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Bates Motel: “Nice Town You Picked, Norma...”

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I realized as I started the second episode of Bates Motel that I wasn’t entirely clear what the name of this town was supposed to be. If it was mentioned in the first episode, I didn’t jot it down anywhere, or my brain just didn’t remember it. (In fact, I just looked it up. The town is named White Pines Bay. If you don't mind, I think I will just call it "the town," because that's a dumb name for a town.) It’s not as though this is a big deal, but it would be nice to put a name to this haven of weird murders, taxidermy, and sex slavery. People get burned to death as an almost daily occurrence, from what I can tell, and it’s really no big deal. Okay, it’s kind of a big deal, but not really to Norma and Norman, because they have their own problems, man.

Though I gave the three episodes I’ve seen so far a middling grade, I really do want to like Bates Motel. I like the idea of horror TV, even as I suspect that it’s a genre that isn’t well-suited to the medium. Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses, though I have trouble believing she can’t get movie roles and, thus, has to do TV. I like the rest of the cast, too, generally. I also love small town shows of all flavors. Quirky small town shows? Yes, please. Weird small town shows? Even better! Hyper-earnest small town shows about doctor fathers trying to reach their piano-playing sons? Absolutely the best! I mean, I watched every episode of Happy Town, and if that’s not sadomasochistic devotion to an out-of-style TV genre, I don’t know what is! So there’s a lot in Bates that makes me want this thing to pull it together.

The second episode doesn’t have anything as tonally off or repulsive as the first episode’s rape scene, which was one of the worst things I’ve seen in a series première in a long time, simply in terms of the show properly building to it and dealing with the fallout from it. (Norma apologizing for being raped was supposed to be kind of campy, I think, but it just didn’t work, given the severity of what had preceded it.) So the second episode has a leg up over the first in those terms, but it falls prey to the other major flaw of the first episode: It’s kind of boring. It feels weird to say that about an episode of TV where people get set on fire in the teaser and the last scene, but that’s the case. What’s in between can be kind of a slog!

This is understandable, I suppose, since this episode, like the first episode, seems intent more on setting things up than creating any kind of actual excitement. There’s a story here—well, there are a couple of stories, I guess—but the whole thing is more about creating atmosphere and offering up some possible storylines for the show’s future than it is about doing anything that will reveal the show’s world through strong storytelling. The most important thing the episode does is bring in the series’ biggest addition to the Norman Bates mythology, such as it were, in the form of Max Thierot’s Dylan Massett, Norman’s half-brother, the result of a pairing between Norma and some dude she met when she was 17. There are implications here about Norma’s various relationships with the men in her life, and while I think the show wants them to be mysterious and leading—or, at least, that’s how they’re played—they’re essentially what I’d assumed from the start. Wouldn’t it have been more unexpected, if Norma’s husband and Norman’s father really was a super-duper guy? When Dylan says something like, “We both know the truth!” I groaned.

That said, I like having Dylan around because he’s a shit-stirrer, and this show needs a shit-stirrer. Otherwise, the whole thing could very easily crumble under the own weight of its portentiousness. Dylan’s the one thing that keeps things from being as leaden as the first episode could be, and even if he’s kind of a cliché—the sibling with whom our protagonist can have a rivalry—and his hatred of Norma is vastly over-the-top, it’s all in keeping with the campier sensibility the series has in its better moments. (This series dearly wants to be Twin Peaks; it’s one of the few Twin Peaks clones to remember that that series had its share of ridiculousness, too, and every time the show indulges in its goofier side, I’m more favorably disposed toward it.) Dylan having his mother listed as “The Whore” in his contacts list? It’s all a bit much, but it prompts one of the better scenes of the episode, when Norman launches himself at his brother, then attacks him with a meat tenderizer (Dylan manages to subdue him). Exciting!

I’m also generally in favor of Emma Decody, even if she sort of feels like the protagonist of an unsold YA novel who wandered her way into the series. Her meeting with Norma is genuinely amusing—I like Farmiga pronouncing “Decody” like she’s in a pizza ad you might see on TV at 3 a.m.—and while I’m having trouble getting too interested in the whole “Chinese sex slave” of it all, since it’s inextricably tied into the series’ problems with weirdly sexual violence against women and since it seems basically obvious to me—the town’s good ol’ boy network brought these women over as some sort of profit center and had Keith take care of them—but watching Emma get excited about solving this creepy mystery in the middle of her boring little town made me more interested in it than I thought I would be when it first came up. Also, the run from the pot farm guardians was kind of stupid—in that you just knew the two kids would come upon the shack in the middle of the chase—but her cystic fibrosis added the right element of unexpected suspense.


The problem is that those are two plot points that took up maybe 15 minutes of screentime—if we’re being generous—and the rest of it just sort of washed over me in a wave of moody atmosphere, small-town logging festivals, and other bullshit. And since that’s the kind of bullshit I’m favorably predisposed toward, it’s enough to get me through an episode. Will it be enough to get me through even more? I don’t know, but we’ll find out if the story doesn’t get cracking soon.

Stray observations:

  • Norma is launching a relationship with Deputy Dumbass in the interest of keeping the town’s apparently omniscient and omnipotent (and possibly ageless) sheriff off her and Norman’s back. Also, check out that shot meant to just entirely remind us that Norman’s hung onto Keith’s belt.
  • Does Emma have any flaws? She can recite William Blake’s “The Tyger” from memory (okay, just the stuff most vaguely literate people can, but still), she’s really into modern murder, and if her love interest is keeping a weird diary full of sketches of women in various stages of forced submission under his mattress, it’s cool, because she’s read a lot of manga. People just wouldn’t understand.
  • Norman Bates alert: Norman meets a bunch of taxidermied animals, ogles his mom in a skimpy nightie.
  • I’m just not ever going to get used to the “hot girl” in the Norman Bates-hot-girl-sweetly-dorky-girl triangle being named “Bradley.” That’s just weird.
  • I would totally be down with Norma and the Sheriff having a weekly argument about various principles of word usage meant to demonstrate said principles to Freshman Composition courses. This week: imply/infer. Discuss.