Nine weeks ago, when Bates Motel premiered, I nervously questioned whether the series would have enough gas in its tank to justify its own existence. Over the course of the past season, the series has had its ups and downs, particularly in the mechanics of its bifurcated structure; half of each episode dwelling on the teen angst and motherly devotion of Norma Bates, half on the weird intertwining of crime and economy that is White Pine Bay. The first season finale, “Midnight,” answered some lingering questions we’ve had all season, but its main contribution seems to be that the show has now effectively focused on two lynchpin plots: Norman’s growing psychological troubles and Norma’s attempt to reckon with the man who will effectively serve as the face of White Pine Bay’s insidious crime syndicate: Sheriff Romero.
Romero being revealed to be corrupt is hardly a surprise. There were signs right from the start, beginning with the implausible notion that Deputy Shelby, hardly the sharpest tool in the shed, could have successfully operated an Asian sex slave ring without the sheriff’s involvement. Romero’s subsequent cover-up of the young deputy’s death only seemed to seal the deal, and his escalating disgust for Norma could really only lead to one place, dramatically speaking. But still, surprise or no, there’s something so calculated and nasty about the way Sheriff Romero makes a pretense of offering Mr. Abernathy his money, lays down his terms about future business in his town, and then just shoots the man anyway. This climax, which also involves Norma peering from a hedge and shakily pointing a gun at both men, feels a bit artificial in the number of season-long plot strands it tries to weave together, but for the most part it nicely sets up what will presumably be a key piece of the series going forward: Norma vs. Romero.
The episode nicely sidesteps the possibility of Norma’s death this time out (although obviously we’ll be getting that sometime), but nevertheless gives Norma a lot of attention and character-building—so much so that I did anticipate her stumbling into the path of a bullet as a way to close out the season (Carlton Cuse used the device of focusing on a secondary character just before their untimely death many times on Lost). Two key scenes here give us the most insight into Norma that we’ve ever had up until this point: a moment with Norman’s psychiatrist where she waxes philosophical about child-rearing before growing uncomfortable, and a scene between mother and son in which Norma confesses she was sexually abused as a young teen (the scene is sensitively portrayed by both Farmiga and Highmore).
The timing of this revelation, moments before Emma arrives to go with Norman to a school dance, is suspect—we know from long experience that Norma, easily suspicious of other women in her son’s life, loves to manipulate Norman’s feelings. But this is also coming from a Norma who thinks she might be about to die, and wants someone to remember her for who she is. So I think to question the truthfulness of her monologue is to undermine the moment that Cuse and co-writer Kerry Ehrin have constructed, giving us an idea of Norma’s horrific past that—while it doesn’t explain her own behavior—it at least informs it, and Norman’s as well. Rooting the psychological history of mother and son in sexual violence is potentially squicky, but it’s handled with taste, and it is, as we discover, paramount to deciphering the mind of Norman Bates.
The original 1960 film is subtle but hardly shy with its themes of voyeurism and sexual frustration—Norman kills Marion Crane because he desires her but cannot have her. So I have no excuse for not realizing all season how smoothly the pieces of the Norman storyline were driving at unhealthy sexual dysfunction; after all, the product of this is right there in the source text, all we’re doing now is just seeing the math. With mother’s possessiveness, his confusion over Emma and his tryst with Bradley, Norman has been building to a blow-up, and while psychologists can argue over whether what we’ve seen on television can pass as a considered take on the seeds of psychopathy, I found it a persuasive one.
Much of the Norman story focused on the aforementioned dance, to which he and Emma agree to go together (in a cute scene of us-against-the-world misfit-ism). The dance (which is probably a little overly elaborate for a non-prom, and also seems to take place in the 1980’s) becomes a hell for Norman when Emma gets fed up. Norman’s eyes keep drifting to Bradley, his jealousy piqued from painfully witnessing a surprise encounter between Bradley and Dylan. Emma walks out on him and Bradley’s boyfriend, Richard (remember him?) grabs Norman for a chat outside. Richard cold-cocks poor Norman, leaving him bloodied in a heap in the rain. Stumbling home, Norman gets a ride from a driving-by Miss Watson, who at some point clearly crossed the line of impropriety in how much interest she’s giving the young lad. She takes him home, cleans his wound, retreats to her bedroom with the door open so that Norman can ogle her as she lingers on changing her clothes, and then…
Well, then, all the season’s work with Norman kinda ties together. A figment of Norma appears, a manifestation of Norman’s own self-loathing, and demands the boy take action. Convinced that romantic feelings only bring pain, disgusted by his own urges after his talk with Norma, and sick of women that he perceives to be using their sexuality as a tool for control and mockery, Norman blacks out and returns home to a loving Norma, but during his blackout it’s very probable (judging by the closing shot) that he murdered Miss Watson, his violent tendencies and sexual frustrations finally, inexorably marrying in a scene that gains some vital suspense from its inevitability (both in tone and in shot selection it is masterfully directed by Tucker Gates).
So what do we have now? Another murder committed by Norman, one that Norma can’t easily cover-up. And one that could make things plenty uncomfortable between the sheriff and the Bates family, just as they seem to have figured out how to function as a unit (Dylan supplies Norma with a revolver and some shooting lessons, which is kinda sweet, in an odd way, though plagued with awful on-the-nose dialogue). It’s possible that there’s an out here, as Miss Watson is overheard arguing with someone over the phone (an ex-boyfriend?), which might be another explanation for her state at the end of things, but I hope that’s a red herring; the writers should be marching toward Norman’s destiny, not playing chicken with it.
As the first season of Bates Motel comes to a close, I find myself to a central question I had early on: can the show stand on its own as a series, and get out from under its own precious prequel-ness? I say, at this juncture: yes. The mysteries of White Pine Bay are clearly an attempt to build more into the premise than sheer inevitability, and yet I can’t help but say those mysteries are growing on me. The writing is sometimes uneven and the direction tonally inconsistent, but Cuse and Ehrin have their hands on solid environs, a really terrific cast, and they now finally seem to be mastering what exactly this show is really about. My hope for season 2: get darker, get weirder, take more risks. And ask the hard questions about Norman Bates. He’s a likable protagonist, but as this finale shows, he can more than handle a gradual shift into anti-hero territory. Remember, after all: he is a psycho.
Oh, and there’s still a Chinese sex slave running around the woods. Just sayin’.