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- Episode: The Escape Artist (Season 2, Episode 5)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Nikki Toscano
- Directed By: Christopher Nelson
- Network: A&E
- Studio: Universal Studios
Bates Motel: The Escape Artist Review
The plots thicken.
By Michael Henley
April 06, 2014
Bates Motel: The Escape Artist Review
“The Escape Artist,” the fifth episode and midway point of Bates Motel’s second season, is a story of people making and planning moves. For Norma Bates, that means getting into figurative bed with a rich man who shares her distaste for the bypass, but might have questionable ideas in how to fight it. Norman, meanwhile lets himself get further seduced by Cody, while Emma plans to gently get rid of her virginity via that cute boy she met last week. Zane and Dylan’s lives are threatened by a gangland-style assassination attempt from the rival drug dealers, and Sherriff Romero enacts the first assault in getting revenge on his house’s destruction. Some of the moves are even literal, here: Cody tries to woo Norman with the prospect of escaping White Pine Bay, Dylan fully moves out of the Bates house, and Romero moves into a room the motel, either because he quietly needs a Norma Bates to talk to, or perhaps because he knows that for the financially shaky motel, rent will be reasonable.
The plot that gets most developed here is between Cody and Norman, as they gradually take their awkward, very modern teenage courtship to the next level. She is rather accepting of the blackout she rescued him from last week, and he non-judgmentally regards the problems within her own life: a side trip to her own home reveals that her family life is abusive and ugly. Norma sizes up the girl during a brief encounter and doesn’t like her one bit, and the feeling is most definitely mutual, which helps spur Cody to blow off tech and take Norman (and a few bottles of beer) to a tree house deep in the woods, where they have sex. She and he see themselves as lovers forged through fire and sharing a deep understanding. These scenes aren’t exactly earth-shattering or novel, but they’re sensitively played and well-acted.
Real quick, though: I have to admit, though it isn’t played for laughs, I did have to chuckle at Cody, upon exiting her parents’ house and verbal abuse, rifling through the $600 she returned to get (lumber budget for the stage crew), proposes to Norman that they use it to skip town and start over. On a mere $600? It’s not unbelievable that someone as hurt as Cody would see this as a desperate opportunity, but Norman wisely steers her away from this prospect. Oh, youth.
Norma, seeing Norman come home late, admonishes her son about his relationship with Cody (not knowing, of course, that the two of them have sealed that deal). “There are people that can help you and people that can hurt you, and you’ve gotta pick the right people,” she says. She should talk, because as she cozies up to millionaire Nick Ford (who she met friends with at the valet stand two weeks ago), she ignores the subtle signs that something is off about his entreaty to help her stop the bypass. Why would he enlist her help with a simple errand of delivering to city hall an environmental survey of the bypass-planned land (home to an endangered gopher, apparently)? What are we to make of the fact that the recipient of that survey is later found victim of a car accident? How did this happen? Can we trust Nick Ford? Don’t make me laugh.
Oh, and it should be noted: the man Norma goes to to pick up the report is named “Bryan Fuller.” A tip of the hat to the showrunner of that other drama about a serial killer, Hannibal? There’s no way it’s a coincidence.
The best scenes this week belong to Norma, who is so ably performed by Vera Farmiga every time that I’m tempted to just stop mentioning her at all. In an interesting early scene, Emma asks Mrs. Bates what losing one’s virginity is like. Mrs. Bates is a logical target for her question, since “I don’t have a mother to ask, I can’t ask my dad, I have no close female friends, and what I looked up on Google only scared me” (a nice comment on how, in this day and age, kids yearn for actual human guidance and can be further removed from it). Farmiga goes through a subtle bit of acting as she tells Emma what she wants to hear, stressing that your first time having sex should be beautiful and wonderful, the implication (missed by Emma but caught by us) being that for her, it was (as we are fully aware) none of those things. On the page, Norma’s reaction is nothing special; it’s Farmiga’s performance that elevates it into a strategy game of keeping her outsides smiling while her insides are shrieking.
The other moment is between her and Sheriff Romero, who, as I said, moves into the motel, and uses it as a base of operations to launch an assault on Zane, literally punching the man to the ground. Zane, however, gets his own licks in, prompting Norma to host one of those beloved trope-y scenes where a woman tends to a man’s wounds (including the requisite flinch from the tough guy when the iodine first gets applied). What makes this interesting, however, is that it’s these characters playing this scene—despite their contentious history, Norma is too nosy and motherly (and perhaps too in need of someone to coddle) to not play nurse, whereas Sherriff Romero is too prideful to fully lower his defenses (he sniffs that Norma doing his laundry is an invasion of privacy)—but he does a little bit before taking Norma to task on her own choice of friends. What goes around truly comes around this week.
The other moments here play like little interstitials rather than actual plots. Remember how Emma was mulling the prospect of having sex with that boy? Well she does. And…scene. The moment is well-played by Olivia Cooke, but it stands in sharp contrast with Norman and Cody’s own decision about sleeping together. That one feels borne out of character, while this one, though sensitively-handled, just feels soapy and…there. Just there. We just don’t get enough of what makes this guy so special, what this means for Emma, or why we should truly care. Maybe I’m just suspicious of any time this show suggests pure happiness. Can you blame me?
Meanwhile, Zane and Dylan go to a Mexican restaurant. Remo is pointedly marginalized by Zane’s thinking here, and uninvited right to his face. Zane and Dylan get comfortable together and chug beers, although the plots are so busy this week that we don’t get a chance to see that. We just know it happens because they exit the cantina with smiles. Then they’re targeted by an assassination attempt, and Dylan protects Zane, eventually by standing in the street and thwarting a second attempt, getting hit by the car himself and falling unconscious. The implication here, I think, is Dylan identifying more with his drug family as all he has left (he makes a call to Norman earlier that isn’t received). And the drug business, we are told, has become a true family affair, as we meet a mysterious woman at Dylan’s beside as he recovers. It’s Zane’s sister (Kathleen Robertson), who identifies herself as Dylan’s boss. Well, that explains how Zane is still employed, doesn’t it?
“The Escape Artist” is a perfectly competent episode Bates Motel, lacking of some of the juice from earlier this season, more dedicated to advancing a whole bunch of plots at once than anything else. It’s the kind of episode that’s necessary in an arc-driven show…one that staves off certain developments and develops others to keep the upcoming payoffs richer, but does so in such a utilitarian and basic fashion that it’s hard to get too excited about it. In fact, the thing I’ll be thinking about longest is probably the one that just hit me right now: what exactly does the title mean?