Ah, Bates Motel. You almost had me! For about four-fifths of the running time of this episode, I was having a rollicking good time, having essentially abandoned any pretense that the show had aims other than camp. And if this is intentional camp, it’s pretty good intentional camp! Granted, it’s no season two of American Horror Story, the current gold standard of intentionally campy television with a nasty aftertaste, but it’s got a series of pretty good laugh lines, some incredibly unlikely story turns, and just a general sense that crazy shit could go down at any turn. I could get behind that, particularly if the show took itself as non-seriously as it did in the first parts of tonight’s episode. Blatantly criminal Jere Burns checked out the whole hotel for some sort of nefarious activity! The Sheriff switched gears on a dime because the story needed him to! Norma and Emma stalked Bradley outside of a yoga class! A good time was had by me.
But then the end of the episode returns to the show’s heavy-handed attempts to be a serious drama about messed-up people colliding with each other at high speed, and it flies off the tracks again and again. In the whole last act, just about the only thing I really was relieved to see was that Norman apparently didn’t hallucinate his first sexual encounter with Bradley (which would have been very strange and hard to explain in the storytelling). The whole business with him going over to her house and finding out she didn’t feel that way about him seemed to arrive from another series entirely, then just kept going, as Norman chanted his mother’s words back to himself, in yet another Norman Bates Alert (in that we’re seeing where he’ll pick up that particular habit in the movie series).
Then a cute little dog got hit by a car.
Look, I’m willing to go with the idea that this show is intentional camp. I’m willing to go with the idea that it’s a straightforward family/small-town drama. I’m even willing to go with the idea that it’s a goofy horror show. The problem is that it can’t be all three things at the same time, and it spends too many scenes really trying, then landing flat on its ass. We talked about this a bit last week, with the denouement of the “Deputy Shelby has an Asian sex slave chained up in his basement” storyline involving Shelby doing his best Gus Fring impression and the show apparently deciding that sex slavery is a serious issue, yet not so serious that we can’t have some comic book supervillain fun around its edges. Now, we have Norman calling out to his newly beloved dog—a dog he found underneath the porch of the motel—only to see said dog get hit by a car. He races into the street and cradles it in his arms. He vows to have Emma’s dad use his taxidermy skills to make it like new again (Norman Bates Alert!). He screams and yells and rages, and he takes out his emotions on his mother. The sequence wanted me to feel all my feelings, but it mostly just made me feel manipulated.
Did I feel sad when the dog died? Sure. But that was because the show used my own general feelings of positivity toward dogs and other innocent creatures against me. It didn’t even bother hiding what it was doing. That dog was pretty much just introduced so it could die, thus marking another point on Norman’s evolution into the Norman Bates we know from Psycho. I have no idea if I’d feel more positively about this development if the dog had been around for a while—and, thus, Norman’s attachment to it felt more organic, less stilted—but in the moment that dog got hit by that car, I got really angry at the show. It’s a series that’s constantly telling me what to feel, but it doesn’t even seem to know what it, itself, feels. When I read interviews with the cast and creative personnel where they talk about the serious emotions and depth of theme they’re exploring here, I find myself baffled at the sheer disconnect between what they think they’re making and what I’m actually seeing.
Then again, I talk to enough people on Twitter and in comments who seem to see in this show what the creators intend. So maybe I’m the one who’s missing the boat by thinking the show’s wild tonal inconsistencies aren’t hiding deep, serious intent but, rather, an elaborate game of Three Card Monte designed to distract from the fact that there’s no way for the audience to win. Even things I should, theoretically, enjoy just feel as if they’re being far too telegraphed, like when Jere Burns skydives in to let everybody know he’s evil in every other scene (and, just in case you forgot about it, he’s evil), or when Norma and Emma fill half a scene with nonsense babbling about Norman before going to stalk Bradley at yoga. I don’t think I have too high of standards for this stuff. By this point in its first season, I’d more or less accepted that American Horror Story was high, unintentional comedy. So why can’t I here?
I used to think it had something to do with the fact that this was loosely based on a favorite film of mine. Yet if you squint, it’s easy enough to miss the Psycho connections and just enjoy this as a show about a mother and son running a hotel and dealing with a spooky small town. Instead, I think it all comes back to how everybody seems to be on completely different pages, making completely different shows. Vera Farmiga’s performance is often wildly funny—and intentionally so, I would argue—while someone like Max Thierot is doing interesting work but in such a polar opposite style from Farmiga that it’s hard when the two have to share scenes. Similarly, the writers seemingly want us to take some of the storylines seriously—like the teenagers and their love travails—while finding a bunch of the other stuff to be fun, goofy bullshit—like the various mysteries of the small town and its many murderous denizens. (I mean, is there anyone in this town who’s not a murderer or potential murderer? I guess Emma, but that’s about it.)
It’s rare to have a show that operates simultaneously as an actual object and a parody of that object, but even in its best scenes, that’s what Bates Motel seems to be trying to do. It creates a situation where even if you want to like the thing, it wants to hold you at arm’s length, where even if you start to get into an episode, there’s always something rounding the bend to run over a dog. The show takes me through a torrent of emotions every week. If only it had even the most basic sense of blending those tones into a coherent whole. Instead, we get a lot of things stacked up against each other, like one of those hotels where every room has a different theme, and you might have the Love At Sea room placed right next to the Caveman Room, that the maids might get the clubs mixed up with the harpoons and vice versa.
Grade: C’s like a locomotive of sexual energy
- I still want the show to move to whatever show Dylan is starring in. Nope. He’s still moving out. He doesn’t care if his brother is an incipient serial killer. He needs to get outta there.
- I will admit that I felt a brief moment of suspense when Bradley lunged in to hug Norman. I did wonder if he would snap there, but I guess the power of love pulled him back.
- Norman hallucinates a sexual encounter with Bradley early in the episode, which made it all the more relieving when she admitted that, yes, they had had sex. It just hadn’t really been her thing.
- It’s nice to see that Norma is on Team Emma with everybody else. I imagine that she posts online about how much better Emma would be for her son than that other tramp.
- I enjoyed seeing Nestor Carbonell get to play that whole “you don’t really know what my motivations are” scene that’s his stock in trade, but good Lord, was that character shift abrupt. Fortunately, it’s abrupt enough that I suspect the show will account for it in time. Or, at least, I hope it does.