror movie

“What’s really going on here, Norman?”

Bates Motel is a shifting animal. It’s had to be small-town Gothic, Greek tragedy, campy B-movie, psychological horror, and character study—with genres often changing minute to minute. “Hidden,” however, is wholeheartedly a horror movie, and makes Norman both the victim and the bad guy.


In this season, the inevitable camp of the series ramping up to Psycho strains against an oddly autumnal sense of horror from Norman Bates as he loses control over his own mind by inches. That’s the Norman whose suffering is viscerally rendered by Freddie Highmore—the Norman who agonizes over an afternoon in which his consciousness has disappeared and whose tentative connection to Madeleine (“It’s hard to know what’s real in any moment unless it’s right in front of you and you’re experiencing it”) feels more sincere than it should because of this absence they have in common. This is the Norman who almost confesses to Chick—who has done so, actually, depending on how you (and Chick) read Norman’s admission that “I just don’t know how to rein her in, exactly.” This episode’s preoccupied with shifting perceptions, and these beats present Norman as the victim in a horror movie about how delicate the sovereignty of one’s own mind can be.

More than once in “Hidden,” Norman comes agonizingly close to self-awareness. (The camera holds its breath a second when Vera Farmiga snaps, “Make up your mind. Do I like them or do I not like them?”) It’s the horror-flick equivalent of a bystander sitting down inches from the corpse the killer’s trying to hide, with his own survival resting on whether or not he sees. But Norman’s his own vicious cycle by now, and since the separation is still so firmly drawn, those close calls with the truth are bound to put him at odds with Norma.

The drawing-room polish Farmiga had given Norman’s imaginary other half is all gone; this Norma exists to provoke, going so far as to scream guilt to the sky until an almost-bewildered Norman chokes her into silence. (She takes it so well that Norman’s mental state becomes eerier to contemplate; when she asks the question that itself skirts so close to revelation—what’s really going on?—it’s with the placid practicality of a nightmare.) Norman’s painted as something of a victim here, too; so long as Norma can be kept a separate entity—and she insists she has as much free will as he does—then he doesn’t have to shoulder the consequences of what he’s done. In this much, Norma’s doing what she says on the tin: protecting him.

Of course, no one on the outside is going to see it that way, and some of this episode’s best beats are the traditional horror-movie scenes played from a slightly off-center perspective. The dry sheriff who knows more than the perp can guess puts both Norman and us on the back foot; we don’t know how much she suspects. (Technically, anyway; Norman’s a disaster when it comes to not looking like the guiltiest person on the planet.) If the sheriff hasn’t already made him her prime suspect, she’s a fool. The suspense here comes from us not knowing what, exactly, she knows or plans to do; it’s a subtle twist on Psycho’s investigative buildup, playing on our familiarity with Norman and Norma’s body count by keeping us at arm’s length about how close they are to getting caught.

The atmosphere suggests it’ll be soon; even if we didn’t know what was coming, every shot in this episode suggests things are coming to a head. Max Thieriot directed, and in addition to evocative shots of nearly empty wilderness, he continues the season’s overall rhythms inside the house: claustrophobic close-ups and lugubrious pans to things we know to expect and still keep dreading. The camera pulls back into empty rooms just for the jolt of seeing small, wrong things; the creeping horror of the empty plate.

Of course, this show has always welcomed camp and certainly can’t avoid it at this point, which means that on top of a well-played horror movie, we get the awkwardly positioned hilarity of the Norman whose every line of dialogue should be accompanied by Kill Bill sirens. (Imagine it building in pitch, starting with “Look at you in here all by yourself,” ratcheting up to “I just feel like you’d take care of them and wear them,” and building to “No, no, don’t change, you look wonderful,” by which time only dogs can hear them.) At this point, it feels like Madeleine’s only in the narrative to be as winsome as humanly possible—she’s less a character than an Etsy listing—but if you need something to either look innocent or make you long for a murder just so Norman can stop flirting over a cake mix, I guess she’s doing her job.


However, the basest reason she exists seems to be to give Norma someone else to kill, some other point of no return in the endlessly collapsing ecosystem of Norman and Norma. Why else build up the Norma 2.0 of Madeleine’s appearance, right down to Mother’s dresses? Why else would Norman look so horrified as he peels away from her curb in an attempt to keep Madeline safe? And why else give us that beat in the kitchen when a horrified Norman becomes, by degrees, the horror instead?

That shift from hunted to hunter, in an episode that’s otherwise been so psychologically present, this moment deliberately locks us out. That last sudden shift in perspective puts us in our place—dares us to be surprised at something we knew was coming. Whether or not Madeleine meets a quick demise, this show knows we understand how much time is left to this story. We know this becomes a horror movie; we know how things go from here.


Stray observations

  • Thanks to Alex for letting me experience the world’s most uncomfortable cake-baking in real time! (How making a cake can be more excruciating than many of the murders this show has depicted is honestly kind of impressive.)
  • There are smaller horror-movie beats playing out here, too; Romero’s soldiering in the face of a gut wound feels like Terminator-level grim determination on the way to murder Norman, which should worry us. But Nestor Carbonell gives Romero such a sense of careworn righteousness that it doesn’t. (Norman himself is wondering if it would have been better if he’d been shot dead; in some ways Romero’s just giving in to the horror movie of it all.)
  • “Let’s just get rid of the body.” Vera Farmiga was born for this level of murderous nonchalance.
  • That Vikingish pagan-like funeral pyre is so Chick it defies further description.
  • It’s impossible to get this far into the show and not discuss the potential transphobia inherent in this season. The series has made every effort to put emphasis on Norman’s dissociation (“It’s not me, Chick. It is her.”) and has, in past seasons, explored both his and Norma’s psychologies to bring depth to the inevitable Psycho quagmire the show was going to have to contend with. But given that Norman’s extant sexual issues are already used as markers of something Not Right (especially his voyeurism re: the Loomises), and given that the last episode gave us a wig-and-dress manifestation rather than relying on mental-picture Norma or Freddie Highmore doing a real-time dissociation, it’s hard not to see the show straining against the limits of its own setup and uncomfortable with where to go from here. (It doesn’t help to have scenes of Norman and Norma arguing about her dresses.)
  • Related: I’m always happy to see Brooke Smith, but if casting an actor from Silence Of The Lambs (a thriller with a villain whose framing is distinctly transphobic) is meant to be a wink at Bates Motel’s own tug-of-war with the topic, that’s… awkward.
  • Isabelle McNally is in a fairly thankless position, but no one can say she’s not turning the Winsome up to 11.
  • Ryan Hurst’s uneasy balance of morbid interest and compassion is so effective that you forget until his scenes are over that Chick is a single phone call away from stopping this entire thing, and he won’t do it, partly because he’s hoping to get a good story out of it. And after last episode’s dark-comedy coolness, Chick’s mercenary empathy here scrapes to the bone; it feels like nothing so much as the show briefly condemning us for watching this all unfold.
  • “Because we need to get rid of it in a better way than just leaving it in the woods like the remains of a pie we didn’t eat at a picnic.” It can be tricky to draw humor out of their increasingly volatile situation, but Highmore absolutely sells a young man who thinks this is a sick burn.
  • If you had “Maggie Summers” on your list of things likely to pop up again, congratulations!
  • Too Close Award: “I’m working on a suspense novel. I think in the right hands, when it’s completed, it’ll make a good little movie.”