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Bates Motel: “The Arcanum Club”

Illustration for article titled Bates Motel: “The Arcanum Club”
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If there’s one thing Norma Bates can’t stand, it’s feeling like things are out of her control. She can’t stand not knowing what happened to Annika Johnson—not just because she knows what Norman might have done, but because without all the facts, there’s nothing she can do about it. Time and again, Norma has done her level best to bend things to her will: She’s happy and self-satisfied when it works, and spiraling out of control when it doesn’t. So when all her efforts come to naught tonight, when she’s stymied in her quest to find out what happened to Annika, when it seems like things might be once more slipping through her fingers, she can’t take it. And naturally that’s the moment that she happens upon the sign for the Lee Berman Memorial Bypass.

If last week’s episode was a mellow cocktail of Norma Bates drama, this week’s was a Jaeger Bomb. There may be more perfect spectacles in the world than Vera Farmiga haplessly swinging a street barricade like a cudgel, but I’m having a hard time thinking of them at the moment. Watching Norma let loose the frustration and impotence she feels over the Annika situation, lashing out at the tangible, quite literal sign of a threat to her home and life, was a great return to Planet Farmiga, where everything is campy and brilliant and riveting. Here’s the woman who pulled every other actor on this show into her orbit, none more so than Freddie Highmore.

Speaking of dear Norman, Highmore has really started to tap into the youngest Bates’ well of ambiguity. The look he fixes on Norma when she gets out of the car to inquire after Annika, all questioning menace and quiet intensity, conveys in seconds just how much Norman has been changing. When Norma reminds him about Blair Watson, and what a tough time that was for both of them, mother and son take it seriously for two very different reasons, both equally bad. They both believe they know the other committed a terrible crime, and it isn’t yet clear how Norman is going to treat his mother, once he learns that she sees him as a killer.

But there was a lot of fun stuff happening around that central ambiguity this week. Norma, in particular, was a joy to behold. Not since her hilariously inept tailing of Abernathy on the docks back in season one have we gotten such a wonderful example of Norma Bates, P.I. Seeing her fail to bluff her way into the mysterious Arcanum Club, only to scale a tree in a full-on party dress, demonstrated once more that out-of-her-depth Norma is often the most fun Norma. Her run-in with the sheriff outside of what we’re going to go ahead and call the Sex Lodge showed her uncertainty. But Sheriff Romero sends her packing, and with good reason: once more, she’s about to get on the wrong side of White Pine Bay’s elite. Something tells me this mysterious club is going to be playing a large role this season.

Also, can we all just admit that the Sex Lodge is by far the most Twin Peaks-y the show has gotten yet? Carlton Cuse has made no secret of the fact that Kerry Ehrin and he are using David Lynch’s classic as a template, and for once, that doesn’t feel as silly a comparison as it has in the past. The Arcanum Club is Bates Motel’s One-Eyed Jack’s, the place where the respectable people steal away to do non-respectable things. Hell, even the curtains barring the entrance are red. There’s a genuine otherworldly vibe to the place, even with Romero there glad-handing the town upper-crusts and keeping Norma safe. It’s an indication that the show takes seriously its desire to fuse the creepy and the campy with a sense of dread, the latter being something the series has often lacked.

Which brings us to the most welcome thing that’s happened to Dylan outside of his family interactions: the arrival of Chick, a Twin Peaks character if ever there was one. I suspect this is going to be a controversial opinion, but I thought Chick was just aces. Sons Of Anarchy’s Ryan Hurst played him wonderfully, with just the right combination of kooky weirdo and threatening force. I still say Dylan’s place is in his home, calling out his family’s weirdness, but if we must give him an entirely separate subplot, let’s fill it with great characters like Chick. It also allowed the show to give Caleb something to do other than be the too-agreeable Dad. He’s starting to make his son uncomfortable, and frankly, that can’t come to a head soon enough. Given how quickly this show tends to launch itself at juicy targets—like an unstable father-son just waiting to spark and combust—it probably won’t be long now.


And no one is hoping to spark and combust with someone more than good old Emma. She spends this episode doing her level best to transition Norman into a boyfriend, and it seems like she might be succeeding, at least in part. While his nervousness around her efforts to forge an intimacy bespeak an uncomfortable fear of letting her get too close, Emma is nevertheless the closest thing Norman has to a real relationship, a source of comfort and happiness for him. When they’re at dinner, idly joking about being Peter Pan and Wendy but with the potential for sex (and hoo boy, was that particular metaphor fraught with all manner of psychosexual connotations), Highmore really sold Norman’s twin impulses to both let Emma into his head and keep her at a safe emotional distance. That kiss at the end of the night was even a little sweet.

Which is what’s going to really start to worry Norma, no doubt. When she finds out that Norman is going out with Emma, her face registers so many different concerns—fear, hope, approval, skepticism, pride—that you start to see Norma’s real concern is that she no longer knows what the best option is for her son. If she’s right, and Norman has again killed someone, then all bets are off. She has a serial killer for a child, and she loses her grounding in this world. But he’s still her Norman. He still has crushes, and now it seems he may like the nice girl, the one that, in a perfect world, Norma might well wish for him. He’s her foundation, and their codependency is her source of solace. At the end of ”The Arcanum Club,” when she looks into her son’s worried eyes and echoes one of her most significant lines from the first season (“You’re worried about me?”), we know that she can’t help herself. This is her son. And she will continue to do whatever she can to keep their life from collapsing, no matter how much it will backfire. It’s all she knows how to do.


Stray Observations:

  • Sheriff Romero has now moved out, but wow, what a goodbye. That hug/almost-kiss/whatever that Norma and he shared was one of the most awkward interactions the show has ever done, and that’s really saying something. There’s no way the writers are going to let that pairing slip away. Even if it likely spells the sheriff’s doom.
  • Some of you thought that the Annika death was going to be a red herring, but no, she’s really dead. It’s certainly possible someone at The Arcanum Club was responsible, but for now, my money is still on Norman.
  • “I don’t know why, but unhinged women seem drawn to you.”
  • Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: That jittery, dramatic “Yeah, I’m fine” she tells Emma after learning of Annika’s disappearance? Very smooth, Ms. Bates. Emma was probably worried Norma was having a stroke.
  • “A lovely, lovely girl—I’m just afraid she might be dead.” This really was a top-notch episode for Farmiga.
  • I would 100 percent watch The Norma And Emma Detective Agency.