Sometimes, the fleeting little moments of happiness in life actually happen, and we have a chance to recognize them as they’re occurring. It’s a rare treat when it happens: So much of our lives are dedicated to paying the bills, and taking care of problems, and running the thousand and one frustrating errands that seem to occupy all of our time. Occasionally, we get to relax; some of those moments are enjoyable, and we may even acknowledge them as being such. But to genuinely see a moment of joy for what it is, and know that you’ll savor it for years to come? Those are few and far between. Tonight, Norma Bates got to experience one of those moments. In fact, everyone in the extended Bates family (and I’m including Alex Romero, Emma Decody, and—with resignation—even Caleb) gets one of those moments, tonight.
Everyone except for Norman Bates. He has a moment he’s going to remember, too, but it’s not one of joy. It’s one of self-recognition. Norman has realized something about himself, and during the final moments of this day, one filled with so much happiness for so many people, he makes an irreversible, decisive step toward the part of himself he’s resisted for so long. It’s something he may not have even understood until today, when, of all people, Professor James Finnigan cuts Norman to the quick by asking him a question that shatters Norman’s defenses with the simplicity of its truth:
“Norman, do you want to sleep with your mother?”
There have been a number of “turning point” moments in this series, but few have oozed with the quiet menace and roiling anxiety of the sort generated by that last scene. Watching Norman running his hand across his mother’s sleeping body, his eyes glassy and opaque, the vaguest hint of a smile playing around his mouth, was discomfiting and profound in the best possible way. It’s exactly the tone of dread this show wants to achieve, and it came at the end of a knockout episode that set it up magnificently with a combination of sharp humor and emotional revelations. Watching an episode of television lay the foundation for such an effective payoff was thrilling, and it demonstrates again why Bates Motel makes for such compelling TV: When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s up there with the best shows currently airing.
More importantly, it returns the series to a strong “show, don’t tell” mode of storytelling that it can often veer away from. I know many of you thought last week’s episode was terrific, and while I enjoyed it quite a bit, after watching it again I still think it suffers from casting all subtext to the wind and cranking the dial up to eleven for 45 minutes straight. Episodes like “The Last Supper,” which give the show time to breathe, and patiently pay off small beats, are much harder to do, and everyone was at the top of their game here. So many elements came together, from the script to the performances, and especially to some terrific editing, that made this one pop.
Starting with everyone’s favorite place to visit, Planet Farmiga. I’ve been saying this whole time that whenever Vera Farmiga gets a well-rounded arc for her character, she makes it dazzle like few actors can. Her comedic moments were razor-sharp tonight, from sassing Norman for his anger about her disappearance to banging her head on the car door. That brittle humor made the back half of tonight all the better, when she got to reveal the sweet and needy woman who has only ever wanted to have her house be a place of comfort for the people she cares about. Sure, she knows something will eventually have to be done regarding Norman, but for now, she thinks they’ve broken through the icy combativeness that’s blocked their intimacy. In her mind, they’ve scattered their disagreements to the winds, and after that hug on the stairs in the basement, she’s ready for things to get back to how they were.
Of course, that ignores the palpable tension of her electricity with Alex Romero. His drunkenness finally allowed him to reveal the feelings he has for her, with a gesture even more charged than their hug/almost-kiss/whatever when he moved out of the motel. Personally, I was cringing and wringing my hands as Norma slowly leaned in. They both want it, so badly, but it’s a precarious existence, and I just know the moment Norma gives in and kisses him, it’s all going to go to shit. Because that’s how this story has to go; at this point, I’m relatively convinced Romero will end up being the boyfriend who gets offed alongside Norma. So every moment that risks them crossing that line fills me with tremendous anxiety—I want Romero to stick around! And not have it be horrible! Which it will be, the moment they start a relationship, because Norman can’t allow that.
And Norman, well, his eyes are open, and not just with the understanding that something is wrong with him like before. Freddie Highmore has seemingly done the impossible: he’s taken a role I was convinced was a thankless task and made it wholly his own. Like Mads Mikkelson on Hannibal, Highmore has captured something essential about a character that had been lost to iconography, and revitalized it. He’s made Norman boldly, thrillingly alive, with an aching humanity and a frighteningly real disconnect all the more potent for how fully he commits to it. The scenes with Farmiga and Highmore, be they hilariously sniping at each other or soulfully, sadly baring their hearts, were always the essence of Bates Motel, but now they’re something altogether different. It’s like watching a tennis match between two world-class players, and I cannot wait to see where it goes from here. (I can almost taste the uncomfortableness,)
There’s a lot of narrative balls in the air, and I’m skeptical the show will be able to skillfully address all of them. We’ve got Bob Parris, happy to see that Romero finally learned his incarcerated father is using his dead (via suicide, natch) mother’s name for material gain. We’ve got Chick, waiting to see whether father or son, Caleb or Dylan, will end up running those guns. Romero’s got the flash drive. James ran from the house, his livelihood (and life) threatened. And dear Emma Decody finally got to have her name typed without my having to insert the word “poor” in front of it. In the Bible, the last supper came right before the betrayal of Jesus. On Bates Motel, it comes right before a different kind of betrayal. This was the calm before the storm. Norma Bates has a vision of family, a vision she revealed to everyone at the table tonight, where it finally came true. With his final actions here, Norman Bates is about to betray Norma Bates’ dream of family. And it’s not even his fault, really. After all, we all go a little mad sometimes.
- There were far too many great lines tonight—trying to list them all would be an exercise in futility. But here’s a few of my favorites.
- “Norman, stop it, you’re acting like a twit. It’s not masculine and it’s not attractive.”
- Chick, please! “On the running of guns spectrum…”
- Caleb: “God bless you, Norma.” Norman: “Food’s gonna get cold.”
- Norma Bates Has No Poker Face: “I talked to my brother. It’s ok. Everything’s fine.”
- Norman’s smirking response to Norma banging her head getting in the car was so good. I know we all say this every week in the comments, but seriously, Emmys for everyone!
- I’m already anxious thinking about how it’s all going to implode next week. If nothing else, please stay healthy, Emma Decody. Your dad loves you.