“You’re a dick.”
So says Norma Bates to an arrogant councilman in the second season premiere of Bates Motel, and in its own tiny way it could emblemize the episode—and the entire series. This is a story (and show) very much about people grappling—however unwisely—with forces outside their control. For Norma Bates, that means tangoing with a city council prepared to build a bypass that would make her motel all but forgotten. For Bradley Martin, it means seeking both answers and revenge from the man who murdered her philandering father (she makes up her plan as she goes along). And for poor Norman, it means wrestling with his own soul, as he becomes more and more afraid that a buried part of him is responsible for Miss Watson’s death.
If Bates Motel is a tragedy (and since we all know enough about where it’s headed, I submit it is), then this is going to be the stuff that makes it work. We don’t watch a new production of Hamlet because we know everyone is going to wind up dead. We watch it because, despite knowing that, we hope they won’t. Free will is what separates a character from a pawn in a schematic chess game, and the dramatization of that free will is what great fiction (and tragedy) is all about. Even if we know with certainty what’s happening, the characters don’t: they must rail and wriggle and fight and squirm, and in doing so represent our own imagined resolve as a world comes crashing down around them—and us. Anything less is not drama, it’s predetermination.
That said…it’s good to be back, isn’t it? CertainlyBates Motel thinks so. After a prologue that puts a bow on some messy business from last season, the episode zips ahead four months with a happy-go-lucky attitude: spring is in the air, Norma has a new dress and ‘do that make her look just lovely, there’s bouncy pop music on the radio, business at the motel is booming, and if poor Norman is off playing taxidermist in the basement rather than helping customers…well, that’s Norman. Indeed, Norman’s moroseness is the single dark cloud on this sunshine day. Norma is understandably worried about her son’s burgeoning obsession with death—both in animals and his frequent visitations to Miss Watson’s grave. Emma’s peeved at Norman’s compulsive letter writing to Bradley, who is finishing up a stay in a mental institution. Both women clearly want what’s best for the boy, but the clouds are gathering on Norman’s horizon. He’s never seemed more nervous, more awkward, more dangerously off-putting.
This is a Norman with more agency, with is all the more worrying. He’s making more decisions for himself, and relying on his mother less. As Norma tries to teach him to drive, he matches her every suggestion with snark (not that she doesn’t deserve it). He goes to see the recovering Bradley despite all evidence that she wants nothing to do with him. He snaps photos of a visitor at Miss Watson’s grave, ostensibly because he’s looking for a suspect in her murder, but arguably because he’s uncomfortable sharing his grief with anyone. And he pays a visit to Sherriff Romero by himself, not seeming to understand the jeopardy he puts himself in by linking himself to Miss Watson in front of a man who clearly has long-standing issues with the Bates family (Nestor Carbonell does a terrific job of being suspicious, diplomatic and friendly all at once).
Norman’s most vulnerable moment comes when he admits to Norma his imperfect memory of Miss Watson’s final evening: he only remembers the shame and excitement he felt at her home and then running down the street, but he cannot bridge the two. There’s a terrific performance here by FreddieHighmore, his personality a barely-contained well of confusion and madness. “She tried to seduce you, you knew it was wrong, and you ran away,” concludes Norma as she embraces a tearful Norman, but as her cold eyes stare into space we know how little she believes this.
Of course, Norma has enough on her plate. The city council is moving ahead of schedule on their plans to build that bypass that could put Norma out of business. Already underwater on the property, Norma takes her fight to a council meeting, where she’s mocked and dismissed, bringing us to the line I quoted above. She backs up her insult with a mini-rant on the town’s ugly economic truths and ties with criminals, a move that throws down the gauntlet but may be seen as seriously reckless in the long run.It’s a surprising moment not for its content (and in fairness, the guy is a bit of a dick) but for how efficiently it re-establishes Norma as someone who adopts a messy (and fascinating) style of responding to threats: when she has an ace she plays it, rather than waiting for the right hand. Farmiga has been good in this role from the beginning, but it’s delightful here as she taps into the frightened side of Norma that confuses rash action with power.
But of course if anyone’s story this week is about the ugly side of grasping for power, it’s Bradley’s. Still disillusioned after learning her murdered father was having an affair with another woman, she’s taken a turn for the worse, underlined by her heavyeyeshadow and tousled hair—the stylist’s classic shorthand for “troubled teen”. A suicide attempt puts her in the mental ward for a few months, and when she comes out she’s sarcastic and angry. She rebuffs Norman’s attempt to be friendly, sticks her dad’s old pistol in her mouth, investigates her father’s murder and shakes off Dylan’s sincerely worried attempts to get her to stop rocking the boat. (The three story threads this week are united by the theme of characters ignoring arguably prudent advice).
She visits Gil, her dad’s old boss (and a minor bigwig in the town’s drug empire) in one of those creepy scenes where a character tries to supply answers to questions that only serve to make him look more shifty. A later scene between Gil and Dylan actually answers some of these questions:Bradley’s father was murdered because he wasschtupping Gil’s girlfriend…why, the late Miss Watson! Gil asks Dylan to get Bradley out of his hair, and he tries (non-violently), but all he does is give her information that makes her run to Gil and try to seduce more clues out him. Gil, who lamented Bradley earlier by saying she’s “smoking hot,” illustrates here an age-old principle: when a woman who has no logical reason to want to sleep with a man suddenly starts to try, that man will accept this without question. So imagine Gil’s surprise when Bradley kneels down to service him and she does—with a bullet through his head.
The details and direction here are uncomfortable and lurid, and I mean that as a compliment. The series now shows a deeper resolve to embrace theTwin Peaks-ish vibe the show’s creators claimed as an inspiration from the start. This is the start of a darker, fresher, twistier Bates Motel, and I’m happy to see where we’re going. The premiere’s final scene features Bradley pleading with Norman for help. The blind leading the blind, to be sure. Bates Motel’s second season premiere effectively reintroduces White Pines Bay as a town that likes its citizens screwed up, and likes to start them young. And all along the way, they’re still making choices. That’s what’s crucial in a tragedy: choices. Otherwise we would just skip to the ending, wouldn’t we?