The lucky ones among us don’t know what it’s like to attend the funeral of someone you love. But the very lucky ones go through that process over, and over, and over, because they surround themselves with love in this life. And they live long enough to have the privilege of feeling all those little pieces that were added to their hearts over the years break, and heal, and bear the scars of those wounds with the terrible comfort afforded those with souls big enough to welcome the rest of us into them.
Pop culture that entertains us carries with it the attendant responsibility to do right by its own soul, in a manner of speaking. Whether five or 5 million people watch a film, or a TV show, or listen to an album, or view a painting, the arrangement entered into between artist and audience is often a simple one: I will be honest, the artist promises, if you will be open. You may like the results or hate them—or, most of the time, feel relatively neutral, because the world is 99 percent things we don’t feel any connection to—but, if the contract is genuine, you rarely feel disrespected. Bates Motel began its run with just such a promise. It promised to tell us a story about how Norman Bates the boy became Norman Bates, the key figure in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And it has taken us most of the way there. Last week, it delivered a swan song for Norma Bates, ending with her death. And tonight, the show delivered a eulogy. Only, it wasn’t for Norma; it was for Norman.
And the show has delivered on its commitment to honest storytelling, because when it came down to it, there were no theatrics, no camp, just a modest narrative about death, in all its minor ignominies. The body of Norma Bates reposed on a morgue slat, then a funeral home preparation table, then a coffin, and then was brought home to the Bates’ couch. And the people who loved her had words for the body, whether from Alex Romero or Norman, and both times, a promise of sorts was made. Romero promised to keep loving her, even in death. Norman indirectly promised he would see her plan through. Neither one expected a reply—at least, not until Norman had her corpse safely back home and resting. But his eyes told the entire story tonight, a story of a troubled young man who keeps avoiding coming to grips with what he’s done, who has nothing but love for his mother, and who wants nothing more than to be with her again.
And who would have thought Chick would be the one to force a confrontation with reality? It was first startling, then incredibly moving, to witness Chick’s intervention at the end of the episode. Bringing by a chicken casserole and offering comforting words for Norman, it was his discovery of her body after the funeral that allowed him to say the words Norman both needed to hear and couldn’t bear to face. “You do what you have to do…but you understand she’s dead, right?” That triggered the tears that kept welling up but never quite releasing throughout “Norman,” as it finally hit home just what had happened. Who knows whether Norman fully understood he had killed his mother; that was almost incidental. What he did realize was she was dead, and he couldn’t bear to go on without her. So he runs upstairs, loads the gun, and prepares to kill himself. Which is when he hears the piano being played.
Just look at Freddie Highmore in the above picture. What he achieved here was astounding. In moments like this, when he made dinner and set an extra place for the absent Norma, he would be eating his food, processing whatever denial tactic was currently running through his head…and then, with a slow glance, he would look across the table to the empty seat, and suddenly, he looked like the little scared Norman we met back in the first episode of the series, a little boy lost without his mother. He toggled back and forth between current Norman and his former self multiple times, and each time, it was that needy, pitiful glance that regressed him to his younger self.
It happened at the most unexpected of times, too. When the detective is questioning him in Norma’s bedroom, everything he’s saying makes perfect sense. He rails against Romero, trying to pin the blame on Norma’s husband and deflect any uncomfortable questions about himself. It’s a classic Norman move, until he opens the closet to pick out a dress. Suddenly, he’s quiet and unsteady., “I never imagined that I would be standing here, doing this,” he says, quietly. It’s a particularly affecting moment: a barely mature man, crumpling under his encounter with mortality.
The plot, such as it was, moved in fits and starts, but only to drive home the eventual futility of everyone’s positions. Depending on your point of view, what seems like a threatening or exhilarating act—Romero slamming Norman against the hospital wall, and saying, “I’m gonna prove you did it, you piece of shit”—soon sputters into indignity, as the DEA roll up on him outside his office. Being arrested for lying about not being intimate with Rebecca is even more pathetic than arresting Al Capone for tax evasion, but it’s oddly fitting in this situation. After everything Romero’s done, the hell he went through to protect himself and help Norma, he’s taken down for lying about knowing a woman. Tragedies aren’t always grandiloquent gestures. Sometimes, it’s the small stuff that hurts most of all.
And that’s what made this episode a requiem for Norman Bates, rather than his mother. Norman spent all episode staving off the abyss of his grief, and when it finally hit, he was ready to die. The episode began with him lying in the ambulance, the alternating red and blue flashes illuminating him as the flashback in his mind illuminated Norma, promising the child version of her son she would never leave him. And in the end, the idea she was gone was too great, and he reached for a revolver. But then, the music starts, he walks downstairs, and Norma is at the piano. She reassures him that, of course, they’ll be together always. And with that, Norman Bates, the young man with a connection to the young boy, dies. It’s a heartbreaking death, because Norman’s heart is broken. When it’s sutured back together, by Norma/n, he isn’t the same. He won’t be. None of us are the same when someone we love dies. We just don’t usually shut off the loss and become another version of ourselves entirely. But that’s the story of Bates Motel: It’s a story of tragedy, writ small.
- Romero seemed both undone by grief and content in the knowledge that all he had left was vengeance. Forget proving Norman did it, Alex decided to kill him. It’ll be interesting to see if the charges stick.
- I was intrigued by the knowing look the funeral director’s daughter gave Norman. What do you think the odds are we’ll be seeing her next season?
- Highmore was so moving here, in scene after scene. Talking to her in the house: “Sorry…please come back to me.”
- What’ll be fascinating next season is watching Vera Farmiga inhabit the role of Norma/n wholly. My fear is it will feel constricting, given she’ll only be Norman’s understanding of his mother, but honestly, if I can’t trust Farmiga by now, I don’t deserve to have her on my TV.
- Alex and Norman playing “who gets the ring” with Norma and each other was so painful, both to see what it did to them emotionally and what it pushed them to do.
- “I’ll always love you—whether you’re here or not.” Season MVP Nestor Carbonell, everybody.
- We’ll see how long Norman’s injunction against Dylan calling him lasts. I suspect Emma Decody won’t be having any of that nonsense.
- Once again, thanks for joining me on this exhausting but rewarding journey, everyone. Let’s solemnly toast our official A.V. Club chant for Bates Motel, once more, for old times’ sake: Emmys for everyone.