I’ll be honest with you. Bates Motel, some way, somehow, lulled me into forgetting that when we meet Norman Bates in Psycho, his personality has bifurcated into his own and that of his mother’s, the “mother” persona being far more destructive and dangerous than regular ol’ Norman. “Check-Out” brought that fact roaring back to mind, however, in a horrifying, climactic scene in which Norman went to visit Caleb in his hotel room, then slipped into the Mother persona right in front of his uncle, lashing out at Caleb about all of the times that he raped her as a little girl. (I genuinely have no idea which pronouns to use for Norman Bates’ Mother half, but female ones feel right, since that half of him genuinely believes that she is Norma. We’ll go with that, I guess, but I will admit these sentences are going to get massively confusing.) It was a pretty masterful turn and a wonderful scene in an episode packed with them. In fact, the only thing keeping this one from the full A is the drug subplot, which we’ll get to in a bit.
I’ve often said that the building blocks of any good TV show are two-person scenes. They’re the bread and butter of the medium, revealing so much about character and situation, and they tend to be so common because they’re far easier to pull off in an economical fashion. Comedies might go in for more large ensemble scenes, but even they will fall back on two-person scenes more often than not, and I think the mark of a good TV drama can often be seen in how solid its average scene between just two of the characters is. Bates Motel has always had its fair share of two-person scenes, but it feels like the ones in season two have kicked it up a notch. And the two-person scenes in “Check-Out,” in particular, are even better. There’s some great stuff here.
Naturally enough, most of those scenes involve Norma and one of her two sons. Think, for instance, of that incredibly creepy scene where Norman lays in bed with her and ends up cuddling her like a lover, a scene that manages to stay chaste but also skirts just close enough to incestuous weirdness to give everybody in the audience a shiver down their spines, I would imagine. (I am always amazed Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore can play this stuff without spending every bit of time between takes being overtaken by dry heaves.) It’s the perfect expression of just how co-dependent and horrifying this relationship has truly become, just how much Norman wants to be the guy his mom can rely on and just how weird the whole thing is.
Yet I don’t know that it holds a candle to the scene where Dylan tearfully asks his mother if she only married her high school boyfriend to get out of the house, if she just used Dylan’s existence as an excuse to get away from her sexually abusive brother and into another situation and corralled her boyfriend into going along with it. To Dylan’s credit, he doesn’t give Caleb much credit for his insistence that Norma’s high-school paramour is Dylan’s true father, possibly because Max Thierot looks eerily like Kenny Johnson if you were somehow able to reverse time and make Johnson younger. When Norma insists that she just never told Caleb about Dylan’s true parentage, he realizes his mother is telling the truth. But he’s also angry at her for having him so she could have a bargaining chip. He might intellectually understand it, but he’ll never be able to emotionally comprehend the fact that Norma threw herself into a bad situation—teenage mother married to a guy she didn’t really care about—just to get out of an even worse one. Yet how many women have done that throughout history?
I also liked that this episode continued the season’s general trend of treating sexual assault and other sexually violent crimes with the gravity they’ve earned. At first, I was worried that Norman’s imagined memories of what happened to his mother (shot via deliberately shaky camera and obscured angles to keep anything explicit from being shown and better suggest the true horrors he was imagining) were just there to make everything a little more tawdry. Yet the show takes seriously what happened to Norma, and those flashbacks (can we call them flashbacks?) are present to suggest the Mother persona taking root inside Norman’s head and getting inextricably intertwined with the anger and violence already present there. I’m genuinely impressed with how the show is handling this slow evolution of things that were already present in Norman’s brain, and this is perhaps the most confident episode yet in that regard.
Of course, it can’t all be darkness and thunder, so we also get some advancement for all three of the season’s main couples (four, if you count the friendship growing between Norma and Christine). Cody convinces Norman that what he needs to do is scare off Caleb with a tire iron, never imagining that her prospective new boyfriend might have something far scarier deep down inside. (When he goes to attack Caleb, he’s got a knife, just like Norman wields in the movie.) Emma admits to her new bad boy love interest (whom I refuse to learn the name of) that she’d love to lose her virginity to him—even if they didn’t actually sleep together the night before. (And I don’t know why I’m calling him a “bad boy” when he’s a prince of a gentleman. Maybe because of how he was introduced.) And Norma gets a ride back home from George after a dinner date that results in Christine’s husband badgering her about how she shouldn’t be so worked up about the bypass, which continues to be this weird plot element that has yet to really mesh with anything else. I’m at least reasonably invested in all of these, and I like to see Emma having something to do. So that’s progress.
Yet we still have to deal with Sheriff Romero and the drug plotline from Boringtown. I get why the sheriff has to be a character. We need to have the inevitable season when he starts to suspect that Norman Bates is the element tying all of these murders together, then is either compromised somehow or killed off or somehow becomes part of whatever lands Norma in that rocking chair in the basement. Because the sheriff is played by Nestor Carbonell, too, it makes more sense to lock him up as a regular and give him something else to do while the other characters deal with their interpersonal drama. But the way there is turning into such a slog that it takes everything in me not to tune out what’s happening with him. The drug storyline either needs to perk up quickly or find a way to intersect with the main plot, or else it’s always going to be a boring sideshow. Here’s hoping that happens sooner, rather than later.
- This episode was written by Liz Tigelaar, who created Life UneXpected and has one of my favorite names in all of show business, and directed by John David Coles. In particular, I loved the way that Coles shot Norma staring into the mirror at the restaurant, trying to get herself back under control. It was some great acting from Farmiga, but Coles also knew just how to frame and hold that shot to indicate that Norma might have felt utterly at sea but also was going to be able to pull herself back into control quickly enough.
- I also loved those early scenes when everybody was wondering just why the hell Emma was at the hotel so early, but they didn’t really think about it, because the revelations of the previous evening (and Dylan sleeping off a massive alcohol binge in his car) had so thrown them all.
- Just in case you are in need of somewhere to stay along the Oregon coast, Bates Motel has free wifi. It does not appear The Kings Motel does, so stay away.