“Presumed Innocent” is the best episode of Bates Motel yet, the first one where I feel like the show has finally taken hold of its considerable strengths and grappled with them until they reached a place where they more than balanced out the show’s weaknesses. Hell, even the drug storyline felt like it was vital in this episode. Yeah, there was a bunch of stuff I just didn’t care about (mostly featuring Dylan being told stuff, instead of figuring it out on his own), but I liked his final scene, where he’s conked on the noggin and watches a massacre from the outside, gun blasts sending up flares of light through the windows as he hazily looks on. On a more consistent show, I might take a point or two off for how little I care about the drug stuff, but on a show that’s still struggling to zero in on its tone, I’m willing to let this slide and go the full A. If every episode of Bates Motel going forward can capture this level of emotional intensity, I’m going to be a happy reviewer.
Here’s the reason that “Presumed Innocent” works so well: Cody’s dad’s death is the kind of thing that a lesser show—maybe even the first season of this show—wouldn’t have treated with the weight it deserves. This is, after all, a show about a budding serial killer. But “Presumed Innocent” understands that if Norman Bates kills someone while he’s of sound mind, that’s going to tear him up inside. One of the tragedies of the show is that Norman is a pretty good kid when he’s not in his blackouts. He’s prone to impetuousness and prone to yelling at his mother, but what teenager isn’t? The guy that we see 90 percent of the time on this show is the kind of kid who might grow up needing a little therapy to deal with his mother issues but will probably be just fine as a member of society. It’s just that the guy we see the other 10 percent of the time is developing into a murderous psychopath. And the more that his mother tries to protect him, tries to make sure that he’s comfortable and safe, the more that side of him is starved until it erupts even more violently the next time. I highly doubt actual psychology works this way, but this is a reasonable approximation of Psycho psychology, and it’s fascinating to watch the show develop it.
“Presumed Innocent” also features one of the best scenes I’ve seen on TV this year, one that makes everything around it all the richer. Sheriff Romero, who really doesn’t want to have to unnecessarily worry Norman or Norma but has to do his job, sits alone in a room with Norman to talk about what’s going to happen next, just to get a sense of if he’s going to need to investigate this as a murder or if it really was an accident. The Norman he sees is wracked with guilt, tears stinging his eyes, voice shaky. He looks very realistically like a teenage kid who tried to protect the girl he liked and accidentally ended up killing her father. Granted, that’s an unrealistic situation. A lot of shows would go over the top with it. But “Presumed Innocent” goes tiny. Shaky voice and red eyes. Norman asking what will happen to Cody and Romero telling him she’s off to Indiana to live with her aunt. The throb of what happened dulling in the memory until it becomes a persistent ache that likely will never go away completely.
Grounding this moment in Norman behaving like a normal kid makes the buy for the rest of the show that much easier. Bates Motel is sort of doing the opposite of Hannibal, where what we’re watching is a borderline religious story about one man’s seduction by (and ultimate rejection of) evil. What Bates Motel is trying to do is make both of its central characters incredibly relatable, to make it all the more tragic when their inevitable fates arrive. This was the same trick that Psycho the movie pulled, incidentally, where the death of Marion Crane leaves the audience casting about for anyone to invest their sympathies in and ultimately results in us latching on to Norman Bates, the one halfway sympathetic character left to us, thus making us sympathize with a murderer. Bates Motel’s game is slightly different from that—it wants to make us understand a murderer—but by the time we reach that final scene where Romero learns Norman’s DNA matches the semen sample from Miss Watson (remember that?), we’re fully behind the idea of him getting away with murder, if we weren’t already. Such is the power of that earlier scene and Freddie Highmore’s performance in it.
This isn’t just a great Norman episode, however. It’s a hell of a Norma episode as well. One of the best ways to provoke the character of Norma Bates is to keep her from her son, and “Presumed Innocent” does that first physically—by keeping the two in separate sections of the police station—and then emotionally—as Norman’s trust in his mother wears down and finally snaps. Vera Farmiga doesn’t get as many huge moments to play as Highmore does here, but she’s still mesmerizing, particularly in that sequence where she’s tensely just waiting to be let in to see her son, and the receptionist at the police station is looking at something on her phone and laughing at it. I sometimes have the feeling that Norma Bates is the closest thing we have on television now to Larry David’s character from Curb Your Enthusiasm—someone who will strike back against the petty annoyances of modern life and rage at them with all she’s worth. But when Norma finally tells her son that there’s something deeply wrong with him, but she won’t tell him what it is, it feels less like a move that should annoy me (as it normally would) and more like this desperate woman trying to keep things on lockdown yet again—and failing miserably.
As we reach the end of “Presumed Innocent,” then, Norman Bates has unwittingly backed himself into a corner and isolated himself from everybody who might help him. Cody is headed to Indiana because she no longer has a father because Norman pushed him down the stairs. Norma wants to help her son so badly, but he is understandably sick of her shit. Emma might be able to help him, but Norman refuses to trust her ever again either. (I loved the way he thanked her for caring about him, then interspersed that with the knowledge that, of course, he could never trust her again.) Bradley is out of town. Dylan has written himself out of the family altogether for the time being. Norman is an island, an island about to face a serious murder inquiry for a crime he committed but doesn’t remember. Which puts me in mind of a question: Who is the real Norman Bates? Is he that tearful guy who can’t seem to move past the death he accidentally caused? Or is he the horrifying murderer locked away in his head most of the time? And since he’s the latter—does it even matter? We’re often only defined by our very worst deeds, and “Presumed Innocent” is a sickening, endless reminder of that.
- I loved the use of the police station in almost a bottle episode sense, as the characters were trapped there and didn’t have anywhere else to go. It gave some of the episode’s best scenes the feel of a quiet stage play.
- Vera Farmiga is so great in that scene where Norma goes to Cody in the bathroom to try to convince her not to mention Norman’s blackouts in her statement to the police. I love how Farmiga plays up Norma’s naked desperation, all the better to make you realize just how little she realizes how suspicious this would seem to Cody. I also loved how director Roxann Dawson so often let us see the women’s faces in the mirrors, the better to make it seem like we were never getting the full story from either of them.
- Look, does anyone want to mount a rousing defense of the drug stuff in comments? Because I have to admit that it takes everything within my power to not completely tune those scenes out (as you can probably tell from how little I write about them).