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Bates Motel: “The Box”

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Throughout “The Box,” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. This wasn’t entirely fair to the episode, which was thoroughly eventful and packed with things I’ve been waiting to see happen for some time. But I saw the writing credit—by Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse!—and that part of my brain that reverts to, “Shit, yeah, the showrunners took writing credit for this one!” kicked in, and I was waiting for, like, White Pine Bay to be revealed to be a dream a turtle is having about the movie Psycho while it’s making its desperate way back to the sea. So “The Box” couldn’t live up to that, to be sure, but it wasn’t trying to be an episode where Everything Changes, not really. It, instead, couched its biggest reveal and strongest moment in an emotional gut-punch, as Norman Bates breaks through his own mental blocks and realizes that, yeah, he’s the one who killed Miss Watson.

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It’s a pretty great little moment to head into the finale with, even if I didn’t strictly need to see the recreation of Miss Watson’s murder. I suspect that was there to silence all of those who insist that she was killed by somebody else, even at this late date, but Bates Motel is almost always at its best when it trusts the audience to connect the dots itself, and here was a giant reveal for which Keegan Connor Tracy was brought back, but it was a reveal that mostly just kind of sat there. (It was also shot so oddly and hazily that it was difficult to see exactly what was going on, even though we already knew what was going on.) Still, the whole thing was worth it to have Norman realize his darkest self in the worst way possible: locked in a box in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain. It’s an incredibly miserable moment, and I’d be shocked if it didn’t portend even darker things for the kid.

“The Box” was incident packed even outside of that, however. Dylan killed Nick Ford! Norma learned that Norman’s semen was found in Miss Watson! Emma discovered that the service industry wasn’t for her! When Bates Motel is humming along and firing on all cylinders, it’s perfectly capable of keeping five or six different plates spinning at the same time. I might prefer it when the show focuses on Norman and Norma to the exclusion of most everything else, but I can also understand why it needs to have other characters and things. And it’s notable, I think, that “The Box” is an episode that keeps the two central characters completely apart for its entire running time (unless we count Norman’s inner Mother, which we shouldn’t) but remains suspenseful and exciting throughout. That’s definite progress for the show.

What’s more, this episode all but put a capper on the drug war storyline, with Dylan’s decision to kill Nick Ford hopefully meaning that Zane and Jody have now consolidated their control of the region’s pot production. I mean, I don’t really care, and I honestly would have been more into some sort of Sith Lord Babies storyline with Nick Ford and Dylan growling in each other’s general direction, but I’m just glad to have this somewhere in the vicinity of over, particularly since it continued Dylan’s inability to make the right decision at any given time. Here, he kills Nick before figuring out where his brother is—because he’s unlikely to guess “locked in a metal box in the woods”—so he ends up in a situation where he’s gotten precisely none of what he wanted, not even the information that might save his brother’s life. There’s something to the idea of Dylan as the bumblefuck who keeps stumbling into and out of his family’s good graces, and I like where this positions the character for season three, just so long as we don’t get a whole bunch more Zane (though you just know we will).

“The Box” is also notable because it clues lots of characters in on things they probably needed to know about—then pointedly leaves Emma out of the loop. This season hasn’t serviced the character of Emma terribly well, which might be my main complaint about it, but Emma herself seems to realize she’s gotten the short end of the storytelling stick, and she reacts like just about anybody would when realizing they’re getting shut out of vital information. (If Emma showed up on the Island from Lost, everyone would have given up all of their secrets in a couple of days because they would have felt too bad about keeping things from her.) The scenes where she yells at first Romero and then Norma about how she needs to be clued in to just what the fuck is going on if she’s going to stick around are both great, and I love how the latter plays off of the contradictory impulses at the heart of the show. Emma believed she was a sort of adjunct faculty member in the Bates family, even if she knew she wasn’t technically. And when she says that, all we want is for her to really be that long lost daughter Norma never had, someone she can take under her wing and nurture. But then we remember that running far, far away from this family is probably the best thing Emma could possibly do, and we find ourselves conflicted. Bates Motel is a show where the warm embrace of familial love is also the most horrifying thing imaginable, and so long as it keeps playing around with that central idea, it remains compelling.

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Of course, everything has to come back to Norma and Norman, and the way that Vera Farmiga spends this entire episode not really listening to anybody else because Norma is so worried about Norman is pitch-perfect. The only characters who really get through to her are Romero and Emma, the former because he tells her that Norman had sex with Miss Watson and the latter because she finally drags Norma to a place where she can relate to her as someone who was once a lost and lonely teenage girl herself (though her situation was several orders of magnitude worse). Even when Dylan is saying that the only way to save Norman is to kill Zane, it’s not really fazing his mother. Sure, she says. Do it. It’s what has to be done to save my son.

I’ve talked a lot in these reviews about how the show got better the more it found itself on the same plane as Farmiga, but this episode is the first one where it feels like every character—even relative bores like Zane and Jody—exists somewhere in the same universe as Norma. It’s not the best episode of the series by a long shot (there’s still too much pointless “plot” wandering all over), but it’s an episode where it feels like everybody who lives in White Pine Bay is throbbing to Norma’s rhythms, even if they don’t realize it yet. There’s a shot director Tucker Gates embeds around the middle of the episode that might as well stand in for the show as a whole: Norma, having absorbed some terrible news, standing stock still as the camera zooms in on her until her face occupies the whole frame. As Bates Motel moves toward the end of season two, it’s more than ever Norma Bates’ world. Everybody else is just living in it.

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Stray observations:

  • That moment when Romero just barges on into the Bates house looking for Norman made me, more than ever, want him to be the boyfriend that dies in the “murder-suicide” with Norma at series’ end. Farmiga and Nestor Carbonell have a very enjoyable and tense chemistry that would work well as a romantic thing, I think.
  • I will admit that when Nick Ford discovered Miss Watson’s pearls in Norman’s possession (via his goons), I was completely unsure of where things would go from there. Maybe that’s another reason I’m sort of disappointed Dylan just up and killed him, even if it makes a lot of sense for the storytelling.
  • That first phone message Norma leaves for Norman in the episode is one that I’m going to try to memorize to leave for my future children verbatim. Knock it off with this shit, kids!
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