“Sometimes I see mother when she’s not really there. Sometimes I become her.” These words are a simple statement of fact about the lead character of Bates Motel, but coming from Norman Bates, they’re a revelation. Not since his time in treatment at Pineview last season has Norman been so confronted by the truth of his situation. And unlike the end of season four, where his brief realization of the death of his mother led to an immediate and comforting return of his delusion, here he only becomes further entangled in the reality of what’s happening. For once, his mind doesn’t pull the wool over his eyes, and instead, Norman faces the disturbing reality: He is Norma. Her behavior is his. Her choices are his, consequences and all.
“Dreams Die First” plunges us into a new spin on one of the most iconic stories in cinematic history—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—but in doing so, it’s chosen to simultaneously have Norman face down his own mind in the lead-up to Marion Crane’s arrival at Bates Motel. When he’s standing in the kitchen, seeing his house as it really is, stripped of all illusions, the fear and grief and panic bubbling up inside of him, it’s not clear he’ll be able to handle it. This is usually the moment his mind chooses to sever with reality, and reintroduce Norma/n into the equation. We have to wait until the following episode to get an answer to that question, but in the meantime, the show is plunging headlong into a full-on showdown between Norman and his illness that’s been building steadily over five seasons. Who needs a guest appearance from Rihanna when you’ve got all the juicy psychodrama you can handle already boiling over within one damaged young man?
Actually, the Marion Crane storyline is a fascinating one to watch for several reasons, not least of which being the way director Nestor Carbonell (Alex Romero is apparently still recuperating from his gunshot wound this week) plays with the relationship between our memories of the movie and his staging of Marion’s story. That’s the odd thing about Bates Motel: Its source material is so famous, and has been seen by such a large percentage of the audience, that we already have an ingrained sense of how the narrative beats should unfold, and in what manner, when it comes to this narrative. The episode ends up performing an impressive balancing act: It gestures just enough toward the original film—with musical cues, certain snippets of dialogue, and playfully meta camerawork, be it lingering on the mirror in Marion’s bedroom or deliberately hanging back from an uncomfortable encounter with her boss—to acknowledge and pay homage to its forebear, without tipping over into parody or slavish imitation. This is some of Carbonell’s most assured work yet, and it never feels heavy-handed in its referentiality.
Which is impressive, considering some of the scenes in “Dreams Die First.” We’ve known Sam Loomis was a shitheel, but here we see he’s an awfully committed shitheel, at that. Marion loves him, and he (professes to) love her, as well. It’s his debt that provokes Marion’s burst of larceny, and leads her to embark on the fateful journey to White Pine Bay, and these sequences are staged with an adroit sense of play, working on one level to tell the show’s own story, yet bringing in additional levels of appreciation for those who are familiar with Hitchcock’s take, and curious to see where the two versions overlap. These are most rewarding at Marion’s workplace and during the bedroom conversation with Sam, as the cinematic equivalent is echoed at times but never reproduced faithfully. (I’m guessing there was a writer’s room warning totem that just consisted of a copy of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake alongside a print of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.”) Despite a few tweaks, the narrative unfolds along very similar lines as the movie, leaving the differences to exist in the tale currently in progress, and the characters already in the vicinity of the motel.
The new sheriff is the first one to put Norman on uneven footing, and if the young Bates scion looked awkward and guilty last week, he’s all but twiddling his thumbs and whistling past a graveyard during their encounter in her office. We used to make jokes about how Norma had no poker face, but Norman doesn’t even realize he’s playing poker, he’s so nervous and jittery around this new authority figure. She knows something’s up, even if she can’t quite put it together yet, and Norman’s all but asking to be investigated, thanks to his appallingly bad acting skills.
But he gets a brief respite, in the form of Madeline Loomis. Here’s someone with whom he has an all-too-human relationship and ability to interact, and he does so to the best of his ability. He even gives her good advice (“Talk to him”), prior to dropping the bombshell that he was witness to Sam’s infidelity. And while her lashing out is understandable, it couldn’t come at a worse time for Norman, who soon finds the lace panties in his car, and then is forced to reckon with the true source of their appearance, thanks to his meeting with Dr. Edwards. It never fails: Just when it seems like Bates Motel is barreling along in its mix of high camp and operatic horror, along comes a deeply humane, genuinely touching scene to remind us that Norman Bates just wants to be a normal guy.
Sam Loomis is still lying; in fact, his lies have lies, as he confesses to Marion, “I wasn’t completely honest,” and then makes up some horseshit about living in a crappy apartment. And those lies are about to rebound upon Norman, who is doing the exact opposite: He’s finally confronting every layer of the truth. Sometimes he is Norma. Some people only know him as that. It would be a lot for anyone to take. But with Rihanna pulling up to Bates Motel, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Norman, tragically, once again loses this fight for his own mind.
- I have to say, Rihanna was better than I thought she’d be. (If you’ve seen Battleship, you understand why I was concerned.) It was a relief to see that she passed on any sort of attempt to embody the Janet Leigh version of this character, instead going for a less fragile, more openly flawed take on this impulsive young woman.
- As my wonderful guest critic Genevieve Valentine noted last week, the show is doing its level best to avoid any transphobic stuff, even though the subject matter makes that rather difficult. Still, all the guys at the White Horse Bar are basically the nicest people imaginable, as the show bends over backwards to argue it’s not the gender split, but the childhood illness, that defines Norman’s homicidal alter ego.
- Hi there, executive producer Carlton Cuse, doing a sly cameo as the cop who pulls over Marion! He had some thoughts about the Rihanna casting you can read here, and I’ll have a full interview with him and showrunner Kerry Ehrin you can check out following next week’s episode.
- Dylan and Emma appear this week just long enough for Emma to learn the truth: That the earring they told her was Norma’s actually belonged to Emma’s mother, and Dylan suspects Norman may have hurt the woman. This goes over about as well as you’d expect. I’m hoping this means they might take over the roles played by Marion’s sister and Sam in the film, as the people who get to the bottom of what’s really happening at the Bates residence.
- The hallway in the bar has a red curtain at the end, giving it all a very Twin Peaks-esque vibe as Norman’s realizing what happened. (Shades of the Arcanum Club, really.)