Mania Grade: A
1 Comment | Add
Rate & Share:
- Episode: The Box (Season 2, Episode 10)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Kerry Ehrin, Carlton Cuse
- Directed By: Tucker Gates
- Network: A & E
- Studio: Universal
Bates Motel: The Immutable Truth Review
Threads come together in a terrific season finale.
By Michael Henley
May 10, 2014
Bates Motel: The Immutable Truth
I’m floored by what Bates Motel has accomplished this past season. Having spent its entire first year finding its legs and poking around its surroundings to figure out what works and what doesn’t, the show returned with a second season so assured in its storytelling and so superlative in its execution that it currently sits high on my “best shows on television” list. I’m as surprised as you might be, because a prequel series about Young Norman Bates sounded, at the concept stage, gimmicky to me. But Bates has transcended any expectations. It’s a chilling story about starting over while being unable to escape your past. It’s a haunting tale of a mother and son who need each other to survive, and how that need pools into reservoirs of lust, hurt, brokenness and madness. It’s the story of a how a town with a million secrets gives birth to a monster. And it’s the tragedy of a family that becomes more tarnished the more they try to protect each other. Oh, and it’s also kind of a crime story about drugs, but whatever.
Yes, I’ll dismiss the drug war aspects of this incredible season finale quickly, as there’s not much to them. After Sherriff Romero and Dylan gain enough information to rescue Norman from his metal box nightmare, the two essentially team up to take down Zane and Jodi. Zane is now angling to kill Dylan, and Jodi is playing along while also working with Dylan…her motives are a little obscure, but they really don’t matter in the end, do they? The bloody confrontation that follows makes good on Romero’s promise to take out the trash (i.e. Zane), ties up a loose end (Jodi’s gone too) and now Dylan is king of the hill for the White Pine Bay drug trade, a position tacitly approved by Romero. Is he installing Dylan as a puppet? Perhaps.
This thread, as is typical with the drug stuff is really hit or miss. The climax is well-staged by director Tucker Gates, but this feels a lot like just being done with this plotline. I should point out, however, that the irony of Dylan now having his own “city council seat” (in a way) with perhaps his own personal Nick Ford in Romero is nicely-done. And Nestor Carbonell again shines as Romero: here’s a guy who deals with lowlifes all the time, and he nicely modulates his appreciation of Dylan into something approaching a little bit of respect…although he still doesn’t like him.
Then there’s the Norma and Norman material…which…oh my. This is just gripping stuff. Norman is rescued and taken to the hospital, where Dylan stands uncomfortably and Norma tries to welcome him back into the flock. It’s both so heartfelt and manipulative, the way she nods to Dylan and says “I love you,” and the way he doesn’t respond, Vera Farmiga plays the moment as a disappointment that may have slightly ruined the moment. Norman desperately needs to tell Mother the truth he learned about himself and Miss Watson, but she shushes him and won’t hear it. The fear here…the fear of losing her son now replaced with the fear of him being caught (and also, the fear that he won’t)…it’s a complex transition that Vera Farmiga nails. Also supremely tricky is the dinner table scene where Norman confesses to Miss Watson’s murder, which is gripping in the way Norman bubbles over into self-actualization while mother tries to retain her last shreds of hope.
Farmiga and Highmore take their skills to all-time highs in this episode. Norma herself is terrified about the oncoming polygraph test scheduled by Romero, and is planning to book the three of them (Dylan included) on a flight out of White Pine Bay. Dylan, of all people, is the voice of reason here, in a heartfelt and affecting scene where mother and son reconcile, while Dylan urges Norma to see the test through to the end instead, since she needs to know the truth, and maybe an institution is the best place for Norman. Even though Bates Motel exists on the level of fictional hyper-reality, every week they do a fantastic job of dramatizing a little of how it must feel to be terrified of what a family member is capable of, or where he’ll end up.
It’s fascinating to watch Norma progress from unease to terror to desperation to yearning to acceptance. The only Norma scene in the entire episode that I don’t think works (though Farmiga tries) is the supermarket confrontation with Christine, where the other woman uses Norma’s words against George last week against her, and basically says in no uncertain terms that she’s alienated herself against the town and that her city council seat is now practically useless. I’m not sure I’m sold on this development, as I don’t believe George would blab Norma’s careless, stress-fed words to everyone and anyone, no matter how hurtful. I’m eager to see Norma return to the status of town pariah, just now trying to hold onto power instead of grasping it. But still, this rings a little false.
Anyway. Norman’s outpouring of truth causes Norma to push him away, and leads Norman to carry out a checklist of tasks that are exactly the trajectory of an oncoming suicide. He tells Emma dread secrets, finishes a taxidermy project, dances with Norma to “Dream Lover” and tells her how much she means to him, leaves a note for Norma, and escapes into the woods with Norma in hot pursuit. The ensuing confrontation, where Norman plans to take his own life is heartbreaking, never more so than when Norman pulls a gun on Norma, a move she doesn’t even flinch at. The beautiful, quiet, creepy scene that follows, where mother and son reaffirm their protective circle, essentially quashing the spark of rebellion that has been fueling Norman all year, is wonderfully acted and also gutsy and bold. We’ve seen moments of unwholesome affection between mother and son on this show, but the open-mouth kiss that follows here puts us on a whole separate level. It makes the “Dream Lover” sequence seem downright square.
What follows is a dream-like, hypnotizing sequence (made all the more so by Chris Bacon’s haunting score) where Norman prepares for his polygraph exam, peppered with emotional moments that somehow hit harder due to the purposefully detached directing style. I loved when Norma clasped her hand around Norman’s, or when he gets out of the car and absent-mindedly holds onto her purse. Or the opening moments where both mother and son are at opposite ends of the table, separated by frame, each bathed in red light from the background rooms, although Norman’s is more vibrant. When Norman, finally in the chair in an eerie sequence (made all the more so by the darkened corridors and holding rooms it takes place in) is asked point-blank about Miss Watson, time slows down.
And Mother appears. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she killed Miss Watson, not Norman. This allows Norman to pass the polygraph, while Sherriff Romero (mirroring our emotions) clearly doesn’t know how to feel. And Norma is relieved, but we can tell she doesn’t quite feel clean about it. This isn’t a victory for good, it’s evil squeaking by, and the final shot of the episode gives us little comfort. Mirroring the final moment in Hitchcock’s Psycho, it’s an unsettling pull-in where Norman looks down until finally looking straight into the camera. He is now fully self-aware, and he’s inviting us to be complicit in his transgressions. (It’s an attitude which mirrors the entire structure of the original movie, where Hitchcock replaces Marion with Norman as our protagonist so sleekly that our moral protestations are rendered moot). It’s a frightening moment, not simply because of the easy jump that happens when a character looks directly at camera as a warning, threat, or promise of evil. It shows us the new Norman. The fully realized Norman. The Norman who now has fallen completely into his dissociative identity disorder. The Norman who now has another personality to blame for the murders—and the murders to come. He knows his true nature, and now he’s one step closer to exploiting it.
It’s long been said we live in a golden age of television. It’s true. Not only is Bates Motel slowly, methodically staking a claim to being allowed to be at the table where that discussion is held, but it underlines the things that television can do that film can’t. Movies can only give you a few hours with certain characters. By contrast, we’ve now spent twenty hours with young Norman Bates, and to see him step closer and closer to evil is repellently fascinating. We watch tragedies to understand the whys and wherefores—to give us a peek into our own psychologies through other people, to hold a mirror to our own lives and think there but for the grace of God go we. It’s not enough to know that good people go to seed. We need to understand why, to give our own lives perspective and balance. This is the very reason that the Star Wars prequels do not work, because tragedy demands attention paid to character development, something that those films were not interested in doing. The key to this whole enterprise is realizing that, under the right circumstances, we could be Norman Bates.
Bates is interested in playing those notes, which is why it possesses such a hold over me. It’s become a valued participant in the growing TV genre of human horror stories—tales that coil around us to make us feel unease at human nature, to show us the potential gravity of evil (other entries in the genre now on the air include Fargo and True Detective). What a pleasure to see a show this smart and scary on regular old A&E. What a delight to see these characters every week, but boy am I going to miss them during hiatus. One thing is clear: all bets are off in terms of what Norman Bates—and Bates Motel—is capable of. But no matter what, it’s going to be worth watching.