Photo: Sergei Bachlakov

“Well, it’s not like we haven’t done this before.” That brief aside between Norman Bates and the figment of his imagination he believes to be his mother is meant to suggest they know how to dispose of a dead body, but it’s an apt summation of what they (he alone, really) now believe about life in the Bates home, regardless of its truth. For Norman, the constant push-and-pull with his mother has been the defining force of his life. The young man now singlehandedly running the motel knows no other way of being than one which revolves around the tempestuous nature of Norma Bates, whether that meant sulking about being denied driving lessons when he was younger or resignedly disposing of yet another body for which he erroneously believes his mother is responsible. To him, this is just another exasperating encounter with Norma, the woman who seems to consistently make his life harder.

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That’s the thing about tragedies: Everyone knows a sad ending is coming except for the people most directly involved. “Dark Paradise,” the first installment of Bates Motel’s final season, is doing little more than setting the table for the final arc of Norman Bates’ story, but thanks to the four years of accumulated backstory that’s come before—along with the ongoing knowledge of where this ends—even the most incidental moments take on additional emotional weight. If this episode at times relies a little too heavily on this foreknowledge from the audience to do its work for it, it nonetheless makes for an engaging hour of television, albeit one that’s little more than prelude to the story to come. As I wrote about earlier today, this is an ideal moment for new viewers to join the show, and “Dark Paradise” seems to realize it, tailoring its reintroduction to these people accordingly.

The Norman we’ve met every year has been notably different from the one the previous season. Last year, the Norman Bates of season four’s first episode had turned almost wholly against the flesh and blood Norma of real life, his air-tight bond with his mother instead being replaced by the bond he experienced with the one in his head. (For new readers, “Norma/n” is the name we’ve given to imaginary Norma in years past. Since this year will be nothing but imaginary Norma, Farmiga’s character will be referred to as “Norma” when she’s as appearing as a separate person in Norman’s mind, and “Norma/n” when Norman is taken over by the Norma personality.) After Norma’s death, something broke inside Norman; the sweet and sensitive boy always trying to do the right thing was taken over by the delusional codependent who has made peace with his hallucinatory mother’s murderous ways, and that unconscious decision has pushed him away from his sunny and honorable past.

Even when traces of the old Norman surface, such as when he’s cheerily interacting with other townsfolk or skeptically eyeing a sketchy motel customer, there’s a layer of deception at work. Norman is convinced that he’s lying to the outside world about his mother’s death, and that coping mechanism allows him to have it both ways: He can play the grieving son mourning his gone-too-soon mother to the outside world, thereby lining up with their expectations, while simultaneously continuing to live in a disturbed alternate reality of his own making. In this world, Norma has to hide from the outside world, staying forever locked up within the house, in order to escape the threat of capture for her deadly behavior. We see how this transformation has affected everything, from the messy and molding look of the kitchen to the piles of dirty clothes in Norman’s bedroom, all of it covered over by Norman’s mental image of a hardworking homemaker still caring for her son.

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There’s only one time when this reality seems to bend, and that’s when Norman can’t sleep. We watch as he heads downstairs to the basement, and opens the door to the cellar, where Norma’s body has been carefully hidden. In this moment, there’s a convergence of Norman’s worlds. Norma is both dead and not; he goes to a corpse for succor and comfort, but the fiction doesn’t seem to sustain itself during these interstitial moments. Part of Norman’s brain—the part he can’t let out during the day, and can’t admit to himself in even his most private moments—knows Norma is gone, and his watching-hour visit suggests an emotional hollowness at the core of his insanity. It’s like Chick’s visit at the conclusion of season four: Norman can only even grapple with reality when he’s not fully present, because otherwise he couldn’t handle going on living.

The biggest question mark this year was how Norma would behave, and thus far, she’s been a bifurcated personality, toggling between the smiling and supportive mother and the hectoring real-world Norma who couldn’t stand not constantly striking out on her own. Vera Farmiga has a tough job selling Norma: Almost by definition, the character will never be as complicated and compelling as the actual Norma, because it’s just the agglomeration of qualities Norman saw in his mother that make up this phantom. And in “Dark Paradise,” Norma is waffling between happy and frustrated, but without the complex shadings that would infuse both extremes with the heart and humanity of Norma. It will be interesting to see where the show takes this character—there was only a little hint of sassy fun Norma tonight, but again, this all felt like setup for things to come.

In years past, Dylan was always saddled with the least engaging and most incidental subplots, while Emma was marginalized far too often, sometimes just showing up for a scene to remind everyone she was still around. It made sense to combine their storylines last year and make them a couple, and now, that couple has a third member of their family. In the extended time lapse since the end of last season, Dylan has moved up in the world of brewing, the two have a house, and Emma had a child. That’s a lot of change for the elder Bates child and his love, and when Caleb shows up, hoping to move to town and become part of their lives, Dylan’s anguish becomes Emma’s determination. In a surprisingly affecting scene, she throws Caleb out, because his horrific past—and Dylan’s own history as a child of incest—would be too much drama for her little household to confront on a daily basis. It’s a testament to the show that Caleb ends up such a tragic figure in his own right; his sad need to belong, and the obvious hurt of his rejection, again show why even at its most over the top, Bates Motel is a wonderfully humane show. (Of course, this still doesn’t explain why Emma would somehow have let Dylan go without notifying his family that he had a child, regardless of what Norman told him.)

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There are several elements starting to play out, from Norman’s interest (possibly reciprocated) in the hardware store owner, Madeline, to the development of his sexually-charged Peeping Tom routine at the motel. Some of these are more exciting than others, but they all feel of a piece, even if it doesn’t come across as inventive or unexpected. All save one, that is: Alex Romero is sitting in jail with a single thing on his mind: revenge. And when Norma/n kills a man, it’s only a matter of time before Romero contacts the victim, much to Norman’s shock. If Norma is to be believed, Romero is through waiting for his payback. Vengeance is coming for Norman Bates, even if its source never leaves the walls of his prison.

Stray Observations:

  • Welcome back to the fifth and final season of Bates Motel reviews! Looking forward to some great discussions, as we barrel toward the outcome we’ve all been trying to ignore for the past four years.
  • Norman is now keeping a datebook of all his blackouts. I wonder how the show will have him make the connection between blackouts and Norma’s violent behavior. Best guess: Norman predicts Norma/n uses his blackouts as opportunity for her homicidal impulses.
  • Norma appearing right behind the car as Norman tries to storm off to the small business owners’ meeting was a great moment, as was her grabbing him by the ear. There’s the Norma we love!
  • Welcome, “David Davidson,” to Bates Motel.
  • Norman suspects he has bigger problems than he admits: His unexpectedly soulful question to Norma, about having the same nightmare over and over.
  • Seriously, though: Emma didn’t just insist on at least sending a postcard to Norma and Norman, announcing the happy news? Come on, now.

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