“I’m so sorry—for everything that’s happened. I know how much you loved her.” That’s Norma/n, expressing genuine sorrow for Alex Romero, but she might as well have been saying the same thing to Norman Bates. (Or the vast majority of the audience, for that matter.) Nearly every season of Bates Motel has concluded with an episode featuring someone being killed: Miss Watson in season one, Zane Morgan in two, Bradley (and Bob Paris) in three, and, of course, the death and burial of Norma that ended season four. So it’s fitting the show’s swan song capped off act one with the death of Alex Romero, and went into its closing minutes with the death of Norman Bates. The two men who would go to any ends for Norma finally went to those respective, and inevitable, ends.
The fascinating thing about tragedies is that, when done well, it never feels like any other ending could have been possible. The sadness and sense of fate that hangs over the oft-fatal conclusion to the story is intermingled with a feeling of relief, or even validation, that the narrative ended the only way it should have, and the audience is left knowing that this outcome, in some strange way, was necessary. What makes this particular tragedy unique is that we all knew the previous ending—Norman Bates locked up in what we assume will be an institution for the rest of his life—and there was a suspicion nothing done here could equal it. There’s a saying Joss Whedon, another showrunner fond of murdering people, often tosses out: “You don’t give the audience what they want; you give them what they need.” In series finales, the hope is that, at long last, those two things overlap in a Venn diagram of a single circle. That’s what “The Cord” did, and it did so while being respectful of nearly every storyline still in play.
Norman learned the most inspiring, and ultimately grievous, lesson of his entire life from Norma. When he hallucinates being back in the house with her, telling her about the awful nightmare he had where she died, Norma smiles and tells him to let that “silly dream” go. When he rushes downstairs to reassure himself of her presence, and finds Norma cooking and cheerfully sashaying around the kitchen, she delivers the lesson in no uncertain terms. He needs to wake up from whatever painful experiences are dragging him down: “You can if you just try hard enough.” This is the guiding light of Norman Bates’ entire troubled life. When reality doesn’t suit you, you make your own, and you hold to it, consequences be damned. It’s too real to feel silly (how many of us were told, time and again as children, that we could do anything we set our minds to?), and when Norman’s illness took hold, it was simply the next logical step of that aphorism—the world is there for the shaping.
When Dylan faces down Norman in that fateful kitchen confrontation, the one thing Norman was holding on to was the hope that their mother’s advice was true. The most compelling aspect of this last season has been how Norman came to terms with his situation, the tragedy of his realization that Norma is dead, that he becomes her at times, and the murderous results of those blackouts. It makes this final delusion absolutely integral, and also heartbreaking. From the moment he begins reliving the past, pretending he’s once again journeying to this new home, about to start a great and hopeful adventure (literally recreating scenes from the first episode), there’s an air of hopelessness to his misconceptions. He so desperately needs his false reality to be true, because otherwise there’s nothing left for him. Even the Mother persona that took control, shielding him from both painful truths and her vengeful behavior, has said goodbye.
So he invites Dylan over, and the implications of his choice are ambiguous, but the hope is all too clear. Dylan is his last chance to maintain the fake family, to keep himself somewhere he can believe in, where his life hasn’t become a dark parade of unthinkable acts. And Dylan’s dreams are Norman’s own, in a way. “What I really want is something that can never happen, okay?” he cries. “I want you to be happy, I want you to be well…I want Mom to be alive again…I want all of us to have Christmases together. I want all of these things to have never happened.” And that’s the last, harrowing moment of Norma Bates’ optimistic lesson. Norman steps forward, full of piteous bluster: “If you believe hard enough, then you can make it that way.” But these aren’t dreams to be shaped. These are dead bodies, and unavoidable consequences, and a lifetime of regret. Dylan has to live with it. Norman, finally, chooses not to.
He was joined in that decision, earlier, by Alex Romero. Who knows what Romero’s ultimate plan was—kill Norman, then put a bullet in his own head?—but he got as close to his wish as possible. He beat the hell out of Norman Bates, enacting bloody revenge for taking his wife from him, and then he died. It’s a sad ending for the former sheriff of White Pine Bay, but also, to again cite the rule about great tragedies, the only fitting one. He didn’t get to kill Norman, but that wasn’t his place. He simply needed to see Norma one last time, to feel that he did right by her, and to get some small sense of justice, however faint, from the final moments of his life. He was right: Norman couldn’t hide from the truth that he killed his own mother. R.I.P., Alex Romero, and the futile sense of wanting to make some small right from an impossibly wrong world. Mr. Lonelyhearts, indeed.
At first, I was a bit dismissive of Dylan’s reunion with Remo Wallace, his old partner in crime. Max Thieriot often felt like he was on another show altogether, the series shoe-horning him into ill-considered subplots and relatively meaningless drug-running storylines as a way to give his character something to do while Norman and Norma dug into the show’s emotional core. But every time he returned home to deal with his sibling and parent, it gave heft and perspective to the unhealthy codependency that defined Bates Motel’s central characters. And Remo’s reminiscing provided an opportunity to contrast Dylan’s life with that of his family, to make the choices the elder Bates child has to follow through on all the more wrenching. After all, they’ve grown up: They’re respectable men with good jobs—and in Dylan Massett’s case, a wife and daughter that give him a purpose and the steady love he never found at home, no matter how he tried. (Though, to be fair, in those early episodes, he wasn’t trying all that hard.)
Plus, it wouldn’t be Bates Motel if there weren’t some logical inconsistencies because the show didn’t want to have to deal with the fallout that would ensue. The idea that police wouldn’t be all over the Bates home during Romero’s kidnapping is laughable, as is the thought Norman could spend hours there, getting cleaned up, calling Dylan, and cooking dinner, without the slightest indication of monitoring from the sheriff’s department. But it seems churlish to mention these minor quibbles now, as the series always preferred emotional fireworks to pragmatic concerns. This is a TV show about a young man who has probably murdered more people than you can count on ten fingers while suffering from dissociative identity disorder, so fealty to gritty realism was never the goal. Some of the best moments have resulted from the decision to set aside Occam’s Razor, and let these stories unfold in a heightened reality.
“The Cord” is no different, as the final encounter between these two tormented brothers is more Shakespearean than practical. ”Don’t ask me to do this,” Dylan pleads, once it becomes clear that Norman only sees one way out. Even the camera’s slow pulling back, to reveal the warm domestic dinner-table scene of this trial, highlights the fundamentally theatrical nature of the potent conclusion. It’s a nice tactic to emphasize the way this series has always had an element of the stage, a grandiloquent leaning that shone through in everything from the injection of camp-level dramatics to Farmiga’s so-superbly-big-it-altered-the-axis-of-the-earth-at-times performance. One of the show’s finer legacies will be its sense of collaboration, the feeling that its writers and directors were always taking as many cues from the performances of Farmiga, Highmore, Carbonell, and Thieriot as was happening the other way around.
“There’s a cord between our hearts,” Norman said in the first episode, a sentiment played back to him repeatedly over the seasons. It’s a fitting title for the finale, too, as it works both as commentary and emotional bond. As Norma pointed out when Norman first said it to her, it’s a line stolen from Jane Eyre, and repurposed for the Bates family dynamic. Which is exactly what defined Bates Motel—it’s a show borrowed from a famous movie, a prequel story that takes the previous narrative’s basic contours and enriches them, turning fleeting tics in whole lives, and briefly referenced souls into living, breathing people. And like that Brontë-derived saying, it gives new meaning and depth to something that was the domain of another world entirely. Not only that, but it made this world its own, a world where Emma Decody could finally breathe, and everyone who watched could see events play out just as they should.
Sure, we all go a little mad sometimes, but even in our moments of false consciousness, we know there’s something behind our desires, keeping us tethered to this world. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing—it’s just life. And Bates Motel, during its final, beautiful moments, repurposed death as life. It showed beauty in inevitability, and peace in quiet acceptance of our existence as a series of tragic scenes punctuated by hope. Norman joined Norma at the end, their graves signifying the eternal union of these two forever flawed souls. But Norman’s is empty, devoid of the words heaping love and admiration on his mother, a sad reminder that his life was marred by disaster. This yin and yang, of too many adjectives permanently side-by-side with none at all, captures the essence of the Bates’ doomed relationship. And it elegantly contains, in its stark symbolism, the fundamental truth of larger-than-life art. Sometimes you go big, because going home will just end it all.
Finale grade: A
Season grade: B+
Series grade: A-
- “Dylan, please don’t ruin it!” This exhortation from Norman to his brother, during those last, desperate moments, was possibly the most heart-rending for me. It exposed his fragility so perfectly, even as it was delivered with his brittle, Norma-inspired conviction.
- Musical cues: Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” during the table setting was one of the best song uses of the series. As always, it was wildly on the nose, but in this case, such a perfect application of sentiment to setting. “You Belong To Me,” during Dylan’s arrival, was a bit more forced, but still worked in context. And then, damn: “Dream A Little Dream.” Do you think they were waiting for five long years to use that one? Or did I miss a previous instance in which the series deployed it?
- Check out my interview with Freddie Highmore, where he asks me if I thought Dylan went into the house planning to kill Norman. I don’t think he wanted to, but I definitely think he was ready for it. The phone call to Emma contained multitudes. I actually wrote three whole paragraphs about it, before cutting them and deciding I would just say this: Emma’s refusal to say she loved him, knowing what her husband was about to do, was maybe the most succinct summation of her character in all five seasons.
- Loved Norman’s playful dinging of the bell in the motel office when he heads down to open them up for business again.
- On a similar note, Dylan became such a superb character largely thanks to letting his innate goodness take over, rather than the snide bravado with which he began. Apologizing to the random woman in the bar (“I don’t mean to be a dick”) for not chatting with her as his world is collapsing captured that so well.
- Norma/n, to Romero: “Would it shock you to learn I’m not Norman?” At that point, Romero could only ignore what he (I think deep down) knew to be true.
- I have to stop here. I kept adding more and more observations, before realizing I had to quit for a reason: This is the first show I began reviewing for The A.V. Club several years ago. It’s also the first one I’ve had to say goodbye to, so it holds a very special place in my heart. This warm, weird, wonderful series will forever be a standout for me, so let’s all say it together, once more, for old times’ sake: Emmys for everyone!