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- Episode: Caleb (Season 2, Episode 3)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Alexandra Cunningham
- Directed By: Lodge Kerrigan
- Network: A&E
- Studio: Universal
Bates Motel: Caleb Review
By Michael Henley
March 21, 2014
Vera Farmiga on Bates Motel
“Caleb” is a pretty solid hour of television that ends with a real surprise of a twist. It’s the good kind of twist, one that after it’s revealed you (a) reflect that it makes a certain amount of sense and (b) slap yourself for not seeing it coming. I like it when a show can do this. I love it when you get the rug pulled out from under you, and then can look back and see that, in a way, they told you they would. I’m less an admirer of twists than I am of the carpentry and structure that support twists, which is probably why I still admire The Sixth Sense—that movie certainly crushes you with a startling endgame, but it’s arguably a fairly-played one.
The episode’s secret involves the relationship between Norma, Dylan and the mysterious stranger who we met last week. Actually, he’s not that mysterious…heck, his name is this week’s title. As soon as Caleb (Kenny Johnson) arrives on the motel property he bumps into Dylan and introduces himself as Norma’s brother. Dylan, ever-wary, pries a little more information out of him, and before long he’s invited into the house. When Norma comes home and sees him there, she violently throws Caleb out of the house, tells Dylan to stay out of it and generally is on edge in her own home for the rest of the episode. We remember last season that Norma revealed to Norman that her brother raped her as a child to appeal to Norman’s sympathy. Did we take her at her word? It’s heavy stuff for her to throw around, but she’s not above falsely throwing it. Certainly the altercation between her and Caleb fits either that of a victim finally telling off her long-standing attacker, or perhaps a compulsive liar trying to stave off sudden truth. Maybe.
Dylan, because he knows Norma, instantly starts to question her behavior—though curiosity certainly influences him, it’s probably also in no small part due to the fact that he’s already written off Norma as permanently, hopelessly erratic. Also, to be fair, he’s a little on edge, what with him and Remo earlier that day discovering two dead co-workers—murdered, probably, by their competition. In a small touch that I liked, both men notice the crows circling the crime scene and approach with severe (armed) caution—I like it in crime stories when lowlifes notice their surroundings and aren’t stupid.
So, anyway, when Dylan goes into town and is approached by Caleb, the young man uneasily accepts his invitation to a drink, which turns into a real eye-opener. Caleb discusses business opportunities that diverted him in Costa Rica—ones involving a property sale that he needs to make good on—and Dylan’s face falls, either out of (a) jealousy that someone with the Bates name could come close to actually making something honest and glamorous out of themselves or (b) suspicion that this going to turn into a plea for funds. The plea doesn’t come. But Caleb eventually loosens up about Norma’s distaste, and skillfully spins a story about both his sister and himself being victims of abuse at their father’s hand. Dylan, shaken, gives his full confidence in the man and also gives a big wad of cash.
Here’s where this bit is really clever in its attempt to confuse us. We remember Norma’s claim. We don’t know what the truth is, but we suspect that one way or the other, this man is a liar. The episode very quietly dramatizes Dylan being disillusioned with this guy, and you can see him hardening a little bit—whatever happens, he’s not going to offer money. But then he’s distracted by the tale of abuse, believably. His guilt piles up and he does offer money. Classic con artistry. All the while, we’re yelling at Dylan not to give this guy money. He does, We understand why he does, but we don’t want him to. And we’re also trying to marry this to Norma’s former revelation of abuse—if she was telling the truth. And we wait for the reveal that Caleb is a grifter, and he’s long gone.
Except no. In a fraught, climactic confrontation with Norma, Dylan sticks up for the man, and then Norma snaps and reiterates the rape claim. Dylan, tired of Norma’s constant manipulation and lies, doesn’t believe this and practically takes his frustration out on her, until Norman comes home and pulls Dylan off of Norma and onto himself. Norma can’t figure a way to end the scuffle until she blurts out “He can’t help it. It’s his father!” Cut to OMG-flavored black.
If this is true (and I’m guessing it is), this is a shock that makes a lot of sense. It adds a layer to Norma’s behavior and attitude towards Dylan for every moment up till now, and it proves that every once in a while, she manipulates by actually being honest. And it also recolors our impression of the two men’s drink together, as it now signifies a rapist trying to cozy up next to his son born out of incest…a rapist who’s either lost in a gross fog of self-delusion or just repulsively deceitful. It changes how we look at the mention of money. It changes our estimation of the man’s intelligence; it’s possible he’s been able to read his own son from minute one. And it’s the kind of thing that—pure speculation here—Dylan is probably not going to take very well. Nicely done, show.
There are subplots this week, as well, that neatly bounce off each other. In the first, Norma makes friends with last week’s theater director (who apologizes to Norma that she didn’t get the South Pacific lead). It’s nice to see Norma finding a female her own age to enjoy the company of, and it’s worthwhile to get an outside-the-regulars perspective on where Norma fits in with the town (Not well, it turns out, as some still associate her and the motel with the deputy’s messy murder last year). She’s invited to a classy garden party, where she’s awkward but still manages to charm a few. She meets a nice guy (Michael Vartan) and there are sparks. And she meets Miss Watson’s father and finds in him an ally in her attempt to stop the bypass from being built. For such a shut-in, Norma gets a few solid stamps in her social butterfly card this week.
In fact, the kids do as well. Norma’s garden party is smartly intercut with a teen gathering on the beach, organized by Emma to ostensibly honor Bradley’s death, which soon degrades into an aimless kegger. Emma is less than torn up about it, since she only staged the thing to make amends for not feeling much sorrow at Bradley’s “death.” And her solution is drinking with a cute guy, because when you’re a teenager, sometimes that’s just the way it is.
Norman, meanwhile, gets better acquainted with the checkout girl from last week, Cody (Paloma Kwiatkowski). When Norman is tempted to quit his chorus part in the show because Norma didn’t get in, Cody successfully persuades him to become part of the tech crew like her. What she sees in Norman is so far a bit of a mystery, but not a problematic one, and I can see what Norman sees in her. I buy their relationship, and I buy her. She has a scrappy, punkish vibe that you’d absolutely believe as a part of a theater stage crew.
Norman becomes a third wheel at the beach party after she (unsuccessfully) tries to push a gay boy in his direction. Instead of chemistry brewing, she makes out with the kid himself, leaving Norman alone and forlorn. Nonetheless, it’s Norman who walks Cody home, during which he calls her out on the orientation of her friend. I’m not sure if it’s out of character or not for Norman to be able to pick up that astutely on social cues, but I admire the show’s effort to challenge our opinion of Norman, to suggest he’s more perceptive than we might think (and the way he bashfully deflects Cody’s suspicion that he’s gay is so charming that I’ll allow it). The two end the episode on a unresolved, flirtatious note. Watch this space for further developments, most certainly.
Three episodes in, and Bates Motel is showing itself to be tighter, shrewder, and more involving than last year. It’s still dark and twisted (as it should be), but the plot points feel more organically tied to the characters, and the characters themselves more developed, more rich, more rewarding. I like how all that feels.