“Welcome to the world, ladies! There are axe murderers and whores stuffed under every rug, so your kids better educate themselves!”—Norma Bates

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Really, I couldn’t have put it any better myself. It’s time for a second season of kooky shenanigans and good times in White Pine Bay, Oregon, home of approximately 15 million serial murderers, numerous Hitchcock homages, and a bunch of spare Twin Peaks parts everybody had laying around. Since I covered season one, I’ve grown more charitable toward Bates Motel, not in the sense where I think it’s some sort of underrated gem, but in the sense where I’m much more on board with whatever it’s trying to do, mostly because it’s a weekly vehicle for pure, unadulterated Vera Farmiga, and that’s something I’m more than happy to indulge in on a week-to-week basis. Everything else—from the wooden line readings of Nicola Peltz to all of the bizarre subplots that the show abandons at the drop of the hat—is immaterial. We are here to watch Farmiga sink her teeth into the mother of all Freudian dilemmas, and she is oh so good at what she does.

To be fair, Freddie Highmore is often at her level as well. I wasn’t so into Highmore in season one, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more he seems like the kind of guileless blank slate that would balance perfectly off of his mother, all the while soaking up her various bits of “wisdom” like a sponge. Bates Motel has also realized that its bread is buttered on this side, as the season two premiere features any number of wacky scenes between the two, whether it’s Norma trying to teach her son to drive or the scene toward the end, when she realizes that her son very well may have killed Miss Watson but tries to keep that fact from him, lest it cause his carefully sectioned-off mental state to splinter even further. Oh, also, Norma goes to a city council meeting in hopes of shutting down the highway bypass, and it’s unexpectedly one of the most glorious things on television this week. A city council meeting! About a highway bypass!

“Gone But Not Forgotten” is mostly a table-setter for whatever’s to come in season two, which is fine. That’s to be expected. The biggest cliffhanger involves Bradley shooting the guy she suspects killed her dad, then going to Norman to get his help (since he said he would always be there for her). This is not particularly interesting, since I doubt too many people in the show’s audience give a good goddamn what happens to Bradley. But that’s mostly beside the point. What we need to know is that even though its four months later and the summer—helpfully indicated for us by Norma wandering around, smiling, in a sundress while Haim’s “The Wire” plays on the soundtrack—is here, things are not going to get better for the Bates family. They never get better. And they never get better for us as an audience, either, because do you know how much Emma Decody we get? We get, like, 30 seconds. I guess Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin forgot the true most important character of this show during one of his “Previously on Bates Motel” recording sessions.

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There are two “stories” in this episode (if we can call anything on Bates Motel a “story”), and one is much more successful than the other. I’ve hinted a bit about how uninvolving I found the Bradley stuff, but I guess I’ll expand those thoughts a bit. If there was a story hanging over the show from season one that I was really curious about, it certainly wasn’t whether Bradley would discover the identity of her father’s killer and/or his illicit lover “B.” It’s good of Bates to immediately answer the latter, since most fans had noticed Miss Watson was wearing that “B” necklace at the end of season one (as we panned over her corpse), but Bradley’s investigations to get to the truth were more than a little tedious. Dylan’s a character who tends to work with his family and not work with just about anybody else, so roping him into Bradley’s story made it feel as if he were kind of off in the hinterlands. On the other hand, pulling Norman into all of this could make it become more interesting, so the very last scene has me cautiously optimistic.

But then you have the Norma and Norman story, which is very fun stuff. If you haven’t seen it, Vulture has a great interview with the series’ executive producer Carlton Cuse on how he and fellow EP Kerry Ehrin view the series as a kind of tragedy, seeing it as how Norma Bates’ efforts to help her son only succeed intractably in making him the killer he eventually becomes. That was fitfully present in season one, but it got swallowed up by a lot of other plot points that ultimately didn’t matter (or were actively loathsome). The second season premiere is much more focused on this aspect of the show, and that makes it all the sharper and reflects well on the series as well. Norma and Norman’s trust in each other has been tested so many times, and what I find interesting about this is that we’re waiting for both of them to realize maybe they shouldn’t put so much stock in each other. They’re both emotionally needy people, trying to find the answers in the other, and that’s rarely a good idea.

All of this culminates in that marvelous city council scene, where Norma tries like hell to get the highway bypass shut down just by saying it should be shut down. Norma, who never met a goal she didn’t believe she could simply speak into being, thinks that just by going to the meeting and explaining how the bypass will ruin her business, she’ll convince everybody to shut down a multi-million dollar project. Bates Motel makes great use out of the very TV idea that only the lives of our protagonists matter, and if they simply come up with the right plan or phrase the right argument, everything will reverse itself, and all will be well. But it would be insane for White Pine Bay to ditch construction on the bypass, and the city council knows it. The council has no time for Norma to yell at them, so she makes her own time, and it results in the best scene of the episode—and maybe of the series.

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Does it make any logical sense that someone would be ranting about high school students reading Crime And Punishment at a city council meeting? Not really, but it’s there to set up Norma’s excellent speech that opens this review. If Bates Motel is unusually savvy about how minor characters might perceive its protagonists, it’s also constantly aware that what the audience really wants to see is Norma and Norman deal with these sorts of situations. Everything in the show is better when it gets sucked down into the gravitational pull of these two’s relationship, and that goes for discussions of Russian literature as well. Does it make sense that a school board-worthy topic would pop up at a city council meeting? No, but who cares, if it gives Vera Farmiga a chance to rant about axe murderers?

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to Bates Motel reviews. I grew a perverse fondness for this show’s quirky humor and weird warmth in the time it was away (and I had some time to forget about all of the awkwardly deployed sexual violence). As of right now, this is the only episode I have a screener for. Maybe that will change in the weeks to come, but don’t expect all my reviews to be this timely.
  • Walking down the sidewalk, Sheriff Romero comes upon Norma. He greets her, wanting to talk about Norman’s visit with him. She whirls around, biting his head off, telling him not to sneak up on her like that. That’s our girl.
  • Bradley throwing herself off a bridge before the “Four Months Later” text was a nice way for the show to tease the portion of its audience that reads enough entertainment publications to know Nicola Peltz is headed off to do a Transformers movie at some point. But, no, she survives.
  • Norman has been spending most of his summer doing taxidermy, instead of having fun. As you do.
  • Bradley seducing Mr. Boring before shooting him through the head walked exactly the right line of the show’s complicated (occasionally troublesome) use of female sexuality, even if both characters are staggeringly uninteresting. It’s inevitable the show will have to use both the idea of female sexuality being potentially threatening to men and the idea of sexually-motivated violence perpetrated on women by men. It’s a show about Norman Bates, after all. All I ask is that it not be a random spice that individual episodes toss into the mix, as it was too many times in season one, and on that score, so far, so good.

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