From its inception, Bates Motel has depended on its audience’s familiarity with Psycho; the series needs you to know the good-hearted lad from its pilot will eventually become a disturbed killer. Were you to watch this show with no knowledge of the eventual outcome of Norman Bates, it would likely come across as a strange, tonally confused program about dealing with mental illness in a profoundly ignorant way. There’s a reason shows that have the arc of Greek tragedy, like Breaking Bad, continually offer up flash-forwards: Giving the audience an understanding of the doomed direction in which the protagonist is heading grounds the characters’ choices. Remove that element, and a narrative about the painful vagaries of inevitable fate comes to resemble a plot where terrible things happen to people for no good reason.
I bring this up not to rehash the obvious, but because the Norman Bates we meet in “A Danger To Himself And Others” is no longer the Norman Bates of the first three seasons. Last year ended with a definitive shift, into a world where his unbreakable bond with his mother ceased to be a connection to Norma, the flesh-and-blood woman, and transitioned to Norma/n, the maternal figure conjured up by his mind. (For new readers, “Norma/n” is the way we refer to the imaginary Norma Bates that exists in Norman’s psyche.) This murderous matriarch bubbles to the surface in times of stress. Sometimes it’s as an imaginary relation speaking to him, and sometimes—as the final section of this episode reminds us—taking over Norman entirely. The good-hearted kid still lives on, but he’s been almost entirely shunted aside in favor of the tormented young man who continually reacts to a mother who’s not really there.
And that change is part of the difficulty that arises in this premiere, because it’s going to become awfully tough to stay connected with Norman emotionally when his crossing over into Crazy Land happens as consistently and capriciously as it does here. This episode spends a good portion of time dealing with the fallout of the season three finale, which means that for a decent stretch, it feels more like a denouement to a previous story than the first section of a new chapter. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it doesn’t exactly make for a superlative installment. Let’s catch up with each of our main characters individually, because it’s worth noting just how separated they all are—geographically, narratively, and emotionally.
Sheriff Alex Romero is busy cleaning up the fallout from his deadly showdown with Bob Paris. Securing the body in the boat and then sinking them both into the watery depths, far away from White Pine Bay, means the evidence is gone (save for the humungous pile of illicit cash he stows away in the brick floor of his home, of course). Romero made the choice to kill Paris rather than risk exposing Norma or himself to any possible repercussions, but sadly, Norma’s cluelessness on that front means his sacrifice will remain a sad secret for now. Not that she isn’t already angling for even more unreasonable favors from her favorite representative of the law—more on that in a moment.
Dylan, after putting up flyers seeking Norman’s whereabouts, hauls ass up to Portland the second they receive confirmation his brother is safe. Even Norma doesn’t question the reasoning: Our dearly beloved Emma Decody is having her lung transplant surgery, and a representative of the Bates family being present feels like a necessity. Especially when it’s her brand-new boyfriend—which Norma, in a rare moment of subtlety, acknowledges and approves with only a few words and a kiss. It’s a nice emotional beat for mother and son, and in a world where they’re usually reacting to the chaos around them, any chance to show how much their relationship has solidified and matured during that time is welcome. Besides, Dylan spends the rest of the episode in reactive mode: To meeting Emma’s Mom, learning the surgery was a success, and checking in on his beau. We don’t get nearly enough Emma, but when do we ever?
Norman, as I mentioned earlier, is a bit of a mess in the premiere, one that doesn’t get cleaned up so much as it gets shoved in our face, as though the show were daring us to maintain any affection for this unstable killer. And that’s a problem, because we’ve spent three seasons trying to understand Norman, the better to trigger our empathy as he becomes the man we know is destined to emerge. But here, he’s shrieking at Norma/n just long enough to get punched out by a farmer, tied down in a mental ward… and the second he wakes up to find Norma gone, he’s breaking down doors, putting on dresses, and killing Ma Decody. It’s a lot to take in. His character is largely in a disturbed state for the duration of the story, and especially when he’s alone, it’s hard to get a grasp on how the show intends to deal with having one of its central figures so far gone. We knew this was coming, but it’s an awkward adjustment; Mentally unstable people need significant grounding as characters, alternating their outbursts with scenes of them balanced. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into “anything can happen” territory, and the show will lose that tether to everyday behavior that justifies all its campy excesses. The delightful moment with Norma cutting Norman’s hair in the kitchen was the closest thing we got to a grounded beat, but even that was largely given over to conveying Norman’s insistent “promise me I’ll never have to leave here again,” which was belabored. We get it: Winter is coming.
And Norma Bates is the person for whom those ominous storm clouds are really gathering. Last season was all about her steady progression from whirling dervish of drama to surprisingly sympathetic character. This is a trade-off, obviously, as it means we get less time on Planet Farmiga, that magical scenery-chewing place where the actor goes to deliver her most compellingly bonkers dialogue and behavior, pulling the entire show along with her. But it does give us a Norma worth rooting for from a place of emotional attachment, as she grasps at any possibility of helping her son, no matter how far-fetched. When Norman broke, it broke something in his mother, and seeing her turn on a dime from old-school Norma behavior, like trying to seduce the Pineview doctor, to the plaintive and honest begging for help she would’ve avoided in the past, is affecting. It’ll be interesting, going forward, to explore just how much Norma has been beaten down by this depressing state of affairs.
Thankfully, no amount of trouble can keep the spunky, take-no-prisoners side of her down for long. The two conversations Norma has with Sheriff Romero—one on the phone, the other at his front door—were a highlight of the episode. Farmiga and Carbonell play off each other beautifully, and Norma is never more entertaining than when she’s trying to walk all over White Pine Bay’s keeper of the peace. Her impetuous marriage proposal was great, not just for what it suggested about what she sees as reasonable solutions to her predicament, but because it taps into Romero’s well of longing for Norma in the worst possible way. He wants her, no question, but not like this; not as some insurance scheme for her son. He’s already proven he’ll go the extra mile to help Norma, and stay in her life. Even the lingering suspicion (surely we all think this by now, no?) that he’ll be the boyfriend of Norma who meets an untimely fate can’t dampen the enthusiasm I have for these two characters’ future.
But God only knows how much more future either of them have. Now that we’ve arrived at the version of Norman the show has threatened from the beginning, I suspect things will rapidly start spinning out of control. Norman’s murder of Ms. Decody in his own living room is just the warning shot of what’s to come. Norma/n is off the leash, and no amount of motherly affection or brotherly tough love will fix it. Their old lives are as dead as one of Norman’s taxidermied animals.
- Welcome, everyone, to the fourth season of Bates Motel! I’m really looking forward to once more delving into this under-appreciated little gem of a show with all of you. As always, I’ll be involved in the comments, and you’re again free to hit me up on Twitter. Those of you who’ve been at this for awhile with me know I can’t always respond to everything, but I promise I’ll read it. Especially our ongoing demands of Emmys for everyone.
- I 100 percent laughed out loud when that old farmer knocked Norman out cold.
- Hi, Ms. Decody! Bye, Ms. Decody! It’s awfully hard to care about a murder victim who gets even less screen time than the Arcanum Club woman who died at the beginning of last season.
- Norma Bates has no poker face: “He blacks out regularly?” “Depends on what you mean by regularly.”
- The fact that Norma’s awesome lines come so much less frequently now makes me treasure them all the more. “Who answers the phone like that? What happened to ‘Hello?’”
- Other classic Norma line tonight: “Pull some strings! Beat someone up in the parking lot!”