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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Family is a necessary tragedy on an inspired Bates Motel

Photo: Cate Cameron
Photo: Cate Cameron
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Family is both the best and worst thing that could ever happen to people. In his thought experiment about the perfect society, Socrates imagines a world in which children are taken from their parents and raised collectively, by an entire group of adults, so as to (hopefully) avoid the faults and failings of the individual men and women who gave birth to them. True, Socrates didn’t know a damn thing about genetics, but he knew about familial bonds. They can lift us up or hold us back—or more often, a little bit of both, in ways that make us frustrated beyond measure even as we find it difficult to imagine life without them. For Norman Bates, family is his achilles heel and his only hope. Now that Norma is dead, Dylan is arguably his only chance to reconnect with some semblance of normalcy. His brother loves him, and that love might end Norman’s life.

What’s so beautiful about “Inseparable,” one of the final episodes of Bates Motel, is how tenderly it paints a complicated picture of the brotherly bond that endures despite the hundred-plus ways that this relationship no longer exists in any tangible, day-to-day sense. Dylan and Norman have been on the outs for the better part of both of their lives, and yet there’s an intimacy and rawness to their exchanges that illuminates just how much each values the other. From the moment he arrives, Dylan is conveying a concern and love for his brother that refuses to admit defeat or bend to social niceties. Norman cooks a lavish dinner, and Dylan is genuinely touched by the gesture—but it still can’t make him go easy on the hard truths he wants Norman to confront. His brother is not well, and it’s obvious. By the time Norman is on the phone, confessing to his terrible crime, Dylan’s gambit seems to have worked. Norman has literally taken on his murderous alter ego, and won.


What makes that final act so effective is a brief but memorable exchange that happens all the way back in the first minutes. Arguing in the car about what to do with the body, Norma slaps Norman—and shockingly, he responds by hitting her square in the face. It’s a deeply unsettling moment, mostly because our identification as the audience is still with the idea that this imaginary Norma is a person, despite the fact we know that Norman has figured out what’s going on. Seeing Norman clock his mother right in the jaw is astounding, becasue we haven’t yet come around to the same perspective as the sole remaining proprietor of the motel. This isn’t his mother; it’s a figment of his mind, barking instructions at him, and the idea that he should respect the boundaries of social niceties—especially at a time when the cops are uncovering evidence of their crimes—is a bit absurd when you reflect on it. But the exchange preps us for the Norma/Norman fight in a manner that nothing else would. It’s a psychological equivalent of Chekhov’s gun—we’ve seen that Norman is willing to fight back against his domineering (and largely dominant) alter-ego. It gains potency through that early deployment, in a way that lets us know there are untapped reserves of strength in Norman Bates. That fundamentally good kid is still there, buried beneath layers of trauma.

Dylan’s return gives the series the pause it needed to reflect on everything that’s happen to Norman thus far this season, and how unmanageable it really is for this disturbed young man. Because he’s been away, Dylan functions as the perfect conduit for assessing the fragility of Norman’s situation. Whether it’s walking through the apartment and seeing the mess in the kitchen, the evidence of Norman’s illness as embodied in Norma’s shoes, cigarettes, and other signifiers, or just the way that Norman so quickly starts to lose it when talking about Sam Loomis and the way things have been, Dylan is the empathetic face of support, wanting to pull Norman out of the web of deceit in which he’s embroiled himself, mostly thanks to the Mother identity.

But Dylan has his own demons, and they won’t let him merely claim to be the voice of pragmatism. Dylan believes he let his mother down, that his absconding with Emma was an act of abandonment that contributed, however indirectly, to her death. It’s one of the most touching moments of the episode when he breaks down in her bedroom, asking for forgiveness. As the camera smartly lingers on these extended moments of him seeing her bed, her clothes—in sum, her absence—the elder Bates sibling confronts his own inability to help his family when they obviously most needed it. His loss isn’t just the death of his mother. It’s the death of his ability to help her.

The shock of Norman punching his mother still comes second to the episode’s most impressive reveal, however. Dr. Edwards wasn’t there two episodes ago: Norman hallucinated the whole thing. It’s extraordinarily effective as a narrative feint, largely because the encounter with Dr. Edwards is what seemingly precipitated Norman’s entire return to clear-headedness, and sent him into the Marion Crane arc with a new self-awareness that both deepens and (potentially) weakens the nature of his tragedy. Dylan learning that his brother’s illness is even more pronounced than Norman himself realizes is a useful reminder that Norman’s own coming to enlightenment doesn’t necessarily mean he knows what is happening; we were just as fooled by the Dr. Edwards encounter—and by extension, the unknown depths of his psychological problems—as Norman was.


The confession may not forestall Norman’s own reckoning with death, however, as Alex Romero is hell-bent on getting his revenge. He wants his gun, damn it, and he doesn’t care who knows. The new sheriff seems like a relatively smart person—she’s clearly only steps away from investigating Norman—but she may not be able to protect her most obvious suspect from his former victim. Because Alex Romero is a victim, just as much as Sam Loomis or anyone else Norman’s bloodthirsty other identity took down. White Pine Bay’s former sheriff has already died, in a way—he’s just looking to bring Norman with him. And now that Norman has chosen family over brutality, there’s a chance that Romero’s single-minded mission will be even more desperate and sad than it would have been, had Norman simply continued on, oblivious of his ways.

Stray observations:

  • Watching Dylan watch the Norma/n persona take over was a strange experience. After so many seasons of Dylan the outsider, always a step removed from the mother-son drama with which the show was focused, seeing him confront the fundamental problem at the heart of all this loss made for a surprisingly jarring scene.
  • Just when you think Norman can’t get any worse at lying. His stumbling, evasive responses to the sheriff were dangerously close to a cartoon version of a guilty person trying to act innocent.
  • Imaginary Norma in pragmatic mode goes so quickly from comical to disturbing. That opening line was great: “Jesus, Norman, turn the faucet off, you’re wasting water.”
  • The other unexpectedly moving moment was Norman hiding Norma’s body in the woods,which was staged with a florid romanticism that may have been a little over the top, but matched the emotional resonance of the situation for Norman.
  • “I’d like to report a murder. My name is Norman Bates, and I killed Sam Loomis.”

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