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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bates Motel: “A Death In The Family”

Illustration for article titled Bates Motel: “A Death In The Family”
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Norman Bates is starting to look like Norman Bates. For two seasons, the show has been making hay of the fact that we know what this shy young man will eventually become. Things that would seem harmless, or even humorous, take on a portentous weight thanks to our foreknowledge of the youngest Bates’ destiny. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the scene where Norman Bates performs his first-ever hotel-room peeping tom routine. When Norman shoos away a raccoon out behind the hotel, and comes upon the open window of the alluring Annika Johnson, we know exactly what’s about to happen. And because the show can’t quite resist the urge to play up the obvious, it starts slathering on the mood music. You’ve been waiting two seasons, it suggests, and now here he is, in all his voyeuristic creepiness.

Except it’s only creepy to us because of what it presages. For those involved, it’s a mundane embarrassment in the life of a teenager. When Norma catches him in the act, there’s nothing to suggest that this is anything outside the bounds of typical adolescent behavior. Even in a family that’s been through as much as they have, there’s no reason yet for them to think this is in any way connected with Norman’s blackouts. Hell, even Norman cops to it with barely more than a shrug. It’s not appropriate behavior for the new manager of the Bates Motel, but it’s understandable behavior for a young man doing something he’s not supposed to be doing.

And so season three of Bates Motel starts taking serious steps toward turning Norman into the murderous character we know and fear. And while that’s been the tightrope the show has walked since the first episode, it feels real in a new way. Much of this is fallout from the season two finale, when Norman fully integrated the persona of his mother/murderer into his psyche. Norman the teen is just a good guy here. He gets flustered around Annika, like a regular kid crushing on an attractive woman. He runs out of school when he gets scared. He gets annoyed at his mom.

As always, the Norma/Norman interactions are the best thing about the show. Dropping him off for his first day of senior year gives us a classic “Norma hustles around the car” scene, which is a wonderful thing to be able to say. (What other show can boast of a list featuring great moments where a woman in heels runs around her car?) Watching her straighten Norman’s collar after arguably one of the most humiliating school drop-offs of all time embodies their relationship so perfectly—especially because he lets her do it.

Similarly, Norma’s push-pull when it comes to the issue of whether Norman should be sleeping in her bed allows for further insight into her approach to her troubled son. Norma wants to keep him safe, but she also wants to keep him seeming normal. So she tells him he can’t sleep in her bed any more, even though it hurts both of them. This only lasts as long as Norma’s emotional defenses stay up regarding her mother’s death, sure, but it shows us just how much she’s genuinely trying to do right by Norman. The more we’re allowed to see things from Norma’s perspective, the stronger it makes not only the show, but the ability of the audience to latch onto the contradictory motivations that drive our central pair.

Dylan continues to be best utilized as a guy who reacts to his family. I was never as down on the drug war storyline as many seemed to be (even when it was admittedly the weakest narrative thread), but if Dylan’s going to try and leave that life behind to follow the straight and narrow, maybe he should do it from home more often? Pointing out to Norma that it’s a little weird to have her 17-year-old son sharing her bed was a great line, and having his sense of decorum and proper behavior filter Norma and Norman’s relationship makes for great comedy.


Once again, poor Olivia Cooke doesn’t get enough to do as Emma Decody. She got the short end of the straw last season, but the show leaned into that, playing up Emma’s frustrated desire to be more than just the employee whom the Bates like having around. So Norman’s announcement that they should start dating (on top of home-schooling together) felt good, and awkward, in the best way. If it means more pathos for poor Emma—and given her expression when Norman offers to give Annika a ride, it undoubtedly does—then it’s a good move, narratively. Now that the show has banked two full seasons of goodwill for her character, it can play with the split desire within the viewer to have Emma get what she wants, while knowing full well that would be the worst possible outcome for her.

Other elements at work in this episode—the sheriff’s ruffling feathers by cracking down on the pot trade, Dylan’s interacting with his father—didn’t connect as much. Even the death of Norma’s mother was just a tool to point out Norma Bates’ Achilles heel: Her own emotional neediness for her son torpedoes her efforts to give him a normal life. This is why the great Greek tragedy of the show is ultimately about Norma, not her son. She wants to keep him close, to monitor him, to prevent his demons from overtaking him and leading Norman down the path to more violence. But, poor woman, she just can’t help it: She loves her son beyond reasonable action. Tragedies acquire their power through the tension created by seeing characters make all the wrong choices for all the right reasons.


And thus we get the deed that kicks off this season: the presumed murder of Annika. Norman drives her car back alone, and even remembers to click the lock button as he walks towards his house. Something terrible has happened, and as always, Norman is just trying to do right. It’s the other person inside his head that’s causing trouble. And so begins a new chapter in the life of Norman Bates, a chapter that promises sadness and destruction for everyone close to Norman. It seems likely that we may not get as much high-camp humor as in seasons past, but if the dark tone set by this episode is any indication, there may be plenty of gallows humor to fill the void.

Stray observations:

  • Hi, Tracy Spiridakos as Annika! Bye, Tracy Spiridakos as Annika!
  • I won’t discuss it much in the reviews this season, because it’s such a given, but let’s state it here again, for the record: Vera Farmiga is an acting force of nature. Ending the scene of Norma telling Dylan about her mother with the simple, “She was sedated a lot,” then looking away, packs a wallop.
  • It looks like the sheriff isn’t staying at Bates Motel any longer? That’s a pity. Nestor Carbonell is a great presence on the show, and keeping him in close proximity last year ensured his character stayed interesting.
  • Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: When she wants Norman to stay with her despite the no-sleeping-together rule. “Because I’m so sad!” I had to rewind it, I laughed so hard.
  • Emma thinks home-schooling will be very empowering.
  • I hope you’re all as excited for this season as I am. The show put in a lot of narrative heavy lifting to get here, and now it looks like everything is about to launch into high gear. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, your predictions, and your fears for the future of the Bates family.