Students of television will always tell you: a second episode is usually more revealing about a show’s overall prospects than a pilot. Pilots are worked over for months, and in many cases the creators have written and planned them long before they are ever paid to put pen to paper on them. Second episodes, however, are an entrance to the grind of TV production, where things have to be churned out, no matter what. Quality will undoubtedly slip. The question is whether sit will slip too much.
As second episodes go, “Nice Town You Picked, Norma” is…a bit of a mess. It does all the things that a second episode is supposed to do: re-sketches the primary relationships, expounds on a growing mythology, and introduces elements that are meant to embolden the storytelling for a longer narrative haul. But it does these things in such a half-hearted manner that it’s hard to recognize this episode as anything but a significant stumble right out of the gate.
The episode shifts between two narrative modes: the on-the-nose dynamics of the Bates family, and the mysteries of White Pine Bay. The Bates end of things is thrown into a tizzy by the arrival of Dylan (Max Thieriot), Norma’s estranged straggler of a son, who enters the mansion with offhand references of having “nowhere else to go.” And that’s basically it for the backstory of Dylan, whose main function is to sew discontent in the household and effectively blackmail Norma into staying by posing questions about his father’s death. He also has harsh words for Norman’s closeness to his mother, calling him a joke, but that’s not what enrages the boy. Rather, it’s seeing Norma’s I.D. on Dylan’s iphone: “The Whore.” And so he slams Dylan into the kitchen counter and then tries to attack him with a mallet.
I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to see Norman be violent this early in the show’s run, especially when it’s done with as little weight as it is here. While of course it makes sense that Norman’s first attack on a human being be in mental defense of his mother, we’ve now been robbed of some of the show’s psychological suspense and power. By externalizing Norman’s rage so early, I fear they’ve made him less interesting.
Slightly more involving is Norma’s attempts to fit in at White Pine Bay, which hit a snag when Sherriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) notices the pickup of dear departed Mr. Summers near the Bates property. In the episode’s biggest (but not only) arbitrary coincidence, the sheriff is there because they’re investigating another crime, an arson case that causes a car driven by the dad of Norman’s friend Bradley (Nicola Peltz) to crash into the weeds, his body covered in third-degree burns. After opening the episode, this event isn’t really mentioned again. So much for that.
So Norma, now under suspicion (and she is not very good at dodging the sheriff’s questions), gets closer to Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel) as a self-preservation measure. They strike up a rapport, he invites her to the town festival, and Norma is aware of the keenly-felt jealousy on Norman’s part (and she rubs it in, perhaps unconsciously, by changing her top in front of him and then proclaiming “I’m your mother, it’s not weird.”) And then out on the town, Deputy Shelby talks about the oddness of White Pine Bay, hinting at a conspiracy involving the town’s economy. But we haven’t seen any evidence of that. Hell, outside of Norman’s innocent-ish classmates, we haven’t seen many townspeople at all, let alone get to know them, or what they’re doing, or care. The sole exception is Dylan’s encounter with a shady man who seems to be offering him a lot of cash for some oblique job, but these thin breadcrumbs are being offered pretty slowly.
Indeed, the White Pine Bay mythology content is the worst element in Bates Motel so far, because at the moment it simply feels like a sloppy sop to viewers who want something more than a Psycho prequel. I am eager to see a show that carves a bigger identity for itself than just “Psycho prequel,” but it should feel organic, and not an awkward juggling of pieces that resemble a house divided. As it stands, Emma (Olivia Cooke), the oxygen tank girl from last week who we learn suffers from cystic fibrosis, gets Norman involved in a rudimentary mystery that is so very very clunky. She borrows the notebook Norman discovered last week, apparently unfazed by it, and discovers within its pages evidence of a sex slave ring, and soon she and Norman are tromping through the woods and come across a marijuana field guarded by machine-gun-wielding thugs, who chase them through the forest.
Wait, what? This could be almost surreal, but it comes across instead as just silly, a grab bag of shocking elements designed to hook us. I think the real issue is we just don’t care about White Pine Bay yet; it doesn’t feel like a character, and so who really care what’s really going on? And what do pot-growing guerillas have to do with the story of Norman Bates? And why do we have to find out accompanied by some truly terrible dialogue? (At one point, Norma accounts for the strangeness of the town with a line that resembles: “It’s like this, and then not like this.” What does that even mean?)
There was one moment in “Nice Town You Picked, Norma” that I really liked: when Norma, threatened by Emma’s presence, asks the young girl her life expectancy, and at the un-encouraging answer, she gives a wan, almost imperceptible smile to Norman. That’s cruel in a cleverly-written way. Please, Bates Motel, give us more stuff like that, and your own life expectancy won’t be so grim.