A lot of TV is driven on a structural level by the power of inevitability. Any show that runs for more than a handful of episodes will inevitably come to a place where we have some idea of how the characters will react to a given situation, and much of the tension derives from us waiting for them to do so. This can be comedic tension—laughing in anticipation of a character behaving just as we know they will—or it can be dramatic tension—where we’re all but shouting at them not to do something and/or to do it—but that inevitability is often the reason we feel tension in the first place. Predictability gives us a safe space on TV; it lets us live in a place where the truly unpredictable moments can shock us.
This is why TV is uniquely well-suited to prequels and stories that let us know the end from the beginning. Hannibal, one of TV’s best shows, is a prequel, and it makes really smart choices about how to use what we know is inevitably coming (the capture of Hannibal Lecter) against us. Similarly, shows like The Americans and Mad Men use our knowledge of history to let us know that the characters we’re following are fighting for losing causes, while a show like Lost used flash-forwards to eventually fill in the gaps between an on-Island past and a present we knew would rapidly catch up to what we were watching.
It’s taken a while, but I’d argue Bates Motel is now securely in that tradition as well. In the beginning, I ran a half-joking section called “Norman Bates alert,” in which I would outline just how the show was clumsily appropriating motifs from Psycho. But now that I’ve had a season and a half to let the show sink in, I think what the series was doing, in its clumsy way, was reminding us that Psycho exists. So long as we remember that the movie is out there, that Norman Bates is going to be revealed as a killer, then we can have that in the back of our minds as the show proceeds forward with everything else it’s doing. This has been modified in the second season into a structure that works much better: We get five acts of a typical small-town teen soap with some occasional Twin Peaks-style weirdness, and then in the final act, we dive headlong into the story we know is coming, the one we know must be told.
What we’re watching, in other words, is a Greek tragedy. But it’s not one where Norman is the tragic figure, his flaw being that he sometimes blacks out and murders people (though that’s a hell of a flaw). No, this is a Greek tragedy about Norma Bates, whose “tragic flaw,” such as it is, is simply the fact that she loves her son too much. She loves him enough that once she finds out he’s been blacking out again (from Emma, who tells her after learning from Cody), she sinks his driver’s test, even though she knows it will mean he has to get more rides from her and from Cody (whom she doesn’t think much of). She knows it could cause him to fly off the handle (and it does). But she has to keep him locked down, lest she lose him for good. She can’t have that happening. And we, in the audience, know that this will ultimately kill her. It’s kind of brilliant, really.
What I’ve noticed this season on Bates is that when characters worry about something, they’re right to do so. No matter how much goes right in their world, they’re always worried about some terrible thing that will come to pass. Yes, it’s a dumb thing for Emma to do to fly out over the lake and dive down into its cold depths, but it’s also the sort of thing she probably could have survived on another show. It would have been a lesson for herself about how she can’t let her condition define her or something. Here, Norman freaks out about it, and then it turns out he was right to be freaking out, because she nearly drowns. He yells at Cody and Blandguy McHandsome about how they shouldn’t play with people like dolls, ignoring just how much Emma wanted to do this, perhaps to even prove to herself that she could. The reason Norma and Norman are right to worry about other people’s built-in limitations is often because they’re stuck in the boxes they’ve already made for themselves.
This means that every triumph either of them has—and they have plenty of them—has to ultimately be leavened by their own worries and the fact that we know where this is all headed. Norma gets a seat on the city council, but we have to follow her suspicion (and ours) to its logical end and assume that the deck has been stacked in her favor by the weird, malevolent Nick. Similarly, Norman ends up with a girl he really likes, but both Norma and we know that this can only end poorly. (On just about any other show, we’d be actively encouraged to ‘ship Norman and Emma. This show more or less has two minds about it, since it knows she could entirely end up dead if she ends up with him.) And from the second we find out that Cody has a father who hurts her, a father who might trigger memories in Norman’s own head of his abusive father, we know that there’s a ticking clock over the head of this character we’ve never met.
That, finally, is where surprise comes in. We meet Cody’s dad tonight, and he seems almost like he’s being set up as the season’s final boss, the person that Norman can deal with in lieu of dealing with the things we know he’ll have to deal with when the third act rolls around. Instead of drawing this out, though, Norman kills Cody’s dad—half accidentally, half purposefully—in this episode, knocking him brutally down a flight of stairs when it looks like he’s going to injure Cody. It’s a moment that’s shot as much for surprise as anything else, and even though you half-suspect the show is going to go there, you find yourself wondering if it will have the guts. (After all, we’ve seen this season that Norman isn’t strong enough to kill a full-grown man if he doesn’t have the element of surprise.) And then Norman rushes across the screen, faster than you thought he could move, and Cody’s dad falls down those stairs, and there’s a horrible crack. It might be his bones, but it also might be between the safe show that this seems like it is in every episode’s buildup and the damaging one we know it actually is.
- The War On The Drug Storyline: Dylan gets involved with his “boss,” played by Kathleen Robertson. I like Kathleen Robertson and all, but I need this storyline to have some sort of point very soon.
- Sheriff Romero is now living at the Bates Motel, which means that he can see through Norma’s curtains at night when she gets ready for bed. He tells her this as a precautionary measure, but man, people in this town sure do flirt oddly.
- In contrast to the drug storyline, the city council/bypass story is starting to gain some steam, perhaps because there’s so much Vera Farmiga greatness involved in it. I’ve also come to enjoy having Michael Vartan turn up every so often as George. He sort of reminds me of Riley on Buffy, the straitlaced, Gary Cooper-type guy who’s about to find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
- I loved Norma running all the way down to Cody’s car when it showed up at the motel to have a little chat with her about her son. I also loved the tragedy inherent in Norma asking Cody not to let her son drink for “medical reasons.”
- One little touch I continue to like: Emma apparently has awful taste in pop music, just like a girl her age probably would.
- The sequence at the lake is gorgeously filmed by frequent series director (and TV veteran) Ed Bianchi. I love the way he captures the crisp greens and blues of the area.
- Thanks to Zack for filling in last week. His work was great, but I’m sad to say that you’ll have me for the duration of the season.