Accepting Norman Bates as he is has always been the only way to get him to accept you in return. Anyone who starts to look askance at him is judged harshly, even long before the Norma/n persona fully manifested. That’s why Emma was such a dear friend: Even when she was confused or upset by his actions, she never expected him to be anything other than who he was. When people start to accuse Norman of bad faith or become too nosy about his inner life, that’s when he lashes out—first at strangers, than progressively at those closer, until finally even Norma, the real Norma, was no longer trusted enough. But when his murder-suicide failed, all prior attempts at fitting in failed, and life become something… else for him. His new friend Madeline doesn’t know it yet, but there’s always a ticking clock on a friendship with Norman Bates.
“Bad Blood” is an odd episode of Bates Motel, mostly because it spends the majority of the episode treating Norman like a stranger in his own house. In part, this is by design. Much of this installment is seen through the eyes of the two men in the Bates residence, Chick and Caleb, and so Norman is something to be carefully engaged with from a distance, a volatile and unknown element that could be triggered at any moment. Even though one is chained to a pole and the other is helping Norman, they’re both approaching him from opposite sides of the same coin. Chick is cautiously pretending to go along with Norman’s delusion, whereas Caleb is giving up on the idea there’s anything left to be done. But both talk to Norma/n as if it were really her, granting the other persona the respect they believe she would deserve. And in the case of Caleb, by the end, he’s willing to let it really be her, in his mind. The alternative is just too much.
I stand corrected. I assumed last week would be more or less the last we saw of Caleb, at least in any meaningful sense. Instead, a good portion of this episode was devoted to his final moments, the mental preparations he underwent while accepting his fate. From his flashbacks to home life when they were children to his dream where the live Norma became the dead one, Caleb’s emotional journey was nearly textbook, right up until the second-to-last step. He skipped bargaining. Whether it was out of the deep well of regret and sadness he felt for the violence he did to Norma when they were younger, his gradual embrace of not just his own death but also of the Norma/n persona was so pitiful and desperate as to be strangely moving. Kenny Johnson was saddled with some ugly material over the course of this series, but he delivered during that last hallucination, holding Norma’s hand and agreeing with her that his time had come. Admittedly, it ended up even more ironically tragic that he briefly thought he would survive and escape, only to be hit by Chick’s car, but that’s oddly apropos for Caleb, who never had things turn out the way he hoped or expected.
And then there’s Chick. Good old Chick, who had such a cloud of suspicion hanging over him when he first appeared on the series, as an unwelcome and tonally jarring figure. But I’ve loved Chick from the first moment I set eyes on him. When he made his debut back in the second episode of season three, I called him “a Twin Peaks character if ever there was one,” and I stand by that opinion. Ryan Hurst made him a bizarro combo of intimidation and oddball, someone who might launch at you or ask to draw your face in his sketchpad, and the character has always retained that marvelous ambiguity, even as Chick has slowly insinuated himself into the Bates home. And now we know the additional reason for Chick’s sticking around, rather than bolting for his life first chance he got: He sees a great story here. Of all people on the series, Chick is maybe the most unlikely audience surrogate, but in this respect, that’s exactly what he is. He’s here because he wants to see how the whole thing unfolds. True, it seems like a bad idea that’s going to blow up in his bespectacled face—how many times can he get away with pretending he didn’t hear “Norma”?—but like us, he wants to be there, to have a front-row seat for the over-the-top psychodrama unfolding.
And that leaves the one man who refuses to patronize Norman’s temperament and who has been quietly plotting his revenge. Alex Romero makes his big play tonight, and it almost works. We’ve spent so long with this ethically compromised but fundamentally decent guy that it’s an emotional shot in the gut when he gets his literal version of the same at the end of act five. Everything was going according to plan: He escaped from his transport, hijacked a ride, and made it so far, only to be shot by a jumpy farm kid. If I were Romero, I would be sighing and rolling my eyes right now, thinking, “Of fucking course this would happen” (in between bouts of sense-shattering pain, obviously). Since the Bates entered his life, the time of catching breaks is over. Romero doesn’t have much time—but now, he has even less.
Sure, there was the inevitable visit from Madeline, asking for friendship, but this was all about the men of Bates Motel and the way they deal with the loss of Norma. She was such a force of nature, so tempestuous and overriding of normal social codes that all those who confront Norman’s ideation of her can do is accept it. As Norma/n tells Caleb, both he and Norman are in love with her. “But he’s your son!” “And you’re my brother,” she replies, sadly, once again forcing her sibling to confront the one fact he’s spent his life both running from and holding onto like a lifeline. Either way (or Romero’s way), the point stands: To know Norma Bates was to be forever transformed by her. It’s why Norman envisions her assuring him, “You’re gonna be happy again.” Without that assurance, these men are lost. Caleb has or is about to lose his life. Norman lost his sanity; Romero, his sense of purpose outside of avenging her. And Chick? He thinks he just wants a story—we all do—but there’s no story that ends well here.
- Imaginary Norma is so subdued and diminished compared to real Norma. You’d think Norman would re-create his mother more as the force of nature she was, but it’s clear he needs a calmer one, which is one of the reasons her occasional flashes of absurdity are so welcome. “By the way, stay out of the basement.”
- It’s great to have Chick under the same roof as Norman for the time being. His awkward, laconic responses to everything are both a tonic and very funny, whether it’s reaching for cookies at strange times or understating problems to Norman. “We have a bit of a situation.”
- Norman’s gratitude when Chick says he’s “not here to judge” is palpable.
- I think the award for most pitiable line from Caleb goes to his explanation of how he managed to keep living all those years: knowing Norma was out there. “She was somewhere.”
- Good to see Madeline’s fine with reminding Norman of his mother, though if the preview for next week is any indication, she’ll be regretting that soon enough.
- For a show whose most potent weapon (Vera Farmiga) is drastically scaled back this year, it’s doing a solid job of remaining engaging.