Bates Motel 3.6 “Norma Louise” (written by Kerry Ehrin) delivered a frenetically paced story that dug into the complicated psychology of all of its major players. The result gave us an emotional and exceptionally powerful hour of television, and quite possibly, the series’ best episode yet.
The rapid pace of this episode is set right from the very start: Norman is shown tearing the kitchen apart, completely unglued without his mother, Norma is sobbing as she drives, attempting to escape her own anguish, and Dylan is frantically and repeatedly calling his mother, very aware that he isn’t equipped to deal with the current situation. Close by, Romero is completing his grocery shopping, and as he is minding his own business walking to his car, someone tries to kill him. And that’s all before the title sequence! It was very jarring, but in the most exciting of ways, and it was clear the show was sending us a message from the get go to strap ourselves in for a wild ride.
This episode also employed a clock in the corner of the screen that marked the timeline of these events, illustrating how things were escalating in a very short period of time. It effectively ramped up the tension – I found myself getting nervous as I saw the hours go by, without even knowing why. I guess I expected at some undisclosed hour something terrible would happen. So it seems that in addition to probing into the psychology of the characters, the show was playing around with the viewing audience’s as well.
After shooting her phone to stop the incessant calls from Dylan (which is such a Norma thing to do), Norma tries to forget who she is by buying some provocative new clothing and trading in her car. The scene at the car lot was reminiscent of the one in the movie Psycho, and the similarities between two women who were hastily trying to get away from one life to start another (but who were obviously doomed to fail) was hard to ignore.
When Norma finally collapses on a motel bed (it was also hard to ignore the physical similarities between the young man behind the motel desk and Norman), she’s exhausted – and much to her dismay, her past has followed her. The flashback of Norma and Caleb as children didn’t tell us anything new, but showing us two small kids cowering under a porch as their parents raged at one another was emotionally effective; It allowed the audience to empathize with what both characters have gone through in the past – and helped explain in a visceral way how broken they still are now.
Back at the Bates house, poor Dylan is feeling overwhelmed with the task of trying to keep Norman calm. He’s still calling Norma (though she won’t get the calls since she put several bullets in her phone), apologizing and pleading with her to come home, even calling her “mom.” It gets me every time Dylan says that, since it only happens when he’s really vulnerable.
Dylan does his best to console his little brother, but Norman is sure Norma is never returning home, because he knows too well this is her modus operandi. Even’s Dylan’s reassurance that “You’re different. She’s not going to leave you,” doesn’t convince Norman. He’s losing his grip on reality, and deep down he knows it, even commenting how strange he feels. Dylan thinks it’s probably because he had to hit Norman (knocking him out) to stop his tirade. But what Dylan doesn’t know is that things are about to get much, much stranger.
Meanwhile, Alex wakes up in the hospital and is immediately his agitated self, yelling at the nurse and demanding his cell phone. I loved the shot of the monitor showing his heart rate going from 70 to 100 in just a few seconds as he nervously fumbles with his phone to warn Norma of the new danger. It’s this show’s attention to details like that which makes it so much fun to watch.
Alex was actually right to worry, because one of Bob Paris’ men trails Norma the entire time she’s gone, even after she ditches her car. He never gets the opportunity to do anything, though, since Norma is moving in and out of places too quickly. One of those places is a bar, where Norma gets way too drunk and much too friendly with a stranger, weaving a tale about walking out on her wedding, then going out to the guy’s truck and getting in way over her head. She gets away from the guy pretty quickly, but I have to wonder what she was thinking; Norma always courts danger then is incredulous when things spiral out of control.
Emma finally gets to be useful when she volunteers to stay the night in the Bates House after Dylan informs her of the chaos transpiring there. Emma’s commitment to the whole family is honorable and unwavering (if a little naïve). Norman hasn’t treated her that well lately, but it doesn’t stop her from being there for him (and Dylan) in a time of need. But given the bird’s eye view of Norman’s mind that she’s been recently been privy to, Emma might be neglecting her own self-preservation in the name of being helpful.
Dylan not only has his hands full with Norman, but he’s still in the middle of severe family strife with Norma and Caleb too. With Emma watching over Norman, Dylan goes to Caleb and tells him he has to leave. Caleb understands, but he’s still devastated. Watching a dad and son – messed up though they may be – say goodbye to one another before they ever got the chance to have a real relationship was very sad, but you can’t blame Dylan for trying to do damage control. He’s desperate to hold onto whatever family he’s got, even if that means turning his back on his father.
After a violent nightmare, Norman tries to soothe himself with his taxidermy, but after a tangle with what he thinks is a live pigeon and exacerbated by his barking dog (which in actuality has long been dead and stuffed in his room), he has another blackout. And this time it’s a doozy. Dylan and Emma find him and bring him upstairs to rest in his mother’s bed. Norman’s basically catatonic, not even blinking when Emma has a coughing fit. So instead, Dylan looks after her, which definitely leads to something significant.
After Dylan bangs on Emma’s chest to loosen all the junk, allowing her to cough it up and breathe freely, their mutual yearning to be a part of the Bates family provides a moment of deep emotional connection. The scene was very intimate – but not in a romantic way. As the two gazed at each other, it was clear that they both completely understood how the other was feeling.
Weary and despondent, Norma calls Dr. Finnigan, deducing that at this point, he may be the only one who can help her. At his house, she finally unburdens herself about Norman, at last revealing the secret about Norman killing his father – though she stops short of telling him about Blair Watson. She breaks down afterwards, shocked by her own openness, but the doctor is gentle and reassuring, even carrying Norma upstairs to sleep it all off. This guy initially seemed creepy, but he turned out to be good for Norma emotionally, a safe person to confide in without consequences. But that isn’t enough for Norma – she needs the sexual encounter. Given her past, though, and the way her emotions were all over the place in this episode, it’s not surprising that she would crave physical intimacy to comfort herself.
Back at the hospital, Romero gets a visit from Marcus Young, who offers to save Romero’s life (lest Paris murder him to get him out of the way) in exchange for Romero doing Young’s dirty work when Young becomes county sheriff. But Romero has never taken threats lying down, so clad in his flimsy hospital gown, he goes out to the parking garage, uses his IV pole as a battering ram, and pumps Marcus Young full of bullet holes. It was shocking, yet given what we know about Romero, not all that surprising. He lives by his own moral code. And I’m sure before long, he’ll also take care of Paris.
The climax of this frenzied episode happens in the Bates house – of course – when Dylan finds Norman in the kitchen cooking up a storm – wearing Norma’s robe and embodying his mother. It was smart of Dylan to play along so as not to agitate his brother, but the devastated look on Dylan’s face as Norman – aka Norma – flits around making French toast and telling Dylan to wake up “Norman” illustrated his heartbreaking realization of how fractured his brother’s mind has become.
When dawn breaks and Norman is finally sleeping soundly in his mother’s bed, an exhausted Dylan lies down next to him. As Dylan looks over at his brother, we can feel his pain. This episode was so effective at showing the inner turmoil of every character, strategically placing the viewer in each of their shoes, that it was easy to share in Dylan’s emotional weariness.
Morning also brings a realization for Norma: she will relent about Caleb for the sake of her children. When Finnigan questions how healthy that decision will be for Norma, she snaps, “I hear you, but I can’t take care of myself. I’m a mother.” She calls up the book The Giving Tree, likening parenthood to ending up like the stump of a tree. As a mom, I can see where she’s coming from – but in Norma’s case, giving every ounce of herself while ignoring the potential consequences of that choice will ultimately lead to Norman’s downfall and Norma’s own demise.
Norma and her sons end up at the farm (and I love Dylan’s kid-like response of “I don’t want to go!” when a furious Norma orders them into the car), where Norma and Caleb finally come face to face. What follows is one of the series’ most heartbreaking scenes: Caleb falls at Norma’s feet, sobbing and begging for her forgiveness. Seeing her brother’s sincere contrition overwhelms Norma, and in a colossal act of forgiveness, she embraces her brother. Dylan sees it all – at last getting his family reunion. But someone else has seen in all, too. And there in the background, stands a very displeased Norman.
This was an outstanding episode, with impeccable writing and truly astounding performances from the cast. It had everything – explosive pace, sharp dialogue, plot-forwarding movement, and rich, compelling character exploration. It was just completely impressive on so many levels.
All of our characters are now left in really interesting places. And each one (perhaps with the exception of Emma) is at a major crossroads. The storylines are all intersecting, and everything seems to be coming to a head. Going into the last few episodes of a season, that’s exactly where you want to be. Bates Motel Season Three is proving itself to be exceptional television.