Life can change on a dime, but family rarely does. Think of all the times you’ve expressed frustration with a parent, or a sibling, or a loved one, only to have whoever you’re venting to ask (oh so reasonably), “Well, can’t you just explain it to them?” Think of your mindset at that moment. We all know our families: the ways they grow over time, but more importantly, they ways they don’t grow. When you’ve dealt with someone enough times, you know what to expect. Dylan, of all people, says it best this week, when he tells Emma that his family is just too toxic for him, and he doesn’t want to be part of it any more. People don’t change because we want them to. More often than not, they stay exactly the same, because that’s all they’ve ever known.

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Emotionally stunted chickens come home to roost in “Unfaithful,” and the most uncomfortable part of that scenario is the knowledge that Norma, with whom we’ve spent the entire season slowly affiliating, shares a hefty burden of the blame. At the end of this episode, when Norman blows up at her during the dinner with Alex, the force of his outburst knocks any possible retort out of the air, because honestly, he’s not wrong. “You’re such a hypocrite, Mother,” he says, and his reasoning is sound. She spent their entire lives building up a singular bond with him, pushing out anyone else, annihilating the chance for him to develop normally (there’s that word again)—to meet a girl, to fall in love. She placed two seats at the table of their bond, and demanded no one else get a place. And now, when she’s found someone she wants to share her life with, she expects him to scoot over. But that’s not the arrangement you built, Norma.

The metaphor of the heating going out in the house may be awfully on the nose, but it certainly captures the tone of this episode—arguably the most masterful bridging of the gap between the first half of the series and the back half that Bates Motel has yet attempted. Norman returns home to a house that has changed, and the previously warm bonds connecting him to his mother have iced over. They both desperately want everything to be okay, but for possibly the last time, what they consider “everything” has irrevocably changed. Norma is torn between two worlds, but refuses to admit these universes can’t coexist. Norman lives in the world of the past few seasons, a world where Norma and he are the only two people that truly matter. (Sorry, Dylan.) It’s a world where the cord between their hearts is so thick, so all-consuming, it leaves no room for others. That’s why all the sensible and sound points Alex and Norma make at the dinner table are superfluous to the youngest Bates; it’s not the world he grew up in, and it’s not who Norma taught him to be. She’s entered a new phase of her life, but she refuses to accept responsibility for the world she created before. It’s an unstable formula.

That instability is what Norma knows but can’t accept. It’s the reason she vacillates between her former self and her new, more mature, identity. Norman returning home doesn’t just plunge her back into old patterns; it returns Norma Bates to her old volatile self. She is the bridge between past and present, and her mood swings convey that connection more potently than any expository dialogue could hope to match. The outing to pick up a tree is a consummate experience in visiting Planet Farmiga, that glorious place of old, where everything is spinning on an axis that barely holds the universe together. From Norman startling her in the aisles, to the accusatory back-and-forth of their respective verbal explosions, it’s a reminder of what she’s tried to put behind her, but it’s all there, percolating just beneath the surface. No wonder Dylan can barely stand to be around them. The idea that Norma could like another man literally makes Norman throw up.

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How could there ever be hope, if it weren’t for the Emma Decodys and the Alex Romeros of the world? Our lung-transplanted ray of sunshine gets a heartwarming moment with Norman this episode, and reminds us of what possibilities the world could hold, if only there wasn’t the entire history of our lives tethering us to a certain existence. The brief conversation she has with Norman touches on everything good in both characters: their empathy, their warmth, and their ongoing desire for peace and connection. For once, it’s not the tender affection between Dylan and Emma that lends joy and uplift to an episode. It’s the reminder that friendship can still be real, even between someone emotionally disturbed and another physically precarious.

There are so many bonds on display in “Unfaithful,” and, as the title implies, they are fraying badly. The final confrontation between Norman and Alex, despite the edge-of-your-seat tension generated by Norman’s refusal to put down the axe, isn’t even the most unsettling threat hanging over these 60 minutes. The DEA’s interception of Rebecca isn’t the biggest concern, either, despite the reveal that the agency is actually after Romero, with all the foreboding that entails. Nor is it the fact that Norma feels so safe with Romero, when we know the sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads.

Norma has been unfaithful to the idea of life she promised her son. Fair or not, Norman was raised to expect a certain way of life—one that his mother has now turned her back on. The biggest threat, then, is contained in a glance. It’s the unyielding stare of Norman, looking through the wall of the motel, as his mother and Alex Romero undress one another. This is one of the final nails in the coffin of who we know Norman Bates to be; it’s the transition between his suspicious mind and his duplicitous acts, as he indicated last episode while boasting of his ability to pass for “normal.” But his anger keeps giving Norman away. There may be only one letter differentiating “Norman” and “normal,” but the emotional gap is an ocean. And Norman is too angry—and will, we know all to well, remain too angry—to cross that gulf.

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Stray Observations:

  • Watching Freddie Highmore begin to shade in the gray area between Norman’s genuine feelings and what he wants others to think he’s feeling is something to behold. Unless he’s angry, it’s getting very hard to tell when the sensitive and empathetic Norman is genuinely expressing himself.
  • Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: Almost too many instances to count. Norman: “Are you happy I’m home?” Norma: “Of course I am! I’m really, really happy!”
  • Seriously, that tree expedition was magical. I could watch Vera Farmiga sass Norman for scaring her all week long.
  • Also, Highmore’s reaction shots at the dinner table were just aces. When Norma says, “We,” and he gestures to them all with his fork—“We, as in…?”—while stabbing the air, it was exquisite.
  • Thanks to Genevieve for stepping in last week and so eloquently outlining the nature of the Bates family predicament.
  • “This is our world, Mother.” Only two episodes left this season; I’m worried about just how long it will remain anyone’s world other than Norman’s. Feel free to join me on Twitter to express more reservations and musings during these final couple weeks.

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