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Norma Bates is a mess. She’s a fantastic, struggling, determined mess, and Vera Farmiga never lets us forget any piece of that; even in tonight’s episode, a relatively low-key hour, there were expressions on her face that summed up the character more effectively than entire years’ worth of performances from lesser actors. And she’s a sympathetic mess, too. When it comes to Bates-mythology, Norma used to get the short end of the stick. All we ever saw was the aftermath of her death and Norman’s difficult childhood, which meant a string of psychiatrists explaining how Mom “suffocated” the poor boy and turned him into a killer. Worse, the only version of Norma that existed anymore was crazy Norman’s version—the whining, protesting, knife-wielding murderer. Norman himself was so friendly, so personable when he wasn’t dressing up in his mother’s old clothes, that it was easy to imagine Norma as the real monster. For all its faults, Bates Motel has managed to give Norma her own tragedy, and make it clear, at least in this version of the story, that she’s no vicious harpy bent on destroying her son’s life. The truth is more complicated, and a hell of a lot sadder.

Really, that “truth” is the main reason to watch the show. “The Escape Artist” managed to find at least one other storyline worth paying attention to, thankfully; Emma’s developing relationship with The Cute Boy With Great Hair Who Sells Pot (I know he has a name, but I’m tired, and come on) is sweet, funny, and charming. I’m not sure how it fits in with everything else so far, but then again, every storyline on this show that doesn’t directly involve Norma and Norman feels like it wandered in from someplace else, liked the weather, and decided to hang out for a few weeks. This one has the benefit of being quippy and pleasant, like (to steal an observation Todd has made before) something you’d see on a CW show. Mainly, I just like Emma a lot, and it’s fun to see her happy, however briefly. Now that Bradley is off being Mark Whalberg’s daughter and running from robots, Emma gets the screen time she deserves.

There’s a directness to Emma’s pursuit of TCBWGHWSP too, a directness which stands in contrast to Norman’s awkward blankness; it seems like the sort of let’s-get-this-done type approach that a Norma who wasn’t so burdened with a life built on horror and regret. You can see this, briefly, when Emma asks Norma about sex. It’s a wonderful scene, and a great example of how smartly the show use subtext to create strange, contradictory feelings. On the one hand, there’s Emma, who has her head in the right place, is a bit nervous about sex, but is making choices for herself and stands chance of being a part of something really healthy and satisfying. On the other hand, you have Norma, who was repeatedly raped by her brother as a child, and who gave birth to her brother’s son. Norma doesn’t have any happy memories of her first sexual experience, and Farmiga plays the exchange so well that you can’t ignore the fact that Emma’s questions (meant innocently) are bringing back some ugly memories, memories that have been swirling around ever since her brother’s brief appearance back into her life. But at the same time, it’s still possible to be excited for Emma, and to appreciate how Norma manages to give her sensible advice without letting things get too weird. I’ve seen plenty of shows do the “younger woman asks older woman for dating/sex advice,” but few that managed to maintain both the optimism of the younger woman and the direct knowledge of the suffering of the older without contradicting either. It’s kind of remarkable to watch.

At the same time, not every scene can be that complicated, which means we get Dylan being all confused about his place in the world, and the whole drug-running plot, and Dylan getting hit by a car and finally meeting the real brains behind the operation. Which, eh. Any plot thread that doesn’t directly stem from either Norma or Norman’s struggles is going to be hit or miss. Emma’s story works, but Dylan’s just relies too heavily on our interest in the local pot wars, and for right now at least, that stuff still feels like killing time until the plot that actually matters shows up. Dylan’s not in a great place right now, and his somewhat suicidal decision to play chicken with a car of drive-by shooters almost certainly stems from the fact that recently learned he’s the product of incest and rape. While that has some excellent subtext, the situation itself is so outlandish that there’s none of the contrast between the normalcy of an actual life, and the insanity of the Bates’ family. The show’s writers made it clear from the start that Norman’s homicidal rages were just going to be a piece in a much bigger tapestry of crime and malfeasance, but that decision has yet to pay off, and I doubt it ever will. Finding out that Dylan’s boss has a smart, shadowy sister who’s the real boss might have some symbolic weight (oh hey, more fucked up siblings), but symbolism alone doesn’t an exciting storyline make.

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The one positive from the drug stuff is that the destruction of Sheriff Romero’s house has him moving into Bates Motel full-time, a development that means more scenes between Norma and Romero, which are fun to watch. Romero tries to warn Norma off from getting further involved in her big plotline for the hour: making contact with the mysterious Nick Ford. As with Dylan, the Nick Ford stuff suffers slightly, simply because it suggests a world that has no real emotional weight to it whatsoever. He’s some rich criminal dude, and Norma is once again going to get in over her head (since the hateful councilman who spearheaded the bypass project dies at the end of the hour, I guess she’s already there), and somehow, she’ll have to find a way out. The main pleasure of this is watching Norma navigate her way through Nick’s machinations, not quite sure of what’s going on, but convincing herself with each step that if it gets her what she wants, everything will be fine. You just know the other shoe had to drop eventually, but the episode gets a fair amount of comedy out of Norma deluding herself that yes, super powerful men often drop out of the sky and give you everything you want.

Then there’s Norman, getting closer to Cody in ways that will almost certainly end badly for them both (although Cody will end up worse, I’m sure). Where Norma is a mess, a sprawling, say-anything, boundary invading force of nature, Norman is rigid, contained, a system at war with itself. You can see it in the way they’re dressed—Norma in her sun-dresses and bright colors (or the sexy, cleavage-bearing blacks), while Norman is always a straight line, someone who desperately wants to be quiet and normal, someone who lets everyone around him impose themselves on him, seeing what they want to see. Their relationship is the strongest the show has, and most likely always will be; it’s tragic, oddly beautiful, and fundamentally wrong. The tragedy always being that Norma, whose craziness manifests itself in obvious, immediate ways, never quite understands the effect she has on her son. He’s like a sponge. The quiet makes him easy to talk to, and his old-fashioned attitudes makes him seem safe and non-threatening, but that’s not all he is.

It’s the best special effect of the show, really. Any time Norman and Norma are on screen together, just think, “Someday, Norman will poison his mother, then dig her corpse up, stuff it, and wear her clothing around the house.” The show is built on this inevitability, and the ever present sense of doom balances the cheeriness without burying it. Bates Motel is probably always going to be uneven and disjointed and occasionally forced, but the two lead roles are so strongly conceived that even at the show’s worst, there’s always something to come home to: something twisted and doomed and sweet and broken and deeply, irrevocably mad.

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Stray observations:

  • Big thanks to Todd for letting me cover this week.
  • So, Cody has an abusive dad, and now she and Norman have had sex, and Cody knows about Norman’s blackouts. Also, Norma doesn’t approve of her. I’m sure it’ll be fine, though.
  • Re: Norma’s disapproval, there’s a fine turn in the scene between her and Norman near the end in which it suddenly becomes obvious that Norma’s mistrust of Cody is, to an extent, a distrust of herself. This keeps her judgment from seeming too harsh or reactionary (or predictable), and that’s before we take into account that Norma has some other, entirely practical reasons for wanting to keep Norman away from anything that might disturb him.
  • Zane mentions going to a Mexican restaurant, and later, we see him and Dylan at a Mexican restaurant. The plotting is airtight.
  • I love the way Farmiga “ums” and “uh-huhs” in the middle of other actors’ lines. She doesn’t do it constantly, and it’s never distracting, but it sets up this awkward, invasive rhythm that fits so well with the character.

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