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- Episode: Presumed Innocent (Season 2, Episode 7)
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Olivia Cooke
- Written By: Alexandra Cunningham
- Directed By: Roxann Dawson
- Network: A & E
- Studio: Universal
Bates Motel: Presumed Innocent Review
One night at the sheriff’s station.
By Michael Henley
April 21, 2014
Bates Motel: Presumed Innocent Review
“Presumed Innocent” is not only the best episode so far of the second season of Bates Motel, it’s one of the series’ strongest episodes, period. This is a pure example of Bates working at the top of its form: perfectly paced, brimming with tension, wonderfully acted, not shy on dramatic fireworks, but also possessing an eerie stillness that is haunting in the way it toys with and evokes dread. That would be both the dread of an impressionable teenager put in a situation where he must confront his demons, and the dread of a worried mother who is being shut out of rooms, gossiped about, and conspired against. And also the dread of a sheriff who investigates an accidental death and tries to grapple with what he sees, and doesn’t see. This is Bates playing to its fingernail-biting, shatteringly psychological strengths.
In a storytelling masterstroke, a large chunk of the episode occurs in and around the White Pine Bay sheriff station during a long night where Sheriff Romero tries to get to the bottom of the altercation between Norman Bates and Cody’s father, one that left the older man quite dead. The episode doesn’t occur in real time, mind you, but it has a languid, lingering flow that captures granular moments, like faces appearing in distant windows, figures wandering down corridors, or a secretary cackling her head off at inappropriate text messages while Norma paces like a caged animal and legal proceedings happen behind tantalizing close (and closed) doors.
Most TV crime shows, when they do the “protagonist questioned by police” trope, boil it down to a scene, but here it’s a sequence involving multiple characters, multiple scenes, multiple commercial breaks. This underscores the weight felt by all involved, the feelings of impotence and blank shock shared by both Norma and Norman. And it gives us, the viewer, no respite from any of these feelings: the result is practically purgatorial. And it serves another function: to dramatize, in agonizing slow motion, an important step in the disintegration of Norma and Norman’s relationship.
The episode belongs to Vera Farmiga. There are so many Vera moments this week that are, to be blunt, brilliant. There’s the specific method in which she taps her foot while waiting for offstage persons to decide Norman’s fate. The heartbreaking way she describes the situation to George, defending not only her son but also Cody (calling her a “little bird” in comparison to her brutish father) as well. There’s the shocked look on her face when Norman nixes any possibility of her sitting in on Romero’s last round of questions, or her impassioned appeal to Cody in the ladies room for the younger woman to be silent about Norman’s blackouts. Her frightened expression as she watches Norman grabs some fresh air. The relieved way that later on she accepts the news that Norman has been cleared and runs up the steps to the motel. Or how about the scene that follows, where her façade cracks as Norman lays into her with questions about what happens to him during blackouts, and she suddenly looks so desperate, so tired, like a thread being pulled oh so thin. This is some of Farmiga’s best work on the series, bar none, all consolidated in one thrilling episode.
But the other regulars shine, too. Certainly we mustn’t forget Highmore’s Norman, who is wracked with guilt but knows the death was an accident…his every scene is a discomfiting mixture of sweet-faced compliance, worry for others, and unbearable pain. And this is also Nestor Carbonell’s best performance as Romero, a consummate professional, cool and measured in the face of human tragedy. He avoids needlessly upsetting Norma but insists that things must be done a certain way. In one of the season’s best scenes, he gently probes the death with Norman, underplaying every remark in a way that implies years of carefully-honed training. He treats the dead man with reverence but gently suggests that the victim was perpetually angry and sad. He extends Norman the respect inherent in not arguing when the young man blames himself. He sincerely addresses the kid’s concern over Cody’s future. There’s no gamesmanship in this interrogation, it’s simply two men connecting over the momentousness of a death, and trying to figure out what it means.
What it ends up meaning, when all is said and done, is the dissolution of Cody and Norman’s relationship, and she must move to Indiana for new guardianship. The two end on as pleasant terms as possible, given the circumstances, but there’s an edge to it: before she drives away, she urges Norman to press Norma for details on his condition, because “whatever it is, it scares the shit out of her [Norma].” It’s clear that Cody knows she’s leaving Norman more broken that when she found him, and so there’s obviously an element of self-preservation and guilt at play when she lets Norman down and tells her that she won’t call, she won’t write. I will miss Cody, because despite being a character who danced close to the land of cliché more than once, she was wonderfully played by Paloma Kwiatkowski (see her mounting horror during the Norma women’s room scene for more proof of that). And she instilled in Norman a spark of rebellion and empowerment that we need, at this juncture in the story. So the following scene, where Norma and Norman finally have it out, climaxing with mother stating in no uncertain (and certainly not confidence-building) terms that she will not—she will NOT—answer his questions, has the feeling of wonderful release, even though it leaves things devastatingly uncertain.
Also uncertain: what are we to make of Norman’s vow to Emma that he can’t ever trust her again? A joke? A sincerely-meant feeling that he intentionally tosses off as a joke? The scene seems to exist on multiple contradictory levels at the same time. Perhaps that’s further testament to the crumbling psyche of Norman. It’s going to get even worse for him, because just as he’s cleared of one murder, his DNA becomes primary evidence in the Miss Watson case, as his semen matches that found at the scene. When God closes a door, eh? It’s a very clever way to misdirect our attention, the whole Cody situation, as by now we’ve almost completely forgotten about the Watson murder, but what sells it is the fact that it’s not just a writer’s trick, it’s more like Norman’s last hurrah as a non-entity in Sheriff Romero’s book, and it illustrates how Norman’s growing psychosis can innocently exploit the trust that others are willing to lend him. Now Romero will have to start all over with the boy, and that threat may very well be the end of the line in terms of Norman’s other, murderous personality allowing him to play so innocent.
This is scary stuff, real walls-closing-in material for practically everyone here. And I like the inherent parallel drawn between Romero and the Bates family: both have worlds that are shattering, because I daresay Romero has never met anyone like Norman before: a nice boy who can take full responsibility for one death while perhaps not even realizing to perhaps claim it for another. In essence, Norman Bates is essentially Romero’s own past come to haunt him. Although Norman is not a native, in very many ways, he has become White Pine Bay in human form: still, unassuming waters with nasty violence bubbling beneath, erupting at any moment. Romero looked the other way from the drug trade, fed it, allowed it to foster prosperity, and ultimately paid the prince. What’s a little moral compromise in a town that’s built on such things, eh, sheriff?
That said, the drug stuff this week is…a little weak. Not terrible, and not enough to downgrade from an “A” (I refuse). Tellingly, the best Dylan scene is the one where he intersects with the main plot, as Emma tries to appeal to Dylan’s sense of family, which he rejects because he’s enough of a pouter that he pretends to be unmoved when his brother (or “brother”) is suspected of murder. Disgusted, Emma departs with a withering put-down (“I wish I had a mother and brother that I could treat like shit”) which would probably affect Dylan if he weren’t embroiled in a passive-aggressive power play with Zane.
Newly deputized by Zane’s sister to be the man behind the man, his status is supposed to be a secret, but Zane says he knows, and then the unstable Zane begins to almost flaunt the fact that Dylan can’t really control him. That climaxes with an ill-advised raid on one of Nick Ford’s warehouses, which Dylan condemns, so he’s pistol-whipped and left for dead, regaining consciousness just to see a massacre happen about 100 yards away. Where this leaves Dylan in the drug trade is uncertain, but now that he’s learned that his alternative family can be just as nasty as Norma (drug dealers? No way!), I hope he has the sense to move back home.
“Presumed Innocent” was directed by Roxann Dawson, who is new to Bates Motel, but certainly not to television, a former Star Trek: Voyager actress who now directs TV full time. She’s a pro, and I loved the little details she puts into this episode: not just the fugitive moments we see at the police station, but also the morning breakfast scene, where Norman takes his mother’s role and wears her frilly apron, in a scene shot so close that we expect Norma to be at the stove before she appears in background. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing, and a clever play on the language the show has been teaching us via multiple previous breakfast scenes. There’s also a wonderful visual moment early on where Norma leans awkwardly into a hallway to speak to someone—a neat bit that signifies the moment in the episode where everyone essentially stops talking straight with her. That Dawson is able to coax such wonderful performances out of the entire cast this week is perhaps unsurprising, given the caliber of said cast, but it’s still a delight to see.
As is “Presumed Innocent.” What an absolutely terrific episode. More like this, please, Bates Motel.