After last week’s mayhem and secret-sharing, Bates Motel takes things down a notch this week. Sort of. “The Man In Number 9,” now unburdened from the series’ opening murder mystery arc, takes to exploring the love life of Norman Bates, with an extra edge present in the fact that we now know for certain that Norman is already more than capable of violence, especially if his emotional buttons are pushed. The result is a strong episode of Bates Motel that illustrates something I often feel about drama, especially when applied to the problematic aspects of prequels: predictability is boring, but inevitability? That can be interesting.
Firstly, we open with some housekeeping, since the deputy has just finished bleeding to death on the front lawn of the mansion. The sheriff arrives, and then we cut to Norma wrapping up her story and telling him she’s come clean with everything, and since previous episodes have shown how bad Norma is at lying, we believe it. The sheriff effectively sweeps the whole affair under the rug, and I doubt that’s the end of that, but there is a hilarious moment when Dylan complains about having been shot for reasons that are already being covered up.
Indeed, one of the themes of this week is people who want to forget something happened, but aren’t being allowed to. We see that as Norma sets about the final week before opening the motel, and her efforts to partner with some local businesses are rebuffed; both her and her house now have quite the unsavory reputation. While this is happening, a mysterious man in black shows up on the property and says he has a standing reservation for room 9 at the motel for one week every two months, and Norma, as a show of good faith, rents him the room despite her schedule. The man, who claims to have known Mr. Summers, is an unpleasant reminder of the man Norma killed, and although he later seems to imply he doesn’t miss the motel’s former owner, there’s something so very distinctively unpleasant about his demeanor. Obviously, we’ll be seeing more of him.
The real meat of the episode is the Bradley-Norman-Emma love triangle, which is given extra juice when Emma spends some quality time with Norma. She eventually spills that Norman had sex with Bradley, and then points Bradley out while walking by her yoga class, so that Norma can peer in the window at the woman who has stolen her son’s affections, in a scene that is directed and performed to be just on this side of super-droll comedy. There’s a subplot involving Norman befriending a stray dog on the premises, leading to a cute moment when Norma, returning from her snooping, sees Norman with the mutt and then asks him if he knows where that dog has been. It’s the closest Bates Motel has come to mastering twisted humor up until now, and I’ll take it.
But the episode is all Norman’s. It’s been apparent from the very beginning that something was going to come along and break Norman Bates’ heart. On his first day, his new friends were just a little bit too inviting; he fit in awkwardly, but even still it was a bit too neat. And of course, Norma’s warnings have been a drumbeat underneath all of his party-going, so what better way to repair the growing divide between mother and son then to send young Norman running back to mother, crying that she was right? It makes a lot of sense and takes the level of co-dependency between the two to a new level, using each other to insulate themselves from the hateful world surrounding them. It’s a common element in real-life stories and fictions about criminal lovers, and that’s what Norma and Norman are in most senses of the word. Dramatically and structurally, everything that happened tonight made a great deal of sense.
But within each moment they made sense, too, and even addressed some issues I’ve had with the series from the start. I was puzzled in the series opener when Norman was so quickly taken in by a gaggle of (female) friends, as Norman is most-definitely an off-putting young lad. Not that I craved to see him bullied endlessly, understand, it’s just that I wasn’t aware that high school kids had changed that much.
But maybe some of them have, sort of. As Bradley is welcomed back to school, Norman, who hasn’t seen her since their one night together (he’s been busy, and she’s been grieving, after all), is taken aback when Bradley just gives him a nice, meaningless shrug when he asks when he’ll see her. After a series of interactions that are awkward in their incongruous banality, he finally surprises her at her door, and professes his feelings to Bradley, which she meets with a sincere, despondent apology. “I should never have done it with someone like you,” she sighs, the wording of which is significant, and not lost on Norman.
There’s nothing intentionally malicious in Bradley’s actions here, and we shouldn’t be too hard on her given the fact that she is, as was pointed out, still mourning her father. But there’s something so telling about that statement, putting lie to the prevalent notion that in high school only bullies are cruel to outsiders. It’s not news that teenagers can devastate each other’s emotions, but Bates Motel is drawing the subtler point here that while teens who target their enemies for humiliation are truly detestable, their core worldview is perhaps unconsciously shared by those who only stoop to patronization. For as much as Bradley valued Norman for being an honest human connection, his differences allowed her to neglect thinking of him as a person whose feelings she should consider.
For Norman’s feelings are reaching a disturbing turning point. The episode’s climax, which shows Norman stumbling home from his embarrassment at Bradley’s, talking to himself and inadvertently causing the death of the dog, is horrifying in its “what else could go wrong?” brutality. The sight of Norman cradling a dead puppy as he weeps apologies to Norma is an arresting image, and although it lands the theme of “Norman destroys everything he touches” unsubtly, I’m alright with that, because while it was inevitable that we got to this place, I have to say I didn’t think it was predictable how we got there.