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Bates Motel spends an hour exploring all the useful little lies we tell

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In his book Why We Lie, philosopher and evolutionary psychologist David Livingstone Smith examines what’s so valuable about a lie. He claims there’s a fundamental need for deception, something about the way we tell ourselves (and others) stories that adds meaning to our identities and our place in the world. Leaving aside the questionable scientism behind his work, the philosophy is vital. Why do we lie so continuously, both to ourselves and others, and mostly in the form of small deceptions? Whether we consciously know it or not, we often want to spare ourselves pain or discomfort. Bates Motel has placed the idea of deception front and center in its DNA, and tonight, it spent nearly its entire running time exploring the value of lies. The emphasis being, of course, on “value”—there’s a use to these lies, as there always is, and the question of the morality behind them gets more blurry with each episode.


“Refraction” gave our protagonists plenty of room to breathe this week, and that muted restraint paid off in character study. It’s been a long time since the series allowed the Bates family (or anyone else, really) a moment to pause and take stock, and by doing so, it delivered one of the quietest—but most fulfilling—episodes in recent memory. Everyone has a chance to deceive someone else, and to walk back that deception, and those transitions between dishonesty and truth illuminated the extent of need, fear, and desire within each resident of White Pine Bay. (Or Pineview, in Norman’s case.) And those lies continually exposed a greater reality, especially in the case of Norman Bates. He tried to say exactly what he thought Dr. Edwards wanted to hear, and in that act, he revealed the far more serious truth buried deep in his own mind. Dr. Edwards, meet Norma/n.

This episode pivoted around the discovery, on the part of Norman’s doctor, that not only could Norman be prompted into his blackouts, but that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder. This is becoming a repetitive refrain in these reviews, but damn, Freddie Highmore just keeps getting better. Tonight’s shift into the Norma/n persona was the most underplayed version yet of his murderous alter ego, and Highmore absolutely crushed it. Watching the shift was a sight to behold: Suddenly delicate yet confident, his voice and mannerisms were just different enough to trigger Dr. Edwards’ warning bells, but not as outsized as in the past, when he’s donned a dress and played up the more campy aspects of Farmiga’s performance as Norma. Norma/n realized the precarious nature of the situation, and toned down her behavior as a result. Twenty bucks says this scene will be Highmore’s Emmy submission this year.

And all because Norman wanted to lie, both to protect himself and his mother. I’m not entirely convinced Norma really wasn’t there the day before (although her coat and language suggests it was, indeed, in his head), and that Edwards didn’t manufacture that falsehood to elicit precisely the response he got; but Norman’s behavior was textbook manipulation, trying to be honest while still telling Edwards what the youngest Bates thought his doctor wanted to hear. He wants to get better, and he wants to be truthful, but his desperate, overwhelming need for his mother is blurring the boundaries of honesty. When he tears up talking about Norma, that’s for real; and when he confesses his worries to the Norma in his head, that’s for real, as well. He knows he’s controlled by his desire to be free, to be with Norma. But his alter ego knows it, too. “I think he’s a very weak, confused boy,” Norma/n tells Edwards, and that confession is the most honest Norman has been about himself all season long. Norma/n sees him as he sees himself, just through a different lens. His personality is refracted (thanks, episode title) through another medium, and the light of his identity appears unalike from that perspective.


You know it’s a heartfelt installment of Bates Motel when everyone feels like they’re on Emma Decody’s wavelength. The show’s warm little center of goodness comes home this week, and she’s trying to figure out how she feels in her new, functional-lung-having life. Her deception is much more pedestrian, but no less revealing: She’s embarrassed by her scar, and that feeling of shame puts off Dylan’s affections, at least until she can come clean a short while later, after his job interview. The scar is a huge, significant part of her body, no doubt about it, and her mortification is understandable, even as we, like Dylan, want to rush to assure her there’s nothing wrong with it. Emma’s lie is of the simple, functional variety—she’s scared her boyfriend will be turned off by her body. But she powers through, and Dylan, of course, is more than happy to reciprocate, whipping off his shirt to demonstrate his various scars, bruises, and injuries. (Also, not exactly hurting your case for intimacy by going topless, Dylan.) Factor in Emma’s father, giving Dylan instructions on how to lie during his interview, and you’ve got the family that’s made the most peace with the need for lies, and the value they possess, even if such fictions are fleeting.


But if anyone appreciates the need for falsehoods, it’s Alex Romero. The sheriff is the most burdened by the past this week, as Rebecca proves herself to be a worrying and unstable element in his new life. For all her practical worries about being investigated, she can’t help herself from showing up leaning against his car—and a little drunk, though it’s never made explicit—and gazing longingly at Romero. But he only has eyes for Norma, as the lovely scene between them at the piano demonstrates. He lied to her earlier about knowing for sure it wasn’t Bob Paris who trashed the house. And as they sit on the piano bench, looking into each other’s eyes, he can’t keep up the fabrication. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to; Norma is starting to get a sense of Romero’s values, so when he says he did what he “had to do,” she understands, and accepts it. Their love is growing, and even earlier lies are now serving a purpose, as a bridge to solidify their understanding of one another.

Still, after an episode of genuinely touching scenes and open communication between everyone we care about, it was inevitable that a threat would manifest, and that threat has the very silly but welcome name of Chick. I know many of you don’t particularly care for this character, but even without the understated humor he demonstrated last season, he makes sense as a new antagonist for Norma. He’s one of the few outsiders that’s been really harmed by a member of the Bates family, and his knowledge—that Caleb is both Norma’s brother and Dylan’s father—pulls the security rug right out from under her. He wants revenge, and is willing to use Norma to get it. He doesn’t seem to bear her any ill will, and his lie is purely utilitarian. He needed access to Norma Bates, and by promising to fix the window, he got it. “Do you want to be out of integrity with yourself, Norma?” he asks, and it’s unclear what the right retort would be. Norman may be unaware of the persona he’s exposed to Dr. Edwards (and the repercussions of that encounter will doubtless be shattering), but Chick’s decision to reveal what he wants is just as precipitous. Lies don’t always have to be spoken; They can simply be truths left unsaid. For good and ill.


Stray Observations:

  • Norman’s predicament really tugged at the heartstrings this week. Seeing his eyes well up with tears as he confessed his emotions, it was difficult to feel anything but sympathy for him. Again, this was Highmore’s high point in a season that’s been full of them.
  • “The people here…can be so crazy.” You didn’t have to say it, Norman: One glance at Julian’s sedated body confirmed the situation.
  • Norma/n’s exchange with Edwards was very on point. “How do you want me to feel?”
  • More of Norma at the piano, right?
  • Chick, with the motif of the entire series summed up in a sentence: “I suppose we all have those moments in life, where everything changes in a second.”
  • This was just what the season needed at its midpoint: a chance for all the characters to take stock, look around, and come to terms with the events of the past week. Bates Motel shouldn’t be so cagey about wanting to slow things down now and again.

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