As it turns out, the “deal” of this episode’s title isn’t Norma Bates’ agreement with Bob Paris after all. It’s the deal that allows the Bates family to function, and at the end of tonight’s episode, that deal got tossed out the window. Norma is codependent, relying on the support of Norman to get through life. She needs his love, his support, and even when he’s furious at her, she can feel that it’s because he’s a teenager, not because he’s not on her side. But at her very own dinner table, her two sons very calmly and maturely explained that Caleb was back. Dylan apologized, and was heartfelt and straightforward; Norman was sensitive, supportive and mild. It was the Bates family at their finest.
And Norma Bates could. Not. Handle. It.
On one hand, her sense of betrayal is wholly understandable. No matter how many times the show weirdly underplays the grave significance of rape (and lest we forget, season one made a hash of that storyline, a beat that Norma calls out in her speech to Romero here), one way it never did was in Norma’s furious sense of anger and trauma at the experience she went through at the hands of her brother. So now, here are her two sons, trying to explain why Caleb is living in town, and regardless of Dylan’s apologies, they both seem fine with it. It’s enough to make anyone lash out. But hoo boy, Norma Bates turns it up to 11. It’s been easy to forget this season that when she feels her family turning on her, and giving her space to be upset while doing it, the Bates matriarch is capable of outsized histrionics that can match anyone on this show. Apparently going all season without a family-directed blowup means Norma has been building up a scorcher. So she loses it, grabs a suitcase, tells Norman to stay with his brother, and takes off.
What made it so effective was that it came at the supposed moment of triumph. This episode was Norma Bates pulling yet another rabbit out of her hat, and—at least for the time being—keeping her family, her business, and herself above water. Coming home with that chicken, excited to make dinner for her boys, was her celebration party. To be pulled from the heights of relief and victory and asked to accept the one person she hates (a person being defended by her boys, of all people), is just too much for her to handle. So she doesn’t. She leaves, and in so doing, triggers the rupture of Norman’s own achingly fragile sense of stability.
And let’s talk about Norman in this episode, because it’s some of the best work Freddie Highmore has done yet. Whereas the first four episodes of the season were Norman fighting his illness, and falling further into the creepy path laid out before him, this episode gives him the full realization of the tragedy that is his life. When he realizes that he hadn’t told Norma about Caleb—that, in fact, he’d had another episode, and was talking to himself—Norman’s strength and bravado collapse. The shallow breathing, and the fearful look in his eyes when Norma hugs him in the kitchen and tells him everything is going to be all right… it’s all too much for Norman. He realizes there’s something very wrong with him, and he can no longer even tell the difference. It’s heartbreaking, and Highmore lets us feel every layer of his fright.
This episode abounds with wonderful familial moments, so many that I could even forgive the usual shortchanging of poor Emma Decody. (I’m not certain I’ve written her name once this season without putting “poor” in front of it.) Dylan and Norman’s heart-to-heart in the basement? Genuinely affecting. Dylan and Norma’s bathroom powwow, in which Dylan insists on telling Sheriff Romero about the flash drive, because it means too much to him to finally be a part of their family to risk losing it? I got goosebumps. Both of the boys were stellar in this episode, and seeing the show cleverly invert the threatening black cloud left hanging at the end of last episode by spinning it into Norman’s confrontation with his illness was bravura plotting.
All of the family stuff was so uniformly excellent, in fact, that it almost superseded the real MVP of this episode. I’m referring, of course, to Sheriff Alex Romero, Straight Man Extraordinaire. Tonight Nestor Carbonell demonstrated, with nothing more than a half-dozen silent reaction shots, why he’s such a strong element of this series. Norma and the sheriff are one of the best pairings the show has, and every time they team up I want to cheer. They bring that sense of arch comic fun the past two episodes have had in such short supply.
The tragedy and trauma of the Bates family only works as crackerjack storytelling when it’s leavened by two things: that arch comic vibe and the high camp performances we’ve come to know as Planet Farmiga. Tonight fused those two elements by sending our awkward duo off to cut a deal with town villain Bob Paris. There were so many great moments where Romero silently suffered and Norma just kept on talking. His disbelieving look when she first comes to his door and asks, “Can I trust you?” spoke volumes. His appalled stares as she babbles on to Paris about her business difficulties spoke even louder. By the end of their time together, his silence was almost louder than her yelling. It was a joy to behold, and I want more.
Of course, I don’t for one moment believe Paris when he tells Norma, “You got me—we have a deal,” because this is the head of the Arcanum Club, and we know better. He even has those same red drapes in his office, and we all know only bad things happen behind the red curtains of the Arcanum. It’s unclear just how Bob means to deal with this particular problem, but something tells me that Marcus Young shouldn’t make plans to leave town just yet. Norma, maybe a small request to keep your friend as the town’s sheriff would have been smart?
Here’s why it’s clear that this was easily the best episode of the season thus far, and arguably one of the best episodes of the whole series: when Chick’s appearance takes this long to be addressed, you know you’ve got something special. Normally, a Chick appearance is automatically one of the best things in any episode. Here, it’s not even clear it’s in the top five. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Chick in this episode. He was exactly the weird, off-kilter Twin Peaks character he was introduced as, and it was wonderful. Hey, the man loves his boar jerky, what are you gonna do? And he offered Caleb a job, which, come on, if you put a job on the wall in act one, it’s got to be accepted by act three. Which works out great, because it’ll get Caleb out of our hair for awhile, even if he did operate as a great foil for good ol’ Chick tonight.
But for all the goodness this week’s installment brought, it also set up what will likely be a far more serious break for dear Norman. He’s already on thin ice emotionally, as the realization of his latest blackout sent him scurrying upstairs for some serious dress-sniffing and -hiding. With Norma’s departure (no matter how short-lived it’ll have to be, for obvious reasons), the youngest Bates will have to turn to the only mother he has left—the one inside his head. As Dylan says to Norman when he confronts him about not telling Norma that Caleb was in town, “One of you is crazy.” And unfortunately, now Norman knows exactly who it is.
- “The wi-fi password is ‘mother’—all caps.”
- If I didn’t think it would be 500 words unto itself, I’d spend an entire section just talking about the brilliance of ending Norma’s barnstorming speech to Romero about how, were she a man, he’d be supporting her plan, by having her unable to open his door and devolve into wails. It captures that character so perfectly, and Farmiga played the hell out of it.
- Caleb, to Chick: “Go to hell.” Chick, to Caleb: “Yeah, I get that… I totally get that.”
- Sheriff Romero just can’t take one more moment of nervous Norma, tapping her foot and making the couch squeak.
- They seem to be trying to make up for wasting Emma by having her continue to declare folksy bits of homespun truth to Norman, in this case how we “whitewash our parents’ sins because we need to.” Here’s hoping they’re setting up a juicy arc for her in the back half of the season.
- Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: I referenced it in the review, but seeing her try (and fail) to control her smile at resolving the Bob Paris situation was classic Norma.
- Really, just a top-notch episode. I was a little worried, after “Unbreak-Able,” that the show was losing its way a bit. All is forgiven, Bates Motel.