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- Episode: The Box (Season 2, Episode 9)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Kerry Ehrin, Carlton Cuse
- Directed By: Tucker Gates
- Network: A&E
- Studio: Universal
Bates Motel: The Box Review
Awkward situations lead to major reveals.
By Michael Henley
May 05, 2014
“The Box” is a superior episode of television: intense, stomach-churning, gripping. As Bates Motel prepares to close its second season next week, it’s so nice to see another peak in quality, bringing an already high seasonal average further into the stratosphere. This has been a wonderful season of television, period, and “The Box” has the tricky task of occupying the power position in this season: it has to bring major threads together, offer serious revelations, and depict crucial steps in the journeys these characters are going to be taking. And it does it wonderfully. In many ways, this is good as Bates Motel gets.
The smartest choice that “The Box” makes, dramatically, is to turn the screws to Norma Bates so tightly that the pressure becomes unbearable. It’s not enough that Nick Ford has kidnapped Norman to use as leverage against Norma and Dylan to murder Zane. She’s also commanded not to talk to Sherriff Romero, which is tricky, because Romero really wants to speak to her…and Norman. And when he’s stymied by her efforts, Romero drops the bombshell that Norman’s semen was found in Miss Watson, confronting Norma with the triple whammy that (a) Norman is sexually active (b) Norman had an affair with his teacher and (c) he probably killed her. And she has to hide this too from Romero, who doesn’t quite have the knowledge to put all of those pieces together. And Emma quits her job because she feels cut out of the family. And George grows impatient walks out on her. And Dylan isn’t exactly setting her mind at ease. Norma, here, is essentially attacked from all sides, as she is placed in the classic dramatic situation of the impossible position that slowly, inexorably, grows more and more impossible. It’s a device favored by the makers of many thrillers, including…wait for it…Hitchcock.
To talk about Vera Farmiga would be redundant at this point—let’s just accept that she gives an excellent performance this week, just like always (although one of my favorite Norma moments this week, which is when silent security cam footage of her shouting outside the drug warehouse cuts to the actual thing, is more an editing choice than anything else). In the episode’s key emotional scene, Norma leaves a desperate voicemail for Norman, already knowing his situation, saying that she loves him. They may very well be telegraphing Norma’s end, here, by the way, since “voicemail left by a loved one that becomes ironic after an untimely death” seems to be a trope that’s gaining momentum in Hollywood (I just rewatched The Amazing Spider-Man this weekend, which pulls an identical trick, so maybe that example is just fresh in my mind).
Nestor Carbonell is also superb, and I like the way that he gradually modulates his performance to one of increasing distrust, even after extending her the sympathy she needs when he uncomfortably brings the unsettling Norman news to her. And he also has no patience for Emma when she loudly complains that no one treats her like a person, absently and apathetically telling her to get some fresh air (it’s all in the delivery, but I loved that moment). And then, when Romero finally learns the truth, he’s so fed up with the lies that he registers annoyance at Norma’s pleas, which feels very authentic. (When she asks what he’s going to do and he hastily responds with “Please stop asking me that question,” it tells us a lot about how shaken he is).
Freddie Highmore is also, once again, superb, as he’s asked to perform an actor’s nightmare: shivering inside a silent, cold metal coffin, which leaks in the rain and seems to draw him further and further into a psychotic episode, one fueled by solitude, bad weather, endless quotation of Double Indemnity and a single cheap sandwich and water (the accomodations provided Norman are bracingly pathetic).
What instead happens is that Norman has a breakthrough, and discovers that he did kill Miss Watson, no ifs ands or buts. I like that in two seasons, Carlton Cuse and company have demonstrated that they’re not married to the mysteries in their mythology: if dramatically it makes sense to get an answer, we’ll get an answer. This is exciting, and it points the way to what’s certainly going to be an unpleasant confrontation between son and mother, given that Norman probably very well could blame Norma for the murder instead of himself (if only she hadn’t kept things from him, etc, etc).
We get another answer this week as well: is Dylan’s story finally going to fulfill a purpose? Indeed. Dylan’s another one who is abused beyond all measure this week. He takes seriously the threat on Norman’s life and approaches Jodi to get her blessing on taking out Zane. But fortune is sometimes funny. During a nicely tense sequence Zane, somehow aware of what’s going on, practically dares Dylan to try to kill him, and the boy cleverly deflects the suspicion and begins to plot to himself how he’s going to take out Nick Ford. This he eventually does, in a confrontation so close and visceral that it serves richly-needed poetic justice to Dylan, who wanted to join a drug empire but wanted desperately to keep his hands clean. Where this leaves Dylan within the company is uncertain, however. Did Jodi snitch him out to her brother? Will Zane still trust him? What’s going to happen? For once, when it comes to the drug storyline, I’m rather curious to know.
Tucker Gates does a tremendous job of laying on the tension thick this week, keying into the fact that, as a title, “The Box” actually describes all parties involved. Every character is presented with frightening stakes and limited options, and to see them practically up the walls as they close in has a hypnotic intensity. Bates Motel has always presented itself as a kind of twisted cautionary tale about severely damaged people, and it’s tremendous now to have a story that, in addition to rocketing every story strand towards a climax, also lets these characters discover and comprehend how cumulatively damaged they all are. And here’s another little detail I loved: Chris Bacon’s musical store, which during the box sequences sometimes utilizes electronic screeching that sounds like insects, just further cementing the disgusting nature of Norman’s makeshift prison.
“The Box” is not perfect, however. During a scene halfway through the episode, Norman attempts an escape, during which Miss Watson’s obituary and string of pearls tumble out of his pocket. The pearls we’ve seen before, and it makes sense as a token of Norman’s attachment to the crime scene. But why the obituary? I would say that it exists only so that Ford’s goons can quickly identify the import of all this and bring it to Ford’s attention…but nothing actually happens with that. He never confronts Norman about what he knows of his daughter’s death, and soon he’s dispatched by Dylan. So what’s really the point? Is it to remind us what Miss Watson looked like, to tee us up for the flashback sequence of sex and murder that follows? Perhaps. This sounds nitpicky, and it’s certainly not a dealbreaker in terms of the ultimate quality of the episode, but the usage of that obituary as a clunky plot device feels beneath the show’s normal level of strong writing.
Still, what a terrific episode. With a season finale upon us, I have little doubt that Bates is going to knock its second season ending out of the park. But I’m also fascinated to see where this is going to lead us. Is Norma on the way out? Where does Dylan go? Where do we go from here? With the double success of Bates and Hannibal on television, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the default stance on the pointlessness of prequels. Because if there’s one thing that Bates Motel doesn’t make me feel, it’s pointlessness.