Mania Grade: B-
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- Episode: Check-Out (Season 2, Episode 4)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Liz Tigelaar
- Directed By: John David Coles
- Network: A&E
- Studio: Universal
Bates Motel: Check Out Review
The kids repress memories while Norma has a nice meal.
By Michael Henley
March 28, 2014
Bates Motel: Check Out Review
“Check Out” is the weakest so far of Bates Motel’s second season. That’s not a very damning criticism, however, because after three episodes of pretty much all-cylinders-firing storytelling, we can forgive a little lapse. The biggest problem with “Check Out” is that it directly follows an episode of earthshattering importance by being…okay, I guess. A little trite, a little flat, a little uninspired. Nothing alarming, really, just a slight disappointment.
The strongest material this week is ironically the stuff that takes the longest to reveal itself. This would be the plot involving Norman, who might have added one more to his kill count. Not that we’ll really miss that sleazebag Caleb, but still, the violent scene where Norman confronts his mother’s rapist in his shabby motel room and starts parroting the words of Norma is one of the series’ most disturbing for its implications. That’s the real dramatic fire in this lumpy hour – by comparison, the final scenes, where he is picked up by Cody in a catatonic state, feel old hat and dull. (And the mechanics here, which depend upon Cody earlier writing her phone number on Norman’s forearm, are creaky as hell.)
That dynamic of the old with the bracingly new defines much of Norman’s storyline in “Check-Out.” We get notes that are repeats of ones the show has played in the past. Examples: Norman seeing his mother in a state of undress and lingering in an unwholesome way. Norma and Norman embrace during a dark moment and solidify their “us-against-the-world” mentality. Norman very deliberately makes an enemy of someone who is emotionally terrorizing his mother. Amid all this, however, we get the moments where Norman seems to be internalizing his own mother’s feelings as his own, literally repeating her words in order to krazy glue his fractured psyche together. And all of this is punctuated by flashes of sexual imagery starring his young mother and uncle that feverishly inform the way that Freddie Highmore nicely underplays the material.
Above all, this is interesting. All the more because we kinda know people like this. I don’t mean murderers, of course, I mean people who co-opt others’ pains to fill some need within their soul. As human beings we have a tremendous capacity to sympathize with others (kinda like we’re all doing for a fictional character right now), but that trait can certainly be taken too far. Norman has picked a fight that maybe needed fighting, but it’s key that he doesn’t present himself as his mother’s champion…he replays her dialogue and claims it for his own, essentially taking revenge on a man who wronged him. Which technically might be correct, since his mother’s scarred personality is definitely responsible for his own, but still I think we can all safely agree this isn’t healthy, murder aside, and it nicely prefigures how some time in the future, Norman will add to the idea of borrowing his mother’s emotions by…completing the ensemble, let’s say.
Here’s a directing touch I really liked this week: Caleb’s motel is your standard multi-level big booming business, nicely echoing the economic fear that drives Norma’s actions. And it’s bathed in unnatural, hellish reds with just a patch of green near Caleb’s door, an evocation of Christmas colors that recall the warmth of family, a notion that is practically parodied by the person that Norman meets there. And, of course, the overly red aesthetic of the motor lodge plays off the cool blues of the Bates Motel sign, casting all the action here as if it’s in some sort of bizarre parallel universe.
The other threads this week are of lesser interest. That involves Dylan, surprisingly, who got so much of the heavy lifting last week. Here he’s burdened with some iffy storytelling and dialogue that seriously clangs to the floor. In a trick that serialized shows always pull that I never like, we pick up not immediately after Norma’s midnight kitchen revelation but instead the next morning, where Dylan has drunk himself into a stupor and parked himself in the motel lot. We seriously wonder what Dylan possibly could have said to Norma as he walked out the night before, but when Dylan wakes up our satisfaction is satiated by some dull, obvious dialogue that Max Theirot, capable actor that he is, isn’t able to save.
I think what really irritates about the Dylan subplot is that it’s a lot of telling and no showing. There’s interesting narrative juice in the story of a troubled man who learns he is the product of incest and rape. There’s real soul searching and existentialism there, and even the way he prioritizes his own pain over Norma’s is interesting, making a tidy parallel to Norman’s going through this week. But for all the work the story does trying to position Dylan’s journey as one of questioning his identity, there’s no subtlety to any of it, as it’s all delivered in bundles of ham-fisted dialogue. The single best moment of the whole thing is when Dylan, heart-breakingly, asks his mother “Why did you have me?” Powerful moment. Tellingly, it devolves into shapeless histrionics shortly thereafter. What should be a moment that has huge ramifications for Dylan simply turns into a new topic for him to whine about.
The ladies, Norma and Emma, are stuck in romance subplots this week. I love a good romance as much as anyone, but there’s just not much here. Norma is set up on a date with Michael Vartan, who turns out to be the nicest guy, because of course he is. He’s Michael Vartan. They go out to a nice double date dinner, the topic of the bypass comes up again, Norma shrugs it off, Vartan apologizes on behalf of a rude friend…it’s just plain vanilla and there. While Vera Farmiga excels at delivering little throwaway glances that hint at Norma’s barely-suppressed problems, not much really happens. But man, that Michael Vartan is dreamy. There’s no way he’s turn out to be an evil creep, of course.
Meanwhile, Emma wakes up in bed with the cute guy she whisked away with last week, and then later awkwardly approaches him and asks if they drunkenly had sex. The guy reveals that they did not, and Emma says she’s “relieved,” which wounds the boy’s pride, even though Emma is clearly expressing relief that she didn’t have a sex-soaked blackout, not disgust at the mere thought of ever hooking up with him. I know teen feelings are sensitive things, but come on, guy. Use your head. Emma’s improbably charmed by this kid, even though he’s already lost points in my book by feeling the need to confront her about this.
As long as we’re discussing silly back and forths, let’s give special note to the pair of scenes involving Sherriff Romero, who gives a hard time to Zeke. Zeke, in retaliation (I’m assuming), Zeke burns down the sheriff’s house. Yes, really. I know Zeke has been sold to us as dumb. But there’s dumb and then there’s dumber than a box of rocks. It’s been implied that the law enforcement and drug cartel of White Pine Bay have a cozy relationship; to threaten that balance because of a few short tempers is such a mind-numbingly stupid action that I pray this is a red herring and someone else did it. Otherwise, Zeke’s position of power in the drug empire becomes near-inexplicable – this is the kind of guy that any real criminal enterprise would have seen as a liability long ago. Actually, the implausibility doesn’t bother me. It’s more that Zeke is just not an interesting character. He feels like a device designed to stir up trouble, not someone whose choices make sense, even if they’re only to him.
All of this sounds harsh, but make no mistake: I kinda liked this episode of Bates Motel, pretty much because I like this season of Bates Motel, and not because this particular episode was anything special. Such is the nature of serialized television. Sometimes you have a terrific episode, and then right away you get a follow up where it just…kinda feels like all the good dialogue and plotting went on vacation for a week.