Right now, BATES MOTEL is my favorite show on television. (Keep in mind, though, that I watch a lot of TV, so this changes weekly — sometimes daily.) I have been watching it from the start. It went downhill in season two, but has been getting consistently better. Season four has been the best season yet.
It is criminal that Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore have not been recognized for Emmys. Farmiga has to play through an incredible number of emotions as Norma, often in one scene, and she does a stunning job with it. More than that, though, is the intricate performance Highmore gives week after week as Norman.
Norman Bates has got to be a tough character to portray. You have a lot to live up to with Anthony Perkins. The thing that I have always admired about Highmore’s portrayal is the way he can shift his mental state. It is so subtle: sometimes just the tilt of his head or the shine in his eyes to indicate if he has slipped into his fugue state or become his mother. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the end of season four, when Norman, enraged to learn that his mother’s sudden marriage was not just a business arrangement, stomps outside to chop wood and burn off some anger. When his stepfather, Alex, confronts him, Norman holds the axe up menacingly, and Alex legitimately thinks he may strike him with it. Astute viewers will recognize that Norman is still Norman at this point; unable to hurt a fly, much less his stepfather. Sure enough, Norman drops the axe harmlessly and leaves.
One of the things that I have been most impressed with is how the show has handled mental illness this year. Norman clearly has some problems, but Norma had a hard time dealing with it. When the situation became more dire, she finally did what she had to to get Norman into therapy. I appreciate that Norman isn’t treated as a “monster.” Yes, he does some monstrous things, but clearly he needs help. He is struggling, just as anyone with blackouts and dissociative disorders might. By the end of the season, Norman realizes Pineview is the right place for him to be, and he genuinely wants to be there, to get help. Of course, things go sideways, as they always do in television.
BATES MOTEL is interesting in that you know where all the characters are going to end up. The penultimate episode, in which Norman attempts to kill both himself and his mother, doesn’t leave much mystery. You know that Norma has to die at some point; why not now? And you know Norman doesn’t die. Yet that scene was heart wrenching as Norma’s husband, Alex, sobs over her. After all the shit Norma has been through over the last four seasons, she and Alex seemed to really have something good, and Norma was genuinely happy. I feel like the finale was actually a bit of a let down after the emotional high of Norma’s death. Norman, understandably, has little emotion over her death, believing that she will return to him. Of course, she does — but not until after Norman has stopped taking his antipsychotic drugs.
One of the joys of having a complex — though demented — main character is that death is not the end for Norma, for Vera Farmiga. She is still alive and well in Norman’s mind, as we see in the final minutes of the season finale. As series producer Carlton Cruse said in an interview, “Vera will still be at the top of the call sheet.” I appreciate that the producers are not trying to trick us into thinking that Norma survived, only to discover later that she really did die and was only living in Norman’s head all this time. I hate it when shows do that because it is painfully obvious and I feel like it insults the intelligence of the audience.
So where will next season go? Clearly, Alex is not done dealing with Norman, but hopefully by the time the DEA is done with him, the murderous rage will have dwindled. Dylan is going to have to learn about Norma’s death at some point, and I suspect that won’t go over well. Dylan will probably redouble his efforts to get Norman committed, which will only further the rift between the brothers. I actually think that Norman, now the sole custodian of Norma and her memory, will even out — at least for a little while. He was remarkably within his right mind after her death (except of course stealing her corpse). Sure, he will be talking to himself all the time, but with the undivided attention of his mother, he is probably less likely to kill. As time goes on, it is going to be harder for Norman to maintain his fantasy life, and that is going to be what sends him over the edge.
Season five will be the final season, and showrunners Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin promise that Norman goes Psycho. Marion Crane will appear in “multiple episodes” but it will be their own telling of the Psycho story. Some events will intersect, but the producers promise it won’t be a retread of the film.