Last night, A&E wrapped up the 4th season of their hit series BATES MOTEL in surprising and shocking fashion. Knowing that next year’s 5th season is intended to be its last makes sense considering how everything transpired and fell into place by this season’s conclusion. But since it was such a drastic departure from what we’d seen in the Anthony Perkins-fronted movie versions, we need to discuss.
Be warned – SPOILERS for both PSYCHO and the BATES MOTEL series will follow, so only continue if you’ve seen the movie and the series up until now!
Here we go…
What we learn from the original PSYCHO novel and film is that when we meet Norman, he is living out multiple personalities. He is the sweet, kind and awkward Norman Bates, but he also transforms into the insanely jealous murderous Mother, often when he comes across a woman that he has some sort of attraction to. His “Mother” persona was so pathologically jealous of him that she’d often take over and act out against the people he desired. From what we gather by the end of that story is that this double life was going on unbeknownst to anyone for years. There is mention of 2 missing people’s cases in Fairvale, California that can be linked back to Norman Bates.
The sequel movies touch briefly upon what happened in the events before PSYCHO, but it’s really PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING that shows us the entire prequel story of how Norman killed Mother. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out, especially now that Scream Factory is prepping a new special edition Blu-Ray release of it for the Fall. The biggest difference is the time and setting. In the movie-verse, these events take place somewhere in the mid-50’s. And so it’s fairly easy to see how that little motel could suddenly be lost to the world after the new highway was built. Also, the version of Mother we meet in PSYCHO IV (played by the gorgeous Olivia Hussey) is of a different time period. Repressed, manipulative, needy. Because the majority of their world was spent only with each other, Norma’s handling of Norman was extremely inappropriate, especially when it came to sexuality. And she’d put him in a dress and lock him in the closet. It’s very hard to determine if Norman’s case was a matter of nature or nurture, but it’s hard to argue that the way he was treated growing up didn’t factor heavily into what he became.
The show wisely opted to do something completely different, while still aiming to line up with the original PSYCHO movie at some point. It’s set in modern day. The motel and house are in Oregon. And Norman is most certainly mentally ill, often blacking out when performing his deeds, which started from the opening of the show and the mysterious death of his father. One of the earliest things we see way back in the pilot is Norma (Vera Farmiga) violently murdering a rapist with a kitchen knife. So yeah, technically, the Mother of the show is a murderer whereas movie mom never actually killed anyone. The relationship between modern day Norman and Norma is so much more complex and intricate than we’ve ever glimpsed in the movies. Going into the show, we knew it was inevitable. At some point, Norman is meant to kill Mother and take her place. The question has been how? And when?
The 4th season of BATES MOTEL has to be the absolute best one they’ve produced thus far. There are many great aspects of the previous 3 seasons. The show was always at its strongest when it focused on the core relationship between Norman and Mother. Adding his brother Dylan to the mix, the fragile best friend Emma and even Norma’s estranged brother Caleb (aka Dylan’s dad) made for some interesting and, dare I say, sleazy fun storytelling. The only diversions were the town drug trade storylines that really didn’t fit into the overall story of the Bates family. Sure it gave Dylan something to do, and it gave us a sense of who Sheriff Romero was and how he was tied directly into the town, but was a lot of it there simply to try to riff on that TWIN PEAKS weirdness vibe? Regardless, with the clock ticking and the 5th season positioned to be the last, we had to get to the inevitable soon, right? And thankfully, season 4 dropped all the drug trade nonsense and focused solely on Norman and Mother.
At the top of the season, we see Norman go full-on Mother, murder Emma’s mom and lose his temper quite a bit at Norma for trying to imply that he’s responsible. I was quite shocked that they committed him (literally) so quickly in the show. But the brilliance in Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of Norman is that, although it’s fairly obvious he’s completely off his rocker, he manages to convince his doctors that he’s OK. And he goes home only to discover his Mother has married and fallen in love with Sheriff Romero. It was intended only to be a faux wedding for insurance purposes, but the chemistry between Norma and Alex became a genuine romance. And we all knew it couldn’t possibly end well.
So, here’s the kicker… Much to our surprise. Norman killed Mother in an attempted suicide/murder plot to gas the house in last week’s episode. When the finale opens, sure enough… Norma is gone. The entire finale episode dealt with the aftermath of her death. Norman is going through the motions of arranging her funeral, meanwhile thinking the entire time that it’s all a ploy to fool the world so that they can be together again in private. Alex Romero is off the deep end and he knows Norman was responsible. The odd thing is that last week’s episode felt like a traditional season finale, whereas this week’s felt more like a new beginning.
While I loved this season and this last episode, it felt like a quick wrap up to get us right into PSYCHO.
That’s right, according to quotes from series creator and writer Carlton Cuse, Season Five will focus on telling their version of PSYCHO and even introduce Marion Crane for a multi-episode arc. They promise that they will not be just recreating the film, but doing their own version of it. And quite frankly, I’m beyond excited for it. In the same way that HANNIBAL very successfully told a new backstory combining elements from all of the Thomas Harris novels and then weaving effortlessly into the RED DRAGON story for the back end of Season 3 was an excellent way to reinterpret a story we’ve already seen adapted twice. Same goes for BATES MOTEL. We already got the shot for shot remake. Now we’ve got 4 seasons worth of investment in these characters to draw from when we get the actual PSYCHO story.
Downsides to last night’s finale? It felt abrupt just jumping right into PSYCHO, something that most fans speculated would be the finale for the series, itself. Kind of like the last 5 minutes of STAR WARS EPISODE 3: REVENGE OF THE SITH where all of a sudden, the movie says “hey, we almost forgot to connect this to the original movies!” Dylan has moved with Emma to Seattle and has no idea that Norma is dead. Instead, Norman tells him that it’s best they don’t ever speak again. Romero is arrested by the FBI on a kind of B.S. rap. Is this to set up the arrival of Sheriff Chambers from the movie? The question now is, will these characters be back for season 5? I hope so. I think the strength of Season 4 will rest on how it fits into the overall series in context.
Now the thing I loved about this finale is it really shows us how sad it is to be Norman Bates. We’ve heard the backstory. We’ve seen it interpreted in the movie sequels. But the horrific elements of the case – the fact that at some point, Norman had to have dug up his mother for her to be perched up there in her bedroom window was something I never really considered. Watching Norman wander aimlessly around the empty house, and then actually dig up his mother had a strange sense of melancholy to it. At one point, with her corpse on their couch, Norman glues her eyelids back so she can look at him. Her dead lifeless eyes staring back at him has to be both the most disturbing and most depressing thing the show has shown us yet. It’ll be fascinating to see where they pick up upon Season 5’s return.
Regardless, Season 4 proved just how great the prequel story for Norman Bates could be. And by God, if Freddie Highmore doesn’t win an Emmy for his work, there is no justice. But either way, we’ll be eagerly awaiting his return next March!