The Season Three premiere of Bates Motel, titled “A Death in the Family” gave viewers a solid episode that clearly showed us Norman Bates is inching ever closer to Hitchcock’s terrifying version of the character.
As the episode opens, we see Norma and Norman waking up – together – having slept in the same bed. Right from the get go, viewers are made aware that things between mother and son have gotten more intense and vastly more inappropriate. When Norma goes down stairs to make breakfast for Dylan, he very bluntly tells her that an 18 year old Norman should not be sleeping in the same bed as his mother. Norma gets a bit defensive, but she also lets Dylan know she understands his point. It seems Norma and Dylan have grown closer as well – though in a more appropriate way – as a result of Norma’s heartfelt apology and reconciliation with her son last season.
While Norman is reluctantly getting ready for the first day of senior year (having spent a sheltered summer at home with his mother), Norma receives a phone call from a lawyer stating her mother has died, and Norma is entitled to some money from the estate. But Norma is not interested in anything having to do with her estranged mother, so she immediately cuts the guy off and hangs up. The way she tells Norman about his grandmother’s death is so classic Norma: “Oh, by the way, my mother died. Here’s your lunch,” and then a few moments later, “I got a call this morning. Yep, she’s dead.” After two years, Vera Farmiga has gotten very comfortable with Norma’s frazzled, matter-of-fact eccentricities, and she nailed this scene – and every other one in this episode.
When Norman and Norma pull up to the school, Norman is adamant about not going inside. Having none of it, Norma pulls another classic stunt and physically drags him out of the car. For an awkward, mentally disturbed 18 year old boy who is already dreading school, this is agonizing. To make matters worse, as soon as Norman enters the building, he’s greeted by a big memorial of his dead teacher, Ms. Watson.
As Norman eats lunch alone (with Emma nowhere in sight), he hears a friendly voice. It’s Ms. Watson – or at least a hallucination of her created by Norman’s fragile mind. At first the visit is all smiles and poetry, until Ms. Watson’s slashed throat starts dripping blood onto Norman’s hand. Completely terrified, Norman runs out of the school, racing toward the safety of the motel. Poor Norman. He’s having PTSD from the murder he most likely committed.
Meanwhile, the drug sub-plot that formed the less interesting part of Season Two makes another appearance here, as the DEA comes into town, burning all the marijuana fields and making lots of arrests. Sheriff Romero is not happy about it, but he becomes even more troubled when he goes to talk to Dylan about reorganizing and taking over a new drug operation and Dylan refuses. It seems Dylan wants to go legitimate, getting some land and a legal permit to grow just enough marijuana to make a small living, helping people with real medical conditions along the way. Romero warns Dylan that he won’t be protected any longer should he go this route. And we know it’s probably true. Anytime a character has a dream (even if it involves a marijuana field) we know trouble is just around the corner.
When Norman is back at the motel and comfortably in the arms of his mother (literally), a new face arrives at the motel. Enter Annika Johnson (Revolution’s Tracy Spiridakos), a beautiful and confident stranger. Norman is immediately attracted to her. The two hit it off, sharing a bit of their pasts and discussing Annika’s job as an – escort of sorts – to wealthy men at parties. This new information about Annika seems to draw Norman to her even more.
The episode also sees a return of Caleb, Norma’s brother and Dylan’s uncle – and father. He follows Dylan on a deserted road in order to talk to him in private and give him money from Dylan’s grandmother’s estate – which is a bizarre way of trying to connect with a reluctant family member. Dylan sees it that way too, greeting Caleb with a gun and ordering him out of town. The next morning, Dylan sees Caleb broken down on the side of the road, and being the good guy that he really is, consents to drive him to an auto parts store so Caleb can get a part for his van. But Dylan refuses to engage in small talk like the two are friends. Caleb, however, does do some talking- boy does he ever – admitting to being Dylan’s father and describing how dysfunctional Caleb’s mother and father were and how isolated Norma and Caleb were because of it. He sadly tells Dylan, “There was no place safe for us. Except with each other.” I’m sorry but – yuck.
Even after Caleb gets the needed parts for his van, he shows up at the cabin (where Gunner, Emma’s love interest from last season is trying to scrounge up a job working for Dylan). Caleb’s spiel is that he has no family left and he just wants to spend a little time with Dylan. There may be some truth to that, but he’s still being manipulative in trying to worm his way into Dylan’s life, even suggesting they keep his arrival secret from Norma. I can only imagine Norma’s wrath if and when she finds out.
This episode also shows us a different, less innocent Norman than the one from last season. This Norman is quicker to anger and more possessive over Norma. When the two are cuddling in bed (that’s icky even to write), and Norma suggests Norman go sleep in his own room, Norman gets visibly angry. Once he finds out it was Dylan that caused him to be kicked out of his mother’s room, his possessiveness of his mother and his jealousy over his brother was on full display. It’s easy to see there will eventually be a face-off between the half siblings. But the evening wasn’t a total loss for Norman. He may not have been able to spoon with his mother, but she did decide he could be home schooled and promoted to motel manager.
We get a bit more of Romero in the hour when some locals come down on him for allowing the DEA to come in and burn their source of income. As one talks tough about kicking Romero’s ass, Romero grabs the guy’s head and bashes his face against the bar counter. That’s what has always been so great about Romero. He doesn’t mince words, he just acts. The drug storyline has given his character something to do, but it’s when he’s paired up with the Bates family (like in the last episode of Season Two) that he becomes even more layered and interesting.
We finally have Emma in a scene, when Norman runs into her at the front office and tells her about his new job and home schooling situation. Emma then gives Norman the sad news that her lung capacity has diminished. Norman suggests she do home schooling too, and just like that (I guess Emma’s invisible dad lets her make decisions like this on her own), she says yes. Norman also has another suggestion: He thinks he and Emma should date, because “it’s just time.” This pairing was two seasons in the making, and it’s pretty obvious that Emma represents what is sane about Norman; she may very well be his only chance at living a normal life. But knowing where we are most likely headed in the narrative, things don’t bode well for Emma.
Dylan and Norma spend a bit of time together, where she confides to her son about her mentally unbalanced mother, at least corroborating Caleb’s version of the woman. It actually says a lot about Dylan and Norma’s relationship that she would discuss such personal subject matter with him, and the gentleness between them made for a touching scene. Max Thieriot compliments Vera Farmiga’s emotive performance really well, and his talent has always been showcased best when he gets to be entangled with his family instead of stuck in drug war side plots.
We see more of Norman’s growing creepiness in action when (after chasing a raccoon out of their yard) he takes advantage of an open window to peer at Annika while she gets undressed for a shower. An obvious nod to Hitchcock’s brilliant shower scene in Psycho, this moment was a standout in the episode, made even more so by Freddie Highmore’s penetrating gaze, the menacing angle of the shot, and the ominous musical score. The uncomfortable factor was tripled when Norman’s mother actually caught Norman peeping and dragged him up to the house.
Later, Norman hears Norma crying in her room and finds himself on the bed again with his mother. Norma is mourning her own mother’s death, or more specifically – mourning the loss of a mother/daughter relationship that she never had. Finding comfort in Norman’s presence, Norma slides over to make room for her son, disregarding the decision she made earlier. When Norman sarcastically remarks “I thought we weren’t doing that anymore” (making it sound like they were doing something even weirder than they were), she even goes so far as to manipulate him into staying there, using her grief as an excuse. When Norman smiles and teasingly says “Move over you silly woman.” It was actually squirm inducing.
The next night, just when Norman and Emma are working out their homeschooling schedule and their dating life, Annika walks in, asking for directions to a restaurant. Instead of just writing them down, Norman jumps at the chance to show her personally. It’s clear Emma is hurt by Norman’s actions, but he’s too busy lusting after Annika to notice.
While Norman and Annika are driving, she starts providing little details about her job, and as she talks of bodies moving together, Norman looks like a starving man about to bite into a steak. The last scene of the episode shows Norman pulling up to the motel in Annika’s car – only Annika isn’t with him. The question is, did Norman’s mother’s voice tell him to do something very bad?
Overall, the premiere effectively set the stage for what’s to come this year. We’re already seeing a different Norman this season – one who’s more unraveled than ever, and one who has a much more intense, possessive relationship with Norma. It’s clear that any sexual feelings Norman has are twisted by his perception of his disapproving mother. But Norman’s warped perspective can’t fall entirely on Norma’s shoulders, though she certainly walks a fine line with being inappropriate with her own son. But considering the childhood Norma had, and her relationship with her own brother, she was kind of doomed from the start. And clearly, Norman has some issue of his own, whether genetic or something else. It’s interesting that Norma has a much more normal relationship with Dylan. And even though he’s the product of a completely dysfunctional, incestuous relationship, he turned out pretty healthy.
If last season focused on Norman coming to understand something was wrong with him, then this season seems to take the direction of him almost embracing it – or at least giving in to it. The big question now becomes, who will get caught in the crossfire of his rapidly deteriorating mind? Judging from the previews, it will be a wild ride.
This show isn’t super popular, but it has two of the best actors on television with Farmiga and Highmore (and the supporting players are excellent as well) and is a fascinating (though sometimes uncomfortable) psychological exploration of the complexities of the human mind. More people should be watching. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing how Norman descends into the full-fledged Psycho we know he will eventually become.