Bates Motel: Who’s Afraid of Norman Bates?
The other day, while I was walking my dog, I came across a dead bird laying the middle of the alleyway near my family home. Apparently it had collided with the windowpane of an office building and then fallen to the pavement. It must have happened only moments before my arrival, as the animal’s carcass was flawlessly intact – as if only sleeping. In the sunlight, the green coloration to its tiny form looked as vibrant as a bird in flight and the feathers had yet to lose their luster to the process of decomposition which would soon take hold. There it lay, beautiful and fragile and entirely dead. For a brief instance, I wanted more than anything to somehow rescue this creature from the coming rot; to hold back the decay and preserve it perfectly beyond the reach of time. And in that moment, I knew what it meant to be Norman Bates.
Similar to NBC’s new series Hannibal, A&E’s Bates Motel is a long-format television prequel of an indescribably influential horror film which has become part of the iconography of the movies. Although both series rightly strike us as a semi-convincing forgery of another filmmaker’s work, both are also indebted to an unconventional crime series from twenty years ago: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. In Hannibal, the Lynchian elements are easy to recognize in the surrealistic dream sequences that assist an FBI agent Will Graham in profiling violent murderers. Bates Motel has fewer stylish dream encounters but the setting and tone of the series, with its mix of high school heartache and corpses wrapped in plastic, is very much in the realm of the Laura Palmer tragedy. In the pilot episode, Norma Bates and her son Norman move to the small community of White Pine Bay, Oregon to start over after the ‘accidental’ death of Norman’s father. Norma purchases the ominous-looking motel and imagines the small town to be the perfectly wholesome place for her and her son to begin a new life together, but not all is as it seems in White Pine Bay. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that the town’s economy is as hollowed out as a taxidermy barn owl and the community is dependent on the cultivation and harvesting of fields upon fields of less-than-legal plants in the surrounding forests. But that’s just be beginning. As the season goes on, it becomes clear that the previous owner of the Bates Motel was involved with the town’s criminal element and the rooms there where used as a holding facility in human trafficking operation which forces young women in sexual slavery. Add into this the communal desperation caused by plans to build a new highway which would bypass White Pine Bay entirely and Bates Motel, like Twin Peaks before it, lures us in with the deceptively peaceful facade of a small town with too many secrets.
The shadow of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large over the Bates Motel, which means even the most commonplace verbal exchanges take on a darker meaning known only to us viewers, like when Norman innocently says “I love you too, mom.” Other lines from the Psycho have been dropped here and there to make sure we are paying attention; “Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies”, “We all go a little mad sometimes” and of course “A boy’s best friend is his mother”. With the dramatic irony of a horrific predetermined endpoint, Bates Motel quickly becomes a saga of missed opportunities. If only Norman had moved out with his step-brother. If only the popular girl at school had been nicer to him. If only Mother Bates hadn’t said exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Every personal failure, every social embarrassment in the series is imbued with an ominous significance because, as we already know, each minor rejection suffered by Norman Bates brings him one step closer to his matricidal destiny.
The most surprising thing about Bates Motel is how unnervingly normal Norman and his mother appear to be, aside from the glaring issues of oedipal lust lurking in every aspect their relationship. Young Norman Bates is played by Freddie Highmore, who is best known for playing the title role in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). He is shy, sheltered, emotionally sensitive and socially awkward as you would expect. However, the show portrays Norman as fundamentally well-intentioned and caring – which will make it all the more fascinating to watch him slowly turn into a monster. In the series, Norman’s mother isn’t the boney old schoolmarm one imagines her to be from watching Psycho. Played by Vera Farmiga, Mrs. Norma Bates has been re-imagined in the age of the cougar as a single, attractive, sexually confident middle-aged woman who is prone to passive-aggression and overprotective parenting. In this depiction, the series offers a clever reversal of expectations. What would be scarier than encountering Mother Bates as the castrating, smothering she-demon we likely anticipated? More terrifying than this is to instead find her as something much more ordinary: a caring mother who fails her son. In Bates Motel, tragedy of the Norman and Mother Bates isn’t that of a hateful or abusive parent as suggested in Psycho, rather it’s the tragedy of a deeply flawed yet loving bond between mother and son that will inevitably ruin both their lives – and also cost a number motel guests theirs.
This new version of Norma Bates isn’t actually that new. In Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) Mother Bates is played by Olivia Hussey and, through a series of flashbacks, we realize she was actually quite a looker in life before being metamorphosed into a decrepit old lady in the mind of Norman after her murder. In that film young Norman’s close relationship with his mother is threatened when she has a new lover move in with them and, unable to adjust to the changes, Norman eventually murders them both by poisoning their post-intercourse lemonade. Bates Motel uses some of these ideas but to much better effect. Midway through the season, Norma is dating handsome sheriff’s deputy Zack Shelby while her son Norma has somehow managed to attract the interest of the prettiest girl at his high school. In scenes that are simultaneously troubling and darkly amusing, mother and son both become jealous of the other’s new sexual relationship and, in separate instances, both Norman and his mother wait up past midnight to confront the other about arriving so home late.
This Monday night is the season finale of Bates Motel and, judging from the plotline thus far, it appears that the worst of Norman’s crimes will remain on the horizon for now. A&E has already renewed show for a second season but, as the first season comes to an end, I am growing concerned about the snail’s pace of Norman’s dark metamorphosis. Moving at this rate we are unlikely to see Norman sew up his mother’s preserved corpse until sometime in season six, and I shudder to think about the amount of distractions and delays that will be necessary to keep the series from reaching its endgame prematurely. The season’s most interesting episode is probably the pilot because it focused entirely on the relationship between Norman and his mother, before the show’s attention was split amongst its supporting cast. In the pilot, the previous owner of the motel breaks into the Bates’ new home and sexually assaults Norma while her son has snuck out to see a girl. When Norman comes home, he witnesses the rape and subdues the perpetrator, allowing Norma the chance to stab her attacker to death with a kitchen knife. Together Norman and his mother clean up the crime scene and dispose of body but, unseen by Mrs. Bates, Norman secretly keeps a memento from the horrific event that will likely incriminate them both. For me, this particular origin story is a well-engineered retrofit onto to the saga of Norman Bates because it links him, his mother and the motel together in violence and death – and it also establishes a basis Norman’s delusion that he is covering up for his mother’s crimes, even after her death. A Hitchcock purist would argue that a genesis of Norman Bates is entirely irrelevant and it is the apparent lack of motivation that makes Psycho so disturbing and fascinating. But, that being said, it is the irreversible process of becoming that makes Bates Motel perversely gratifying to watch.