Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farming in BATES MOTEL. (copyright 2013)
If you’ve seen the movie PSYCHO, you know what becomes of Norman Bates. The television series BATES MOTEL, which just wrapped up its season four finale Monday, May 16, is moving closer and closer to that conclusion, now that his mom is out of the picture. But throughout the run of the series so far, Norman has been presented as a very sympathetic character, even a tragic one. Sometimes it seemed as if they were rewriting him into a more self-aware and savvy young man, and therefore more relatable character, even giving viewers hope that he could escape his controlling mother Norma in a reasonable and legal way. That is not to be. The door of such possibilities irrevocably closed this past Monday when it was revealed that Norman successfully offed his mom, and on top of that, he robbed her grave to ensure she stayed by his side in that big Gothic house on the hill. Norman can never be normal now.

Such plotting now sets up season five to essentially pick up where the 1960 classic film started. Norman, free of his mother and any questions of guilt since the authorities think her death was a carbon monoxide accident, is now unaccountable to anyone. The young man is now left to his own devices, and one of them is a convenient coping mechanism that splits his personality in two. One is a functioning, rational human being, while the other is psychotic and capable of rage and homicide that lends the series its horror. And when he’s sexually aroused, the warped side of Norman turns into his cold scold of a mom to thwart any couplings that could ensue. There are momma's boys and then there are momma's boys

Norman’s breakdown was inevitable, as teased at from the start of its narrative on Monday nights four years ago, as he has always been victimized by the cold, cruel world around him. His abusive father beat both son and wife. Norma, in attempts to overcompensate and protect him, turned into a controlling banshee, a woman who always put the mother in smother. And when she moved to the sleepy village of White Pine Bay, Oregon, any chance at finding better role models went dark as quickly as Norman’s frequent blackouts. The town was filled with corruption from its drug trade and cops on the take, and Norman had no one really looking out for him in a proper way. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it took this village to completely ruin one too.

Comparatively, Norman almost seemed moral. At least his serial killer tendencies happened when he wasn’t himself. But from his mother to the town sheriff, no one around him was exactly upstanding. Quite the contrary. Norma (Vera Farmiga) led Norman (Freddie Highmore) by example, always lying, conning, finagling the truth for her own benefit. To protect her image, she started actively ignoring evidence that Norman was a serial killer. Norma was never above bamboozling, flirting or stealing to get her way and assert her rights as a parent, citizen or woman.

And when she married the dirty, on-the-take Sheriff Romano (Nestor Carbonell) out of convenience, it formed a wedge between Norman and the only true relationship he enjoyed in the community. And his jealousy helped seal her homicidal fate. If Norman couldn’t have her, no one could. So he closed all the vents in the house, cranked up the faulty furnace, and let the gas lull her into a permanent sleep. The townsfolk have been so inundated with so much skullduggery, no one thought to make much out of it. Except for Romano, who had always suspected that Norman was capable of murder, and now he feared the wayward son orchestrated his new bride's death. 

But just as he was about to solve the crime in the season finale, he was arrested by the Feds for being on the take. The twisted love story of Norman and his mother would now be exclusive with no outside interference. The fact that Norma is dead hardly mattered to the fantasy side of Norman's brain. To ensure the relationship continued, he dug up her grave as to keep her in the house for old time's sake. He even pasted her eyes open to keep up appearances. Norma might have appreciated such a thing. She was always about appearances. 

Still, the series has never laughed at this duo despite such satirical leanings. Instead, they’ve let Farmiga and Highmore add tremendous amounts of warmth and nuance to their characters, making this beasts into recognizable human beings despite their ginormous flaws. Every slight that Norma encountered, from not being able to make ends meet with her motel business, to trying to attract a man, made you sympathize with her despite her manipulative tendencies. 

And Highmore has always allowed his Bates to be quite lovable. While no one can ever erase Anthony Perkins’ iconic ownership of the role, Highmore approached it from a calmer and more contemplative state. Audiences so wanted him to have a loving relationship with the smart and sensitive teenage Emma (Olivia Cooke), that it was easy to look past that every moment in their courtship was courting disaster. And when she shifted her affections to Norman’s equally sensitive stepbrother Dylan (Max Thieriot), our hearts broke for Norman. Yes, we still feared for her safety, but Highmore made Norman seem more relatable than a killer should be. The monster is in every man, is what his performance was saying. And it's a brilliant one, certainly worthy of an Emmy this September. 

So now that the storytelling has caught up with the movie, where exactly will Norman go from here? The producers of the show are on the record committed to introducing their version of the Marion Crane character in season five that Janet Leigh played in the original movie. It will be interesting to see how closely they stick to the original source material with her addition. Will she come in for one hour of the season, about the same amount of time that Leigh enjoyed in the big screen version? Or will her story play out over the entire 10-episode season? And what of that infamous shower? Will the show attempt to find a new angle to have Marion cut to ribbons? Will they find a new way for Norman to do away with her without losing our sympathies? We shall see.

Ultimately, it will be fascinating to see where this coming season takes the popular A & E franchise because the show has always played up the tragedy more than the horror or dark comedy inherent in the story. True, its season four finale of BATES MOTEL featured a hilariously macabre scene as Norman struggled in a Blake Edwards sort of way to unload Norma’s corpse from the car. We may have smiled there, or even laughed, but Norman is still our conduit, and if anything, we're pulled in too close to him. We practically want him to get away with it all. And we truly want him to be happy. After all he's endured, that would be a welcome respite.

Never was wanting him to know some joy more evident than in the final scene this year. Norman was so grief stricken about his mother's demise, and in having to go on without her, that he put a revolver into his mouth. But then his coping mechanism of fantasy kicked in and allowed him to put the revolver down. He heard his mother playing the piano downstairs. And when he visited the parlor, his imagination rendered it all decked out for Christmas. Norma was too, looking radiant as she plunked out “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the keys. Norman joined her for the tune, along with his imagined pooch Juno, and together the three of them created a picture perfect Hallmark card moment in his mind. 

In Norman’s head at least, he can find happiness. Just how long remains to be seen as the big, ugly environment of White Pine Bay will likely crash his party sooner than later. But for now, Norman has his mom’s corpse, his stuffed dog, and their love and adoration is incredibly real to him. Who needs real family, friends or even motel guests, when one’s head is already so populated?

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