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- Episode: Meltdown (Season 2, Episode 8)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Liz Tigelaar, Nikki Toscano
- Directed By: Ed Bianchi
- Network: A&E
- Studio: Universal Studios
Bates Motel: Meltdown Review
By Michael Henley
April 26, 2014
Bates Motel: Meltdown Review
More than any other episode of Bates Motel that has preceded it, “Meltdown” is a story that hinges primarily on character. That’s not to say that nothing happened this week. Quite the contrary—theepisode is peppered with earth-shattering confrontations. It’s just that the events are pretty easily summarized, as the big moments are introduced by scenes of uneasiness, pensiveness, and people generally worried about what they might have to do. This is an episode that isn’t about plot, as there are few honest-to-God plot points. It’s about preparing to land big emotional moments, and then doing so with aplomb. This is an episode of television that you can only get when your production exudes confidence, because the heavy lifting here is not done by the writers, but entirely by the cast and production team with which the writers have entrusted themselves.
The centerpiece moment is between mother and son, as Norma tries to pretend that last week’s fight never happened, while Norman retreats into both stepping up his taxidermy efforts and also the passive-aggressive sullenness that so many teenagers make their bread and butter. He brushes off Norma’s efforts to reconnect, moves some stuffed animals into the house to display them, and generally begins to show a flair for the sociopathic the way he pushes Norma out his personal space, out his mind, out of his life. Freddie Highmore is so incredibly good here at taking the standard ticks of a rebellious, angry teenager and tilting them into the direction of horror (and, it must be said, in the direction of Anthony Perkins).His cold stare, innocently hurtful words and sense of cruel gamesmanship are incredibly frightening now that they have a target in Norma, and the early scenes this week feel like the last, desperate moments before outright war, which is where we ultimately end up. (Well, actually, we end up with Norman being kidnapped by an unseen man, so we’ll see what happens there.)
It’s at this point in the episode, as Norman is yelling at his mother, with a teen anger that is pregnant with unnerving possibility, that I began to wonder again what the game plan is for Norma Bates as a character. The facts are these: Psycho tells us where Norma ends up. Resolving that to where we are here, it makes sense that Norman’s over-identification with his mother would come from an uncapped well of guilt, perhaps due to their last exchange being one of anger. Vera Farmiga, despite doing some of her career-best work here, may not want to get tied down to a TV series for too long. It makes one wonder. I’m not suggesting they’re going to kill her next week or even this season…I think there are more pieces to put into place to make Norman feel the loss of his mother all the more. But this made me think that Bates Motel most certainly has an endgame in its mind, because I can’t see going anywhere but forward after the appropriately titled “Meltdown.” I just don’t see a way to come back from this.
Farmiga, for her part, wonderfully portrays the woman who wants everything back to the way it was, and only gets more frustrated as Norman pulls away. Bates Motel has done an excellent job this year of pitting two very different characters against each other without sacrificing all empathy for either of them: I get Norman’s breaking point at Norma’s overprotectiveness and manipulation, but I also completely understand Norma’s worry about the danger her son could be in if he knows the truth. It must be a horrible thing to see your own flesh and blood go down a terrible path, and Norma’s resolution that she must protect her son from himself makes a painful amount of sense, even though we also understand why it drives Norman bonkers. This is a woman whose family tore her apart when she was younger, and now her own is crumbling into ruins. And it’s actively ruining her own personal life.
The only thing she actually has at all is George, although the show has spent not enough time with him to cast him as anything other than a superficial love interest. I think that’s the point—George, with his rich house and steak dinner and good looks, represents a powerful escape for Norma. But maybe not enough of one—I loved the stuffed owl that hangs in his home, a callback to both Norman’s pursuits and his future, illustrating how they are encroaching on all elements of Norma’s life, and highlighting the inability to escape from the show’s central tragedy.
A big theme this year has been identity: defining it, hiding from it, rejecting it. For Norma Bates, a consistent liar, her first visit to George’s home is like an alcoholic realizing a need to sober up…she absently spins falsehoods and then takes them all back, before weeping and saying she can’t do this anymore. She goes home to talk to Norman, but when things finally blow up, she retreats to George’s house for sex. I can’t begin to psychoanalyze Norma (and kudos to the writers for crafting someone so complex and hard-to-diagnose), but if I were to try, I’d say this has a lot to do with Norma’s craving for the warmth of family and being denied it once more within her very home. But I also think it feeds her need to reinvent herself, her love/hate relationship with independence, and her attempt to capture the youth that was stolen from her.
Norma even stands up to Nick Ford this week, after he demands a meeting with Dylan and makes explicit that he got Norma her councilwoman seat. Norma has trouble processing this, and I buy that simply because this is a woman who loves her illusions, and there goes another one. She pays Dylan a visit at the drug plant, and it becomes fitfully amusing to see her discomfort with the operation evolve into a spark of respect and pride for the boy (“This is your office? You have an office?”) It’s surprisingly light on tension and high on exposition for Norma, as all this is new to her (as Nick Ford incredulously asks, “Don’t you ever talk to your son?”), but it is…nice. I loved the way she asks him about whether he’s protecting himself against second-hand pot insulation, and the capper to her inquiry (“I’m still your mother!”) is somehow really, really funny. It’s telling that the drug scenes have a pop whenever Norma visits them this week. Again, how perfect is Vera Farmiga in this role?
The Dylan solo scenes this week, unfortunately, hold little interest, silly Star Wars references aside (really, Jodi?). Nick Ford finally gets his talk with Dylan, and despite the inherent intimidation and threats, it feels less like a crime summit and more like a kid being dragged to the principal’s office. But that’s nothing compared to the scene between Dylan, Zane and Jodi where Zane acts like a spoiled brat, where Dylan needs to remind the siblings to keep their eye on the ball, and where Jodi tearfully breaks down before Dylan comforts her and gets the greenlight to kill Zane if need be. Although Jodi has explained how Zane got the job in the past, his cowboy stupidity in how to run a drug business is tough to take, and Jodi’s breakdown feels like it comes out of the “because she’s a woman” box of clichés—I expected drug kingpins to be made of sterner stuff. Try to imagine the roles reversed, where a female underling has to comfort a powerful man, and tell me with a straight face that scene would ever get written. I thought not.
The final storyline this week is Sherriff Romero sniffing around Norman Bates, needing to know why his semen was found in Miss Watson. They’ve really done a great job of making Romero a sympathetic character this year (Nestor Carbonell has a lot to do with that), as he verbally smacks down his uppity deputy and wrestles with how to talk to the boy about this sensitive matter that he needs the answer to. His effort to broach the topic with Norman is almost hilariously ham-fisted (but in a believable way that speaks to his unease). He finally appeals to Norman’s sense of righteousness when he uses as leverage the fact that another man has already been convicted, and he needs to know it’s the right one, essentially turning Norman’s single most admirable trait (“He always wants to help” said Norma last week) against him. It’s really clever, and Carbonell does a great job of playing the professionalism and niceness of Romero…when he speaks to Norman it’s not out of anger, but out of fear.
Unfortunately, this is a nightmare for Norman, as he cannot remember anything, so he retreats to the house and is kidnapped by someone—possibly Nick Ford’s guys? So now we have Norma breaking away from her family, Romero searching for Norman, and Norman Bates himself locked in a small room screaming for help. Yeah, this will go well.