How Bates Motel Proved Me Wrong and Why You Should Be Watching
I first heard of “Bates Motel” back in 2012, around the time it was ordered to series by its parent network A&E. I can honestly say my reaction was nothing short of dismissive. A TV prequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made, Psycho? “A terrible idea,” I said. A serialized show detailing the formative years of Norman Bates, played so iconically by Anthony Perkins? “It’ll never work,” said I.
Yet, here we are staring down the barrel of the show’s fifth and final season (it kicks off tonight), heading well and truly into Psycho territory, and I have absolutely no reservations in proclaiming, “I was wrong.” Not just “Well, it’s actually not that bad” wrong, but “This is a great show and one of the best horror stories on TV right now” wrong.
Over the course of the four seasons we’ve experienced thus far, the show has gone from strength to strength. Getting better with each passing season, “Bates Motel” has given us the downward spiral of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) as some sort of operatic tragedy, played off against the complex relationship between Norman and his troubled mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga).
In order to stretch this across so many hours of TV, we have had numerous subplots and side characters, some of which have been more successful than others. But that’s fine because they have always worked towards fleshing out both the characters and the world of “Bates Motel,” making Norman’s tale resonate even more once the big story points are reached.
Another reason the extended canvas has worked is the effective setting of White Pine Bay, a “Twin Peaks”-esque small town of diners, drug deals gone bad, town meetings, and an endless supply of barely hidden secrets. The impact of the infamous Bates house and its accompanying motel goes without saying.
One particularly successful example of “Bates Motel” and its larger world is the character of Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell). He went from possible adversary to the Bates family to uneasy ally until finally falling in love with Norma just before her untimely death. This provides us with yet another three-dimensional character to be invested in aside from Norman and his mother and adds a further layer of complexity surrounding the issue of her death and the ongoing fallout from that in Season 5.
The true power of “Bates Motel,” however, lies with that core relationship of Norman and Norma Bates, particularly through two incredible performances by Freddie Highmore and a justly rewarded Vera Farmiga. She elevates every scene she’s in, chewing scenery in the best possible way to create a character who is so many things: sympathetic, frightening, strong, vulnerable, funny, manipulative. I could go on.
Highmore had perhaps the toughest job, taking on one of cinema’s most iconic characters. But he’s proven himself to be more than up to the task, providing that same nervous energy Perkins did nearly 50 years ago. Perhaps even more successfully than Perkins, Highmore replicates the balancing act of being able to illicit both sympathy and fear from the audience.
Watching Norman’s awkward social interactions followed by an explosive outburst speaks to the true potential of this show being realised. With this Norman, because we’ve spent so much time with him and seen him on different levels, we are that much more conflicted when we see him strangling someone to death whilst wearing his mother’s gown, believing himself to be her.
That mother-son relationship has been compelling from the beginning, ranging from controlling, uncomfortable and unhealthy to loving, content, and profound. Often all at once. This culminated in the shocking climax of last year’s Season 4, the strongest run yet. Norman finally committed the act of matricide the show had been building towards all along, but by this point the boy and his mother had already become one and the same. They are together forever. It was stirring, epic television that took an already strong show to another level entirely.
“Bates Motel” is, amongst many other things, a horror show. There are some truly great moments of horror peppered throughout the seasons, not least the aforementioned final two episodes of Season 4. Watching Norman glue the eyelids of his mother’s corpse open so she can look at him is a personal favourite of mine.
Aside from this, “Bates Motel” has painted itself predominantly as something else – a tragedy. In giving us the backstory of Norman and those around him, it has justified the very premise that evoked such ridicule from myself five years ago. As the final season brings the bigger picture together, combining Psycho’s fine horror with “Bates Motel’s” own tragic and profound spin, I salute a great piece of horror TV. Being wrong never felt so good.