The thing about Bates Motel is even when its story fell short at times, the acting was always so mesmerizing that it made the show immensely watchable. But when the story flowed, well, then the show was up there with some of the best. Such was the case with the last half of Season three, as the troubled but sweet Norman spiraled down into psychosis. Now, in Season four and with his psychosis in full swing, Norman is simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking to watch. But as “A Danger to Himself and Others” illustrated, that makes for a very compelling combination.
The episode opens in a visually creepy way, with Sheriff Romero dumping the body of Bob Paris (who he shot last season) into a hole in a boat, letting the whole thing sink, and then quietly rowing away as Paris disappears into a dark watery nothingness. It was a great opener, and set the stage for the uneasiness that would permeate the rest of the episode.
Norman, fresh from his Bradley kill, apparently blacked out and wakes up in a field. When a farmer comes by to lend a hand and Norman starts arguing with an invisible “mother,” it’s clear that Norman can no longer be separated in any way from Norma. He will most likely now either imagine her or personify her, and it’s all very unsettling.
Norman is taken to a psychiatric ward and strapped to a gurney. The scene in the county hospital was very well done, depicting the over populated and understaffed facility, and illuminating Norman’s increasing panic as he yells for his mother. But Norma is back at home – in a state of panic herself – searching for Norman with the help of Dylan, who’s hanging flyers of his missing brother around town.
Norma makes her “go to” move by visiting Romero, asking him to pull some strings to get Norman released. When Norma is in trouble, the sheriff is always the first person she seeks out. But Romero can’t help – and it’s good to see that his character’s dry, sarcastic humor is still in full force “Norma, I’m not magical,” he deadpans.
Norma goes to Pineview and wants Norman put there immediately. But things don’t work that way at the posh institue: She’ll need a doctor’s diagnosis and there’s a waiting list a thousand miles long. On the way out and desperate, Norma propositions a doctor with sexual favors if he’ll see Norman (turns out he’s gay, but he gives Norma his card). One thing you can always count on with Norma is her impulsivity in difficult situations.
Meanwhile, Dylan goes to Portland to be with Emma when she wakes up from her lung transplant surgery. Emma’s father is also waiting, but when Emma’s mother shows up, Will Decody badgers her into leaving the hospital. Emma comes out of the surgery well, and Dylan goes to see her. Though the interaction between the two is brief (and Emma is on a ventilator so can’t speak), they’re still sweet together. I really hope Dylan and Emma get a happily ever after. Someone ultimately has to, and we know it won’t be Norma or Norman.
Norma is finally allowed to pick up Norman from the hospital, but first she has to get scolded one more time by the doctor, who says that either Norma set up psychiatric help for Norman, or social services will step in and commit Norman. At last Norman and Norma are reunited, and as they cling to each other in the psych ward corridors, it’s very clear how dangerous their love is for both of them. But just as Norma is coming to the right kind of realizations about Norman, her son is straying so far from reality that at this point, he probably can’t return.
When the two are together back at the Bates home, a seemingly every day, normal activity of a mom trimming her son’s hair becomes just another example of their twisted relationship. Norman is soaking in Norma with every fiber of his being. When Norma tells Norman he will need to see a doctor, his adamant reaction that he can’t ever be separated from her again is very telling to Norma. It leaves her anxious, and when Norman reveals his “dream” that Norma killed Bradley, that anxiety morphs into dread.
Emma’s mother Audrey books a room at The Bates Motel, which will be a fateful decision. Later, she asks Norma to deliver a note to Emma, but Norma doesn’t want to get involved. She has enough to worry about right now. When Audrey asks to speak to Norman, Norma gets agitated and tells Audrey to pack her bags and leave. And really, Audrey should have listened.
Mother and son spend the night together cuddling in the same bed, but then Norma slips out to go beg Romero to marry her so she could have health insurance. Romero is indignant at the request, but Norma doesn’t see the problem, stating, “It’s not like you’re doing anything else.” But try as she might, Norma just doesn’t seem to be able to manipulate to get her own way in this episode. It was kind of refreshing, actually.
Norman, meanwhile, dons Norma’s robe and has transformed yet again into “mother.” This is the persona he is the most comfortable in now. The more he does it, the more Norman fades away. Freddie Highmore is incredible here, channeling the essence of Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of Norma with such effortlessness it was downright eerie.
When Audrey makes the terrible mistake of going up to the Bates house to talk to Norman, “Mother” answers the door. Audrey must not have any Spidey sense, because she doesn’t run for her life when she starts talking to Norman. Audrey explains why she left Emma at a young age (Emma’s father was abusive), but “Mother” judges Audrey harshly for abandoning her daughter. The sentence turns out to be death, as Norman – in the form of “Mother” – strangles Audrey with her own scarf.
This episode was tense and unsettling, with amazing acting from the whole cast; It had everything you could want from a season opener. My only criticism is that they may be moving a bit too fast – it looks like we’re already seeing Norman as the “psycho” from the movies. Norman has now committed two murders back to back, he’s pretty much broken from reality, he’s close to being institutionalized – and we’re only at the first episode of the season. Of course, the writers only have 19 more episodes (in two seasons) to tell this story (Executive Producers Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse have stated Season five will be the last), so the pacing may be just right. But will watching Norman in this psychotic state for that many episodes be too much of a good thing? It’s possible, but I trust these writers with their well-established five year plan.
The stage is now set for what’s to come. Ultimately, this is a tragedy – albeit a fascinating one -to watch unfold. Throughout the last three seasons, I found myself hoping for a different ending for Norman and Norma, because despite their dysfunction, they have tried to be good people, and let’s face it – they can never catch a break. I’m pretty certain, however, there will be no happy ending. Norman and Norma are destined for a chaotic, tangled, horrifying spiral downward – with catastrophic results. And viewers will be witness to it all.