A & E’s thriller Bates Motel makes for an engrossing hour of TV.  Developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano (with Cuse and Ehrin as co-showrunners), the show is a modern day prequel to the legendary movie Psycho.  The story brings together the unusual family dynamics between teenager Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), along with his mother (Vera Farmiga) and half-brother (Max Theiriot), and the shady activities of the local townspeople.  Though the premise of a present-day prequel leading up to +events in a movie from 1960 may be a bit hard to swallow, the show is so engaging that if one allows the suspension of disbelief for the timeline, the pay-off is a front row seat to the complex, disturbing, and sometimes poignant relationships between the main characters.   

Season one of Bates Motel kicked off in March 2013.  Recently widowed when her husband is killed in a freak accident, Norma Bates is looking for a fresh start for her and son Norman (yes, Norma and Norman).  The two move from Arizona to White Pine Bay, Oregon after Norma purchases an old, rundown motel.  From the start of the series we see the claustrophobic family dynamics between Norma and Norman, leaving Norman’s half-brother Dylan Massett (who shows up broke and homeless at the motel at the start of the season) as an outsider.  We also quickly come to realize all is not what it seems in quiet White Pine Bay.  

As the first season closes, many unseemly events will have occurred:  Norma will have killed the previous owner of the motel (Keith Summers, who breaks into the Bates’ home and rapes Norma), and she and Norman will have dumped the body in the bay;  The town’s sinister ways of continuing to prosper will be revealed (big surprise – it’s drugs), culminating in the public lynching and burning of a man in the town’s square;  Norman will meet a “good” girl (Emma Decody), but get seduced by a “bad” girl (Bradley Martin);  The local deputy sheriff (Zack Shelby) will have kept a girl chained in his basemen as a sex slave;  Dylan will have gotten a job in the drug trade business, and later will kill Shelby in order to save Norma and Norman;  It will be revealed Norman actually killed his father while witnessing him beat his mother, though he has no recollection of his actions;  Sheriff Alex Romero, initially leery of the Bates family, will help them by killing a man (Jake Abernathy) who attempts to extort money from Norma (that he mistakenly thinks she has);  And finally, Norman will leave his teacher’s home (Ms. Watson, who showed interest in Norman’s academic endeavors) while she lies on the floor with her throat slashed.  The storylines of Season one were sometimes all over the place, but the action was non-stop, and the performances were so mesmerizing that any flaws in the show were easy to overlook.  

Season two jumps out of the gate with just as much action:  In 2.1 “Gone but not Forgotten” Norma receives a phone call that Norman’s teacher Blair Watson has died.  Norma immediately seeks to find out what Norman might know about his teacher’s death.  Norman explains that Ms. Watson offered him a ride home from a school dance, but he can’t remember anything else.  Poor Norman suffers from blackouts – albeit somewhat conveniently, and has no recollection of the deadly events that take place around him.  Norma is concerned, and becomes quite alarmed when Norman weeps uncontrollably at Ms. Watson’s funeral.  From there, Norman seems to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with Ms. Watson’s death.     

Meanwhile, shallow Bradley – who broke Norman’s heart after their brief fling last season –   recently found out that her deceased dad was having an affair with Ms. Watson.  She is disgusted, disillusioned, and drinking heavily.  Severely depressed, she jumps off a bridge.   Within the first few minutes of the episode, already things are moving at a very fast pace. 

Fast forward four months later, and things seem to be looking up, at least for Norma.  Business is booming, the motel’s never looked better, Norma has a sassy new haircut, and she’s actually – happy.  Norman is spending his time on his taxidermy hobby (picked up last season and which included stuffing his own dead dog).  He’s been writing to Bradley in the mental hospital she’s remained in since being rescued from the river – still showing his support, even after being snubbed by her.  Enter Emma, who now works at the motel; She informs Norman that Bradley will be released from the hospital that very day, and hands Norman all his letters to Bradley that were returned unopened.  Poor Emma, she clearly has feelings for Norman, but he’s still pining for a girl who doesn’t want him.

Dylan is still living at Norma’s and offers to pay her rent, but Norma refuses it – she doesn’t want any tainted money (never mind that a lot of her recent business is from people working at the giant pot farm nearby).  Dylan was most interesting last year when he was engaging with his family (like, I don’t know – when he was shooting Shelby to protect them).  His side story regarding his involvement in the drug trade isn’t nearly as compelling, but Max Thieriot’s nuanced performance is still always fun to watch.

The show, though a thriller, does humor pretty well, and the driving lesson with Norman and Norma in this episode allows Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore’s chemistry to shine through.  This duo plays off each other so well no matter the tone, and this scene provides a lighter moment where Norman can be just a regular teenager exasperated by his overbearing mom.

While spending yet more time at the cemetery, Norman spies an unfamiliar man at Ms. Watson’ s grave, and is so upset about it that he goes to Sheriff Romero.  The Sheriff, however, seems much more interested in questioning Norman about the occasions he was at his teacher’s house.  Later, Romero warns Norma about Norman’s unhealthy obsession with his deceased teacher.  I loved Nestor Carbonell in Lost, and his subtle performance as the cunning, pessimistic sheriff of White Pine Bay is multi-layered.  Most of his actions are not exactly on the up and up (aka killing Jake Abernathy and covering up the truth behind his own deputy sheriff’s death last season).  Still, I find myself rooting for the guy.  

As the episode continues, Bradley finds out her dad and Gil Turner (one of the most influential players of the drug trade in the area) were both sleeping with Ms. Watson.  She confronts Dylan about the situation, and he reveals that Gil was responsible for her father’s death.  Filled with a need for revenge, she goes to Gil’s home under the pretense of seducing him, but instead, shoots him in the head.  After she does the deed, she goes to Norman, intent on taking advantage of his promise of friendship through any circumstances.   

Meanwhile, Norma attends a council meeting after finding out a bypass is set to be constructed that would detour traffic away from her business.  When one of the council members (Lee Berman) is condescending to her, Norma gives an over the top speech (that includes calling the guy a dick), accusing the whole town of illicit behavior.  It must be said over and over again: Vera Farmiga is outstanding in this role, and her delivery of such monologues that have become signature “Norma moments” for the character deliver some of the show’s best scenes.   

The season premiere was filled with action, humor, and excellent performances, and provided the set-up for future episodes.  With only 10 to each season, every storyline counts.   

Episode 2.2, called “Shadow of a Doubt” (a nod to Hitchcock) opens with Norman hiding Bradley in the basement.  She fully discloses what she has done, and Norman, though shocked and hesitant to get involved, agrees to help her.  It seems he’s able to summon some empathy for those who murder out of their own sense of warped justice.  In fact, he takes money from Dylan’s stash and makes plans so Bradley can disappear on an out-of-town bus.  

Meanwhile Dylan and his partner Remo go over to Gil’s house because they haven’t heard from him, and of course find what’s left of him on the couch.  When word gets out, everyone believes other rival drug runners killed Gil.  Another man is sent to take Gil’s place, lest they fall behind in their drug production activities.  The man’s name is Zane – a relative of the big drug boss – and he’s impulsive, high strung, and malicious.  He kills a guy who works for a rival drug family when the guy can’t provide any information about Gil’s death.    

Sheriff Romero investigates Gil’s murder, and questions the man Norman photographed at Ms. Watson’s grave.  It turns out the man is Nick Ford, and he happens to be a major player in the drug business (and rival to Zane, Gil, and their crew).  Like any good drug-running dad, he’s concerned that no arrests have been made in his daughter’s murder case.  Romero does arrest someone, though, when DNA evidence is found in Ms. Watson’s body belonging to a pothead named Kyle.  This doesn’t necessarily mean he killed her, and Sheriff Romero doesn’t seem convinced, but he knows he needs to close this case.  So Kyle will do.

Along other lines, Norma sees an advertisement for community theatre auditions, and decides she and Norman will try out.  Norma tells Norman it’s an activity they can do together, but it’s obvious, given his blackout on the night of his teacher’s death, that she also wants to keep a closer eye on her son.  

The scene with Norman and Norma singing “Mr. Sandman” provided yet another example of what Farmiga and Highmore can accomplish together.  Though mother and son have an unhealthy co-dependency, the lightness in their voices and obvious enjoyment of a shared moment makes their deep connection palpable, especially to a lonely Bradley, listening from the steps below.  It’s moments like this that make these two characters so absorbing in this story.  

Before the audition, Norma is making Norman’s bed and finds Ms. Watson’s pearls.  Now, last season Norman kept Keith Summers’ belt after he was killed.  Perhaps his teacher’s pearls are another souvenir?  Norma puts them back, scared over what her son might have done, and even more intent on going through with the theatre auditions.  

At the audition, the two are left waiting for their turn for hours, and Norman is in danger of being late to pick up Bradley.  He gets angry and storms out of the theatre, with Norma right on his heels.  The two then have an emotional showdown.  Norman says he is suffocating under their togetherness, but Norma responds that she only wants to protect him.  She also confronts him about the pearls.  Norma, as she always does, successfully manipulates Norman to get him to do what she wants.  Having chosen his mother over Bradley, but not wanting to abandon her escape plan, Norman calls Dylan, explains the whole story, and asks his brother to drive Bradley to the bus station. 

Inside the theatre, Norma belts out an acapella version of “Maybe This Time.”  Vera Farmiga shines once again, filling Norma’s rendition with such pain, sadness, and sincerity that whatever you think of Norma, you can’t help but feel for her in this moment.  

Dylan does end up getting Bradley on that bus – but whether driven to help his brother, or Bradley, or both – is unclear.  He also has Bradley write a suicide note so nobody will look for her.  We may see Bradley again, but for now, this storyline seems to have been wrapped up sufficiently.    

When Norma and Norman come back from the audition, Emma tells them an arrest was made in Ms. Watson’s murder.  Norma is completely relieved, and hopes that she and Norman can now move forward.  But the last moments of the episode show a man asking for directions to the motel.  It’s Norma’s brother Caleb – the same brother who Norma claimed (to Norman last season) sexually abused her for years when she was a young girl.  And the plot thickens.  

Though Season two is well underway and only has 10 episodes, I’ll be reviewing episodes 2.3 and 2.4 (together) next time. 

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