When the going gets tough, the tough look for comfort in other people, unless they’re Norma Louise Bates. Rather than reach out for help, Norma doubles down on herself, pulling away from anyone and everyone in a frantic bid to reassert control. Only, as Bob Paris is only too happy to inform her, she doesn’t have any more power. Romero has the flash drive, and her list of allies grows thin, especially after she once again makes decisions on behalf of Norman, against his wishes. All of these moves backfire on her, and she’s reduced to standing on top of the pile of dirt in her front yard, screaming, “Go to hell, you sons of bitches!” with the go-for-broke gusto that has always characterized the Bates matriarch. She may not make the right moves, but there’s a brave indomitableness to her struggle.

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Which is why it’s fitting that Caleb shows up in her hour of ultimate frustration. He, too, is pulling away, to spare his family further difficulty. Norma and her brother have a frank talk, in which Caleb opens up about the night in his hotel room, when Norman came at him, acting like he was Norma. Caleb reminds Norma of an essential fact, here: “I know you don’t like looking at the truth.” All episode, Norma has been trying to evade the truth—with Paris, with Romero, and above all, with Norman. But that road has led her to the brink of disaster. She knows it’s time something was done about her son; but to think she would ever stop protecting him? That’s crazy.

All right, let’s address the elephant in the room: Suddenly, we have what I’m going to call the Bradley Problem. This isn’t meant to simply infer that Norman’s entanglement with his first crush is going to cause major problems, because obviously it is. (And, in case none of that was clear, the preview of next week’s season finale made it screamingly obvious.) No, the Bradley Problem is something this show has fallen into before: it’s an abrupt shift in story and structure that throws a wrench into whatever momentum was building, in this case Norman’s growing madness and the powder keg of the Bates family. Season two course-corrected many of the first year’s Bradley Problems, in part by getting rid of, well, Bradley; but also by returning the focus of everyone’s arcs to the Bates family, not drug dealers or set designers for town musicals.

Now, we have the living incarnation of the Bradley problem, back from the metaphorical dead, and it’s threatening to upend the final narrative thrust of the season. I was being polite about Nicola Peltz last week, but tonight’s episode really reminded me why the show was wise to get rid of her: She simply isn’t punching her weight on Bates Motel, not when she’s surrounded by the likes of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. Also, the writers don’t give the character much reason for returning. Bradley comes across like the irritating, spoiled manipulator she always was, only with even less self-awareness. Looking at the transformation of her bedroom into an exercise room, she murmurs, “I really am dead.” Yes, you are—that’s what happens when you fake your death. Funny how people try to actually go on living without you.

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On the plus side, despite the bite of their final exchange, Norma and Romero’s sparring this episode helped make up for the weakness of Norman and Bradley rehashing old story beats. No matter how angry he is, Alex Romero still has feelings for Norma, and can’t help but be charmed by her brazen behavior. Storming into the police station, and—best of all—breaking into his house, she’s the runaway locomotive he can’t help but bind himself to, even if he doesn’t realize it’s more like tying himself to the tracks in front of her path. By the time he forces a confession out of her, and she dissolves into a sobbing mess, he just can’t resist: He goes in for a kiss. And Norma, once more, backs away, refusing the man who has done more than anyone to help her. It’s not because she doesn’t have feelings for him; she does. But in that moment, she can’t let go of the need to find some sense of control. Even if that control comes at the cost of her ally, once again.

Given all this tension, Dylan’s gift of $50,000 to Mr. Decody was a welcome moment of sweetness, even if it was promptly followed by the most awkward are-they-gonna? since Norma tucked Romero into bed in “The Last Supper.” I’m not as opposed to this coupling as I was before—mostly because Emma should get whatever she wants, even if what she wants is Norman’s older brother—and the genuine good that Dylan did for the Decody family is paying off in emotional largesse for the audience. It’s almost enough to forgive Caleb for the inexplicably dumb decision to threaten Chick’s life, and then not kill him after Chick tries to put a bullet through Caleb. Look, either you take someone out or you don’t start what you aren’t prepared to finish. Bob Paris and Alex Romero should give Caleb some lessons on that front.

But that’s not our main concern. Our main concern is Norman, in full-on hallucination mode after his fight with Norma and the near-miss of sex with Bradley. Norma/n is stepping in earlier and earlier during moments of stress for the youngest Bates, and Norman is starting to integrate her into his actual life, even linking arm-in-arm with her as they ascend the steps. It’s an odd way to end the season’s penultimate episode, and there are a lot of balls in the air, narratively speaking. The Bradley Problem doesn’t seem likely to help the situation; it’s exacerbating things by adding an unnecessary element right when the show should be laser-focused on addressing Bob Paris and Norman’s unraveling.

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Bates Motel is in an odd place leading up to its season finale, and the main thing giving me hope is Norma’s impetuousness. That character is the linchpin that keeps this crazy train on the track, and it’s going to take some real commitment to pull off a satisfying ending to a storyline threatening to derail. There’s going to have to be some bold actions on everyone’s part, and we can only hope that Romero, Dylan, and even Emma turn out to be—in their own ways—just the right amount of crazy. After all, crazy is the Bates family specialty.

Stray Observations:

  • Both of Norma’s opening salvos in her two confrontations with Alex tonight really were tops: “You want to act like a third grader, fine,” and “Like you’re gonna shoot me? That’ll be the day” both struck like thunderbolts. Vera Farmiga wields those lines of dialogue like Ginsu knives.
  • Speaking of that second showdown at Romero’s house, his arm seems to have magically dispensed with the need for that sling awfully fast.
  • “I can’t tell, I have tubes stuck in my nose…” God bless you, Emma Decody.
  • Well, Chick haters must be relieved. It looks like our most entertaining marginal character will either be dead soon or removed from the picture by more conventional measures.
  • Open question for the commenters: Was anyone actually pleased to see Bradley, or think what the show is doing with the character is a good move? Genuinely curious to hear from a defender of that decision.
  • Next week’s season finale recap may go up a bit later than usual, as I’ll want to give some extra time to going through what has been a mostly-great season of television. I’ll be in the comments for tonight’s episode throughout the week, if people want to keep discussing things leading up to the last episode.

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