DVD Review: Bates Motel
At first glance, the premise of Bates Motel sounds like a horrible idea covered in creative bankruptcy with a side order of bad taste. A prequel series to Psycho, set in the present day, featuring a teenage Norman Bates, with Norman’s relationship with his mother at the center of the show? Viewers unfamiliar with the series may be excused for rolling their eyes in disbelief, wondering if Alfred Hitchcock is turning in his grave (actually, Hitchcock was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean).
Bates Motel could have been a horrible series. It therefore comes as a shock to discover that the first season is really good, the second season is also enjoyable though less focused, and the third season is arguably the best yet. The third season is not the recommended place to start watching the show, since the unfolding narrative requires the series to be seen from the beginning.
As the series opens, a recently widowed Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) moves her son Norman (Freddie Highmore) to a small, deceptively pleasant-seeming Oregon town to run a motel. Soon, Norma’s other son, Norman’s troubled half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot), comes to town; Norman becomes best friends with Emma (Olivia Cooke), a sweet classmate with cystic fibrosis, and the Bates family develops an uneasy partnership with the town’s mysterious sheriff, Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell).
Over the course of the first couple of seasons, many ancillary characters die, it is revealed that the town’s economy is based on marijuana, and Norma has to battle a freeway redesign that would leave her motel isolated. Wisely, the third season abandons much of the teen drama that filled the first two seasons, as the high school setting is jettisoned, and the focus shifts to Norman’s declining mental state. In the first two seasons, Norman was a nice kid when he wasn’t suffering from blackouts that left him committing acts of violence he couldn’t remember. In the third season, Norman’s dynamics with all of the characters are shaken up as he grows moodier and his grasp on reality becomes increasingly tenuous. In the earlier seasons, it always seemed that Norman might be curable if he only got the proper mental help. By season three, fans who have come to care about all the characters may be disturbed to realize that Norman’s sanity is quickly slipping away past the point of no return. Though there are many murders, part of the suspense comes from the fact that the viewer is often unsure whether or not Norman is responsible for the deaths until several episodes later.
The main reason the series works is because the actors are terrific. Vera Farmiga remains the show’s MVP as Norma Bates. People who have seen Psycho might expect the mother of Norman Bates to be a monster, but the series cleverly subverts these suppositions by making her caring, sympathetic, and horribly damaged. Norma’s troubled past has been gradually revealed over the course of the series, and her relationship with Norman pivots frequently between nurturing and stifling. Psycho tells us how their relationship ends, and the viewer anticipates that tragic finale at the series’ end with fear and dread.
Bates Motel could have been a horrible disaster, but it turned out to be a terrific series filled with really interesting characters, moored by one of the most brilliantly dysfunctional familial relationships in recent memory.
Bates Motel: Season Three