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Bates Motel: “Norma Louise”

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Norma Bates can never stop moving. Even when she’s stable, and her relationship with her son is solid, she has to always be going, always pushing forward, sideways, anywhere but standing still. When Norma stands still, she has to confront herself, and she’s not equipped to do that. Her life has been a hard, painful slog, and when the going got tough, she moved on.

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But not from Norman. Never from Norman, the one constant in her life, who has given her a sense of purpose and meaning. In “Norma Louise,” there’s a brief moment when Norma—overreacting as usual—feels like that bond might have broken, and it throws her into a tailspin. She tries to do what she always did in the past, but finds that dropping everything and trying to start over again just isn’t going to work this time. It all has more than a whiff of desperation, and as she quickly spirals out of control, the realization sets in: This is the one thing she can’t run away from. No matter what the personal emotional cost, she can’t leave her life with Norman behind. Even if it kills her, which we know it will, eventually and inevitably.

This episode has a disjointed and frantic tone, apropos to the nature of the situation, but nonetheless sometimes hard to roll with as an audience. Before the end of the first commercial break, Norma has fired bullets into her cell phone and fled to Portland; Norman has ripped the kitchen apart, responding to Dylan’s assurances that Norma will return with a flat, “You don’t know her like I do”; and poor Sheriff Romero has been shot. That’s a rollercoaster ride of a first act no matter how justified it may be narratively, and the show almost spins out of control in the middle before wresting itself back into cohesive shape by the end.

The episode shows us Norma in all her many guises through the years, as a way of trying to ground each of her leap-before-looking actions. We get a flashback to her and Caleb as children, suffering through another brutal fight between their drunken father and screaming mother. We see her in a new city, trying to once again reinvent herself, this time as “Norma Louise Calhoun,” only to crash into yet another disgusting man trying to take advantage of her. We see her reaching out to Professor Finnigan, opening up truthfully and emotionally, only to clam up and race home the moment she has a second to think about what she’s doing. Because, Norma defines herself as much through her sacrifice for Norman as she does anything else. As she proves with her great analogy to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, parenthood to Norma means that you give and give, and the child takes and takes, until you’re nothing but a stump—“and then they come and sit on you. That’s parenthood.” For all the attempts to shade Norma more deeply, the flightiness of every aspect of her persona save the last feels hollow, just like Norma herself feels.

Plus, Norma can’t crack up without Norman cracking up, and during this long dark night of the soul, shortly before dawn, Norman makes a definitive move into the territory of the film: He puts on Norma’s dress. Dylan’s discovery of his brother, cooking and sashaying around the kitchen, renders him practically speechless, a fair enough response given all that Dylan has had to deal with tonight. Emma’s presence has been helpful (pounding on her chest and sharing an awkward emotional moment with her notwithstanding), but the older sibling of the Bates family had to tell his father to ship out, as well as try and keep his brother from destroying the house. So the discovery of Norman playing dress-up, with a full mental displacement into the Mother persona, might have been the last straw. Dylan’s fragile, maybe not as much as his mother or brother, but he’s just trying to keep everything together, hoping against hope that playing the role of the mature one will somehow usher him into the family that’s now fracturing in front of him.

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There’s not a lot of subtext this week, as the show fell back into its bad habit of having almost every character spell out exactly where they’re at, what they think, and what they want. Emma desperately wants to be part of the family that won’t have her—Dylan, too; Norman wants his mother; Norma wants a son and family that can’t challenge her or her choices; Caleb, even, sheds some tears and eventually collapses, his arms around Norma’s legs, begging for forgiveness. It’s all so on the nose, it would feel clumsy if it wasn’t moving along at such a clip, and anchored by great performances from the whole cast this week.

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So let’s look at the one man who doesn’t seem the slightest bit clumsy, even if he also doesn’t seem to be in the most sensible head space: Sheriff Alex Romero. Romero certainly earns the Scene of the Week award for his sudden and shocking murder of Marcus Young. In some ways, this is the sheriff of old; the man who takes decisive steps to ensure that he gets what he wants. When Young threatens him with a choice—either death or demotion—he seals his own fate, because Romero doesn’t let anyone make his choices for him. The shooting may have been unexpected given the sheriff’s weakened, hospital-bound state, but it actually shouldn’t surprise anyone too much, given what we’ve seen him capable of in the past.

Showrunner Kerry Ehrin scripted this episode, and her encyclopedic knowledge of the characters serves “Norma Louise” well, as the whole thing feels held together with baling wire, like it could collapse at any moment. Despite the shaky foundations, the story is holding together—for now. Coming off the season high of last week’s “The Deal,” this episode tries to streamline a number of plot points into one cohesive ending, which may be why the last couple of minutes feel so uneasy. Norma’s tearful reunion and seeming forgiveness of her brother plays well for everyone except Norman, who, once again, is staring balefully at another man embracing his mother. If he didn’t react well to Dylan re-entering the family, one can only imagine the inner demons about to be set loose by this moment. “Mother” has come out to play, now—and she’s not going away without exacting her punishment.

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Stray Observations:

  • For being dream sequences, Norman’s two visions were pretty blunt. This episode really hit you over the head with everything, which would’ve weakened it quite a bit were it not for the frenetic pacing and all-around game performances, even from Caleb, whom I normally loathe.
  • Norma Bates has no poker face: Vera Farmiga’s dagger eyes when the clothing store clerk tells her only three items are allowed in the dressing room at a time: “Really?!?
  • What do you think the odds are that Sheriff Romero is on his way over to Bates Motel, just as soon as he changes into some less conspicuous duds? Also, I told you last week to make sure he was safe, Norma!
  • Speaking of which, the one thing that didn’t deliver any payoff: the man following Norma all over Portland. Something tells me Bob Paris is biding his time until he can figure out how serious Norma is about the whole flash drive threat.
  • More Chick, please! From now on, whenever the show hits a draggy moment, I’m going to hold up my hand like I’m in a restaurant and say, “Chick, please!”
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