There’s no such thing as an uncomplicated decision when it comes to family. That goes doubly when it comes to dealing with loved ones with severe mental illness. If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid this situation in real life, consider yourself fortunate, because there’s no right answer for how to deal with someone who needs immediate help and refuses to acknowledge it. There are only painful answers. If you force the help upon them against their will, they’ll blame you, and the guilt will eat at you, no matter how much you may be convinced you’re doing the right thing. Norma Bates is living through this nightmare, and even after the choice has been made, she hates it. It turns out, there is a body buried in the Bates’ giant pit—the corpse of Norma and Norman’s previous relationship. And things will never be the same.

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“Goodnight, Mother” is a game-changing episode for the series, a decisive pivot point that draws a line in the sand between what came before, and everything that will follow. The season premiere featured a new version of Norman, but it didn’t necessarily mean that the structure or dynamic of the Bates family’s interactions couldn’t continue on as before, even if it was sporadic. When Norma calls Romero and has her son hauled off in a squad car, it’s merely a public ritual of the severing of their bond that had already taken place in the basement. There’s no coming back from your son threatening both of your lives—and for Norman, the idea that your mother is a murderer who must be stopped plunges him inexorably into a choice that would have ended everything. (Let’s pretend we don’t already know the show has been renewed for a fifth and final season.)

This isn’t to say there can’t be moments of intimacy and love in the Bates family, going forward. It’s easy to imagine upcoming episodes in which Norman gets his hallucinations under control with medication, and returns home, apologetic and caring. But even if that’s the case, nothing can ever be the same. Norma can never rest easy again, or avoid the fact that there’s a part of her son that would kill them both, if given the opportunity. It’s a stressful and significant episode, to be sure, but that’s not to say it’s an enjoyable one. The first half of the episode is jarring, and inconsistent, and for awhile it looks as though we’re in for another installment of Norma and Norman sniping at each other and not saying what they mean, which is never fun to watch. But those last 10 minutes, good God: We’re used to watching in uncomfortable silence as this series puts its characters through the wringer, but this was the best sequence of the audience being the ones getting the screws put to them instead, and rightly so, since the series began.

But let’s unpack what came before, because this episode flew by—sometimes because it was a bit overstuffed, but more often because the show was simply throwing things at the audience in tandem with the breakneck pace of the characters’ showdowns. It’s nice to be Dylan and Emma right now, because they have no idea the insanity they’re missing back at the motel. Their scenes were a breath of fresh air in an episode where everyone else is tense and unhappy. It says something about the stress level of your series when a young woman who’s just had a lung transplant, and is coughing a bit too long for comfort, isn’t even the 10th most uncomfortable scene. Dylan’s panic was understandable, but the doctor’s soothing demeanor implied that all would be well with Emma, and by the time she was joking about wanting to use her sexy voice, you’d be forgiven for thinking, ”DO WHATEVER EMMA WANTS, DYLAN!”, just like the rest of us. She wants you to come back, Dylan? You’ll damn well come back.

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But the emotional MVP of “Goodnight, Mother” was the increasingly beleaguered and sympathetic Alex Romero. From the moment he appeared on Norma’s porch, awkward and apologetic, it was obvious he wanted to do something, anything, to help. He looked so concerned, so unsure of himself, it was heartbreaking. But not as genuinely affecting as when he pulled out his money, went to Pineview, and cut a deal with the woman at the table, explaining his reasoning for getting Norman in: “I’m marrying his mother.” Watching him struggle to resist betraying his feelings, suppressing the smile playing around the edges of his mouth, was as much of an “awww” moment as any of Olivia Cooke’s endearing Emma moments. In addition, it gave us another lovely Norma/Alex phone call, this one with a plethora of stammering and awkward pauses, as they both slowly realize that, in some strange way, they’re getting something they want, even if they can’t (or don’t) really realize the extent of it yet.

Those moments were crucial, because they helped to offset the squirm-inducing conflicts between Norman and his mother that slowly escalated over the course of the episode. For a brief moment at the beginning, it seemed as though things might be a little calmer and more light-hearted, as Norman, lying in bed, ruefully accepted that he was blacking out again, and was able to forgive Norma for locking him in her room. But then the flashbacks began, and Norman slowly became convinced Norma had killed the motel’s guest (he still doesn’t know it was Emma’s mom), his mind providing just enough evidence to suggest that he was somehow present to witness Norma’s murder of both Bradley and Ms. Decody. Once it became clear Norman had decided to confront his mother about his memories, the day’s events took on the larger series’ tragic inevitability in microcosm. “Why do you keep doing this, Mother?” he asks, and in that moment, Norma realizes the days of her being able to keep him safe in the house aren’t just over, they ended when her back was turned.

Which brings us to that fateful basement showdown. After locking herself in the upstairs room, Norma sneaks out and grabs some very iconic-looking scissors, before heading down to confront her son. I’m not sure why she grabbed them—he still has a gun, Norma, and in any event, stabbing goes a little beyond knocking him unconscious. But Norman’s even-keeled words are far more chilling than any rage he might fly into. “We just don’t belong in this world anymore, Mother,” and if Romero and the deputy hadn’t shown up at that instant, this story would’ve been over. Regardless of what kind of help Norman gets at Pineview, whether he returns home clear-headed and apologetic or something far worse happens, the show has taken an abrupt left turn into uncharted territory. Whatever version of Bates Motel we’re about to start watching, it won’t be the same one we’ve seen until now.

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Stray observations

  • Wow. This was a rough one to watch, both for its wobbly beginning and for its superlative ending. It was so overstuffed, but I’m curious to hear if the rest of you felt the whiplash I experienced, going from zero to sixty-five that quickly.
  • Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: “Yeah, we’re all good here.”
  • When he wasn’t threatening or condemning his mother, there were some excellent Norman Bates lines tonight. “If you’re going to be in hospitality and not be hospitable, what’s the point?”
  • Norman’s hallucination of his father was creepy enough (“Control her, Norman, before she destroys you!”), but it felt slightly unjustified. That’s not how his psyche has splintered in the past, which made it feel abrupt and shoehorned in.
  • Norma running towards the house might be my favorite Norma moment of the whole thing. I love Over-The-Top Norma, and it’s been too long since she attacked a road sign with a street barricade.

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