If I had to state a theme for this week’s slow-burn creepy installment of Bates Motel, it would be “characters seizing control of their lives, with painful results.” Granted, some of the angles the episode takes are more oblique than others, but I do think a genuine through-line of newfound proactivity links the various subplots together. The episode on a whole is a lot of table-setting for future installments, but framed in a way that gives decent attention to character, which is the best way to conduct a milder entry in a serial drama like this one.
Curiously for an episode titled “A Boy And His Dog,” there is only one real plot that involves a boy and his dog, and the boy is Norman and the dog is already dead, as we saw last week. Norman takes the dog corpse to Emma’s father, the town taxidermist, and we see Norman clearly has a budding fascination for the art of taxidermy, which isn’t quite as creepy as it sounds. The taxidermy scenes are in fact a stage for some surprisingly genuine and heartfelt scenes between Norman, Emma’s father and eventually Emma herself, and although Norma expresses doubt that this is a healthy place for Norman to be (and she’s probably right), it does a good job of building character.
Emma also ventures into some development of her own this episode, as she overhears three girls in the bathroom mocking Norman’s interest in Bradley, and then punctures the girls’ smugness with a few well-chosen put-downs, for which the girls lack an appropriate comeback. This one scene did a lot to address my earlier issues of everyone at school seeming to accept Norman, while at the same time not venturing too far into cartoonish “mean girl” territory. Unfortunately, in the middle of her defense of Norman, Emma does let out the fact that Bradley and Norman had sex. Oops.
Not much is really done with this, however, because everyone’s reactions to it are curiously dulled. Bradley pops up for one scene and expresses disappointment that Norman told Emma to begin with, and she says it puts her in an awkward situation, but it doesn’t actually seem like she’s angry, or nervous, or anything more than mildly put out. And that’s it for Bradley this week. Norman confronts Emma about the situation, and also that she clearly told Norma about him and Bradley last week (boy, what a blabbermouth that Emma is), but Norman doesn’t actually seem upset or annoyed or anything, and when Emma eventually apologizes, there’s just no real emotional moment that’s allowed to land. I’m not asking for Gossip Girl-style soap theatrics on Bates Motel, but high schoolers are usually more dramatic than this, and as it stands, this whole plotline felt like wheel spinning, because nothing ever felt like it was at stake.
So, we’ve already said that the high school stuff is not Bates Motel’s strength. How about Dylan and his illegal adventures in the drug trade? Kind of a mixed bag. It’s harvesting season, and so it’s Dylan and his partner Danny’s job to travel upstate and bring back a group of sorta-hippies as “trimmers,” people who will cut the marijuana down to appropriate levels. It’s an overnight road trip for both men, and halfway through a drunken Danny mouths off to Dylan about the young man’s sudden promotion and his own resentment of moving down the ladder, which results in one of those drunken fistfights where by the end both men are laughing at themselves, in a cliché that feels borrowed from a buddy cop movie. There’s also an oblique reference made to “the real man in charge” of the drug operation, which Danny declines to reveal, because whoo, a mystery. Though I must say, if you were to pick any character on the show and assign them this title, would it come as a shock? Okay, maybe the taxidermist would be a stretch, but that’s it.
Later, Dylan gets to wield a little power when Danny warns him that one of their passengers is trouble, a warning which Dylan first ignores but then eventually ejects the guy en route, almost as if to keep his partner happy (which it does). In description, there’s nothing really special about this moment, but the shot where Dylan puts a gun to the head of a cranky, washed-up flower child with a guitar in his hand is a little bracing, and really sold by the performances, even though I’m unsure what this means in the long run.
The star player in tonight’s shenanigans was once again Norma Bates, who is struggling to make moves against the planned bypass that will make the motel an afterthought. She makes a calculated plea to Sherriff Romero that blows up in her face when he coldly puts lie to any perceived connection she thinks they have, and evenly shoots her down. This is a well-acted scene by both Nestor Carbonell (sorely missed every time he’s not on screen on this show) and Vera Farmiga, and Farmiga now seems to have it figured out pretty well that the best way to make Norma Bates interesting is to make her desperate.
Not helping her desperation are Norman’s antics at school, unconvincing as they are. One of Norman’s teachers sees the tepid argument he has with Bradley and becomes concerned, even moreso when Norman tries to walk home and slaps the teacher’s hand away. Certainly for someone who is practiced in seeing teens act out, this counts as a pretty unremarkable example, yes? Apparently not, because she and the principal corner Norma into taking him to a therapist, and at the session Norma frantically tries to micro-manage every exchange, frightened that Norman will say something that he really shouldn’t.
Mr. Abernathy in Room 9 beefs up the vague sense of menace he gave last week, by playing those games favored by cruel movie sociopaths where he makes tiny social transgressions and then immediately undercuts them. Eventually, a suspicious Norma follows him to the dock, which is when Mr. Abernathy decides to quit playing around and start making threats, asking for Norma to deliver a vague “something,” all the while making sinister insinuations about both Mr. Summers and Deputy Shelby, which rightfully enrages Norma. She eventually steels herself and throws out Abernathy, which will probably be a mistake. In fact, just as things are turning around for Norma (Dylan drives up to the property with a vanload of guests, although whether it was always the plan for them to stay at the motel was unclear), a discovers a desiccated corpse lying in her bed, probably planted by Mr. Abernathy, but you never know.
The Abernathy plot is the best of the episode, as it’s genuinely creepy and offers a really strong guest turn by Jere Burns. It also nicely turns the screws to Norma by firmly establishing that she can’t necessarily trust the law to protect her, having been on the wrong side of it just a little too often already. “A Boy And His Dog” (seriously, why was it titled that?) is more a connective tissue than a crucial piece of the evolving story, but on those terms, it’s an okay piece of work, with some nice themes and some tantalizing clues for what’s to come.