In good drama, as in life, the significant moments happen during the quiet beats, the small interstitial fragments of day-to-day existence. A wistful glance, a piercing stare, a barely noticeable gesture—these are the actions that convey meaning and emotion for those of us dropping in on characters’ lives. They are the firmament upon which we build our understanding of these people, and in them we discover the impulses and motivations that drive their behavior, both prior and subsequent. When we see a genuine moment of feeling in another human being, it triggers our empathy, whether we read fear or love or anger on their faces. It’s one of the reasons we can fool ourselves into thinking we know people better than we do: We can’t see the reasons someone is feeling the way they are, but we can all too easily substitute our own biases and feelings and think them equally valid to the unknown beliefs of the other.
Norma Bates and Alex Romero are in just such a dance right now. They’re desperately needy, lonely, and attracted to one another in equal measure, but in those quiet moments, they reveal the anxieties and fears roiling below the surface. Look at the smile playing on Norma’s face as she watches Alex eat. She’s uncertain about the role he should play in her life, but during an unguarded moment, when no one is looking, she allows herself the pleasure of appreciating this man sitting at her breakfast table. Notice Rebecca, after introducing herself to Norma, watching the sheriff whisk away his new bride for a photo op. Her mask of friendly indifference is slipping, and her eyes turn to wrathful daggers for just long enough to let us know who is almost assuredly behind the break-in at Norma’s house. The small moments are the ones in which we forget anyone is looking, including ourselves, which is why they reveal far more than anything we might consciously say.
Despite the long game of tragedy currently playing out with Romero and Norma, the heartbreaking story of this episode belongs to Norman Bates. He reacts to his newfound confinement in almost textbook manner for those with mental illness: He’s convinced he shouldn’t be there and can’t trust anyone on staff. This confidence in his beliefs manifests itself first in his naive faith that ratting on his mother’s ostensibly homicidal tendencies will get him released immediately, and second in his partnership with Julian Howe, leading to the breakout and trip to The Landing Strip. (Is there any possible place more guaranteed to bring out the Norma/n persona than a strip club?) The first situation—realizing he’s not getting out any time soon—keeps him firmly within his own mind, and pushes him to take measures he would normally find extreme. But the second event pushes him out of his mind altogether, and it’s this latest blackout that hits him hard enough to register.
Watching Norman Bates cry in the final seconds of “Lights Of Winter,” shaking with the fear that he’s not in his right mind and doesn’t know what’s real, is the potent knife twist that throws his behavior all episode long into new light. When Norman is confronted with his own illness, when he can’t remember what he’s done, it brings the old Norman to the surface: a terrified young man in circumstances beyond his control. Hearing him ask for help is so affecting because we know how quickly he can cycle back into his paranoid, delusional state. His memories can’t even be trusted, which is scary enough for those of us with sense to know our recollections are imperfect; imagine the nightmarish possibility that your brain is making up your past out of whole cloth. “I can’t do this any more, because I’m tired, and scared,” he blubbers, reduced to his simplest impulses and needs—for security, for reassurance, and for help. If your heart goes out to him in that moment, it’s in the right place.
But hearts were fluttering all episode long, and Emma Decody, as usual, is responsible for more than her fair share. Olivia Cooke had two simple but powerful moments in this episode, and they were both affecting, albeit for different reasons. The reunion of Norma and Emma was a long time coming—they haven’t shared the screen since last season—and the genuine warmth each radiated towards the other made me long for the days when Emma and Norma would be having comforting talks behind the motel desk. Her request to Dylan to move with her to Seattle was no less moving for being somewhat silly. We understand that in real life, uprooting your life to be with someone you’ve only dated for a few weeks is dumb, but Emma is a good soul, and deserving of so much happiness, we can’t help but smile at Dylan’s impulsive acquiescence. True, Emma comes dangerously close to being more hagiography than three-dimensional person at times, but some people are just good, through and through. Emma’s one of them, and in a show like this, she’s dearly needed.
The other plot points that crop up this week are mostly of the table-setting variety, but there’s a menace and unease to each that carries it through and prevents any sequence from feeling like a slog. Dylan acts a like a dummy by asking Norman if he can talk to his doctor; way to inspire your newly institutionalized brother’s trust, buddy. The DEA, meanwhile, is looking into Rebecca, which is very bad news for Romero. She already hates him for ditching her for Norma, and the news that she’s being investigated could spell much worse things for the sheriff. And that safety deposit box of Bob Paris’ is just icing on the unstable cake—three million might be enough to get Rebecca safely to a non-extradition country, but it’ll do nothing to keep the feds from sniffing around White Pine Bay.
But all of that is incidental to Alex Romero right now, because he’s falling in love with Norma. In all the small moments, the tragedy that began its inevitable procession toward disaster last week got some room to breathe. Romero and Norma at the winter carnival were a sight to behold, all flirtatious banter and contented smiles. On a normal drama, this would be the sweet building blocks of a lasting romance. On Bates Motel, it’s a love story poised on the precipice of a chasm. While Norma and her beau discover their true feelings, Norma/n is just outside of town, rising to the surface during a lap dance. Norma/n’s bemused encounter with Athena reveals Norman’s frightening alter-ego with more depth and nuance than before. Norma/n kisses Athena, briefly patronizing what she sees as the amoral behavior of the dancer. It’s an odd moment, one that shows how even fictional homicidal personas have a curious side. Going forward, Norma/n will increasingly take center stage; tonight, she was just doing a little advance scouting, in preparation for her close-up.
- It took all of three seconds for Norman to realize Julian was going to be a little too abrasive for him, after they broke out. Freddie Highmore nicely underplays Norman’s uncertain ambivalence about his escape.
- Really, Highmore was in top form this entire episode, swinging between Norman’s various frustrated states while still making them all feel of a piece.
- Norma Bates has no poker face: “What are you doing here?” “I heard there was funnel cake.”
- Norma getting to try and live her own life is an incredible performance from Vera Farmiga. The rather labored symbolism of sticking Norman’s picture in her drawer aside, it feels like we’re meeting Norma Bates for the first time.
- Great Kubrickian shot of Norman coming down the stairs towards the front door of Pineview. This episode was very clever in its use of subtle penny dreadful tropes, alluding to the bombastic and operatic themes of the show while keeping the main scenes and performances muted.
- “It’s weird how people aren’t at all together and then, all of a sudden, they are.” Amen, Norma.