Photo: Cate Cameron

“It’s hard to be lonely.” Truer words have never been spoken by Norman Bates. But as he explains to Marion Crane, the dangerous part of that loneliness is the little private trap you can build for yourself in an effort to avoid the isolation. “Once you care about someone, it rules you,” he says, and while it might be a pessimistic view of the situation, he’s not wrong. When we care about someone, it changes the internal dynamic of our lives. Almost everything becomes secondary to somebody you deeply care for, and it’s an experience we’ve all felt. It’s why drama resonates with us: The universality of the pain of loneliness and the relatability of the struggle of relationships, romantic or otherwise, are the firmament of the human experience. Particularly the pain. We all hurt—and damn, what we wouldn’t give for someone to make that pain go away.

“Marion” isn’t one of the best episodes of Bates Motel, but it’s one of the most important. While all eyes are on Rihanna, guest starring as the previously doomed Marion Crane from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the most significant psychological ordeal of Norman Bates’ life is playing out right next door. While Norman has had flashes of insight before, moments where he realizes the reality of his situation (most especially in the season four finale, when Chick forces him confront the truth of Norma’s death), there’s never been an internal struggle quite like this, where poor Norman Bates is doing his best to accept his illness and dismiss the other personality that has taken hold inside him. It’s literally a battle for Norman’s soul, and in the end, he loses.

The twist isn’t merely that Norman’s better half wins out just long enough to let Marion go free, only to return to his murderous impulses after Sam Loomis arrives. (More on that death scene later.) The big reveal is that it isn’t Norma/n who kills Sam, wearing a wig and one of Norma’s dresses. No, Norman does the killing of his own volition, in a last-ditch effort to erase the pain of his life that Norma/n has been protecting him from all these years. “Oh Mother, what have I done?” he asks, in a neat inversion of the question the original Norman Bates posed to his deadly alter-ego in Psycho. He kills Marion’s duplicitous lover fully cognizant of his actions, not subsumed by the Mother persona. There’s no blackout to be had, here. He confronted the true cause of his illness, and made the conscious choice to listen to his fictional mother’s advice. He doesn’t want to feel all the pain, and this act was the bait she dangled for curing himself. That’s the real tragedy of Norman’s actions: He causes pain simply because he doesn’t want to feel it himself.

It’s a little unclear what this means for Norman Bates as we enter the last act of his story, though, because it has the potential to fundamentally alter everything about his homicidal impulses—and by extension, the reasons we care about the character. The Norma/n persona killed because she viewed challenges to her control over Norman’s intimacies and relationships as a threat. It’s why the body count has mostly included young women to whom Norman was attracted—they posed a danger to the life she had helped him establish. By rejecting the need for a faux-Mother, and instead embracing the knowledge that this alter ego isn’t Norma at all, but rather a separate persona constructed to block the suffering and take any steps necessary to excise possible sources of emotional chaos from his life, Norman becomes a killer himself. It turns him into a Dexter-esque murderer of sorts, offing men like Sam Loomis whom he (or ”Mother”) judges as equivalent to the awful men that have populated his life. It remains to be seen if the remaining episodes will fully embrace this choice, but I could easily see it lessening the final impact of the tragedy the show has been constructing these past five years.

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Photo: Cate Cameron

But if the overall character arc holds the potential for problems, never let it be said the series didn’t deliver a satisfying and enjoyable twist on the Marion Crane storyline. The decision to kill off Sam Loomis rather than Marion was one the showrunners have had since the beginning (you can read my interview with Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse all about these past two episodes here), and it made for a fun upending of expectations, resulting in an episode-long game of cat-and-mouse between what the audience expected and what the series chose to deliver. From the first moments she arrives at the motel, Marion is framed in ways that toy with our understanding of what we think will happen. When she peers into the bathroom, the camera shoots her from just behind the shower head, bringing it into focus in order to tease the inevitable shower scene. Time and again, much as the last episode did, Bates Motel delivers shots that double as homages to Hitchcock, or get playfully meta about the narrative it’s telling.

Director Phil Abraham delivers more of a traditional Bates Motel episode when it comes to the Marion scenes than Nestor Carbonell’s visually evocative tribute to the original in “Dreams Die First,” but that more series-consistent tone and look serve the story better here, because this is where it departs from the previous iteration of the narrative to become its own beast. Sending Marion to Sam and Madeline’s house was a nice touch, both in showing how Norman is resisting the Mother persona’s urgings and also as a way to force Sam out of the house and back to the motel. He didn’t deserve to die, but having his car bashed in and red wine thrown in his face were both satisfying retributions for the slimy Sam Loomis.

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“If I’m not here, then…why am I here?” Imaginary Norma poses this question to Norman, and by episode’s end, the answer has been provided. The secrets are out, the nature of his double-sided life has been made clear to him, and poor Norman took the path of bloodthirsty least resistance. He gave in to faux-Norma’s urgings rather than meet his own emotional trauma head-on, and that has become the tragedy that defines his life and actions (at least for now), rather than the much more pitiable illness of Norma/n creating an impossible world while young Norman retreated from his own consciousness. Norman Bates has made an awful, irrevocable choice, and no discounted middle of the night rate can lessen the cost to his soul.

Stray Observations:

  • Upon hearing of his mother’s death, Dylan has the right instinct. “She wouldn’t do that.” No, she wouldn’t, buddy. See you back in White Pine Bay very soon.
  • The brief pause after Norman says he enjoys “stuffing things” was a real contender for most unintentionally appalling line of Norman’s night.
  • Madeline, on the other hand, was hilariously on point even as she’s screaming at her philandering husband through a bathroom door: “Oh my God, are you kidding me?! Are you actually on the phone?!
  • Before he makes his decision, Norman’s scenes in the house are quite touching and sad. Ehrin and Cuse are credited as co-writers on this one, and they make some nicely affecting moments, such as Norman slumping into Norma’s arms after her plate-throwing tantrum, as the camera cuts back to reveal a solitary Norman, leaning forward into the air.
  • Norman delivers the call to action to a grieving Marion: “You know what’s scarier? Getting trapped inside your private trap, never getting what you want.”
  • Great moment of illusory Norma pouncing around the corner of the hallway as Norman is leaving the house. Vera Farmiga doesn’t get to play around much this season, but that was a solid moment.
  • “Tragedies don’t make sense; that’s why they’re horrible.”

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