I always appreciate it when a show has the audacity to go a little bit off-model. To introduce an element that’s completely unexpected and pull it off requires a good deal of confidence. It takes hutzpah. So I have to admit I sat up and smiled during the rather emotional climax of “Shadow of a Doubt,” which consists of not violence or creepiness but instead…a musical number. It’s a song sung by Norma Bates during a tryout for a community theater production of South Pacific, and while I’m sure that it annoyed some (“What is this, Glee?”), and I get that, it won me over.
Of course, it helps that the song Norma picks isn’t one from South Pacific at all, which is common during a show tryout. Instead, the song Norma picks is from Cabaret. “Maybe This Time” is a number sung by the show’s heroine, nightclub singer Sally Bowles, when she’s at her most hopeful, as she tries to cling to an opportunity that may be her ticket out of a shabby, miserable existence. She’s been hurt before, and you get the sense she doesn’t quite believe what she’s saying when she sings it…but she wants to believe, oh so badly. In the show, it’s a heroine’s plaintive plea for happiness against both her own nature and the frightening societal forces threatening to consume her (it takes place during the growing pains of the Third Reich).
Not far removed at all from Norma, eh? I’m not saying that a town built on pot dealing is equivalent to Nazi Germany. At all. And Sally Bowles never had a twitchy son to deal with…but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless between these two heroines, and I give Bates Motel credit for selecting it and not underlining their own cleverness in any way. It also helps that Farmiga gives a perfect performance in here. She pours her heart into the song, and she’s rough enough for you to believe that she’s taking this up as a hobby, and just good enough that you believe it when the show’s director winds up impressed. In fact, the only thing from the audition sequence that I didn’t believe was that a random townswoman tries out with a Gilbert and Sullivan number, when in actuality the night would be pretty much wall-to-wall Wicked and Les Miz.
Anyway. The audition sequence attempts a reconciliation, of sorts, between Norma and Norman, after two episodes of them being driven further and further apart. Norma is alarmed, understandably, when she finds Miss Watson’s pearl necklace in Norman’s room, and she pushes Norman into tryouts in a desperate bid to install some normalcy into her son’s life, however late it may be. (Yeah, mom, that’s how you stay balanced and well-adjusted. Hanging out with theater people!) Norman’s distracted because Bradley is currently seeking refuge in the basement after last week’s predicament, and after Norman tries to set Norma’s mind at ease about the pearl necklace, he enlists Dylan’s help to get Bradley to permanent safety and goes back to the auditions with Norma. It’s probably the sweetest thing Norman has done for his mother in the entire series so far, although it’s born out of fear and desperation (Norma breaks down as she gets Norman’s newest revision of the truth, and it’s agonizing to watch). These little moments helps the reality of the show so much, and help the episode earn it’s respectively “up” ending, which I think is a first. (And hopefully not the last, because the doom and gloom that is Bates Motel’s bread and butter is so much more effective when it’s leavened just a tad).
Norman’s late-game phone call to Dylan that kickstarts that ending is one of my favorite types of storytelling tropes: where a morally ambigious character gets the screws put to him or her. Earlier on, Dylan and Remo discover the murder of Gil, and the “operation” sends in a new face to take over and do clean up. That would be Zeke, a man who does not come well-recommended by Remo, and after a few minutes with him Dylan is himself unimpressed with the man’s unflagging coarseness and stupidity. It’s a moment that informs Dylan’s ultimate decision to assist Norman honestly and get Bradley away from town rather than finger her as Gil’s murderer to the organization. Is he becoming disillusioned with criminality, or is he possibly just thinking about switching sides (there’s talk this week of a rival drug enterprise, one that may capitalize on Gil’s death by making a violent bid for control).
So, anyway, Dylan does the right thing (or is it “the right thing”?) and makes sure Bradley gets on a bus safely. At this point, we say goodbye (for now?) to Bradley, because Nicola Peltz had Transformers 4 to be in. Whether she’ll be back remains unclear at this point, but after being rather ambivalent towards the character in season one, I suddenly feel her presence may be keenly felt. That’s probably because of the sweet little note that she writes Norman, saying that he’s the best person she’s ever known. Ironic, yes. But for the time being, it’s also very nice (although the moment is underlined by a pop song in true, irritating, WB fashion). A boy like Norman needs encouragement and it gets to what I was talking about earlier: a few more sweet endings like this will help the requisite sour ones pack a nastier punch.
Looking back over the past two episodes, Bradley’s arc probably moved a little bit too quickly—a necessity, probably of resolving Bradley’s loose ends with Peltz’s shortened availability. That’s the nature of television, and it’s one of the things that can be most fascinating about it: the way that, inevitably, outside factors influence story, and certainly Carlton Cuse is no stranger to that. I’m just predicting here, but I think it’s safe to assume that the Bradley-sized hole in Bates Motel’s cast will be filled out quickly, perhaps by the perky, dark-haired checkout clerk who appears this week in order to strike up a conversation with Norman…the scene runs a little bit too long and calls too much attention to itself to be anything other than a new character audition, not that that’s a bad thing. Otherwise, Norman’s only option is to hang out with Emma, a character who, for the second week in a row, is reduced to being a mouthpiece for exposition in a single scene.
What’s that exposition about? Oh, this week’s subplot, which is about Sheriff Romero juggling both Gil’s death and the ongoing investigation of Miss Watson’s death. Turns out the man that Norman spotted last week at Miss Watson’s grave was her father, who has a low opinion of Romero not making an arrest in his daughter’s case and—four months into the investigation—I have to say that I agree. This leads to him hastily arresting a boy named Kyle, who definitely had sex with Watson before she died…but his is one of two semen samples, and whose is the other? Gil’s? Norman’s? These scenes function on the basic level of clue-dropping, but in terms of drama, they don’t work, simply because it’s shifting the spotlight over to a new character that we don’t care about. Kyle’s either innocent or guilty…we don’t know enough about him to make our own conclusion, so really, we’re just waiting to be given an answer. However pivotal that answer may be to the other characters on the show, the anxiety of getting it doesn’t materialize here, because both of Kyle’s scenes just lay flat. And with good reason. The show’s not about him.
Hopefully, Bates Motel can keep a leash on this legion of new characters, because the final scene introduces us to another: a man claiming to be Norma’s brother. I have to admit, as far as interesting cliffhangers go…this isn’t one. But, okay, let’s see where this goes. I’m usually annoyed with long lost relatives that are invented on the spot to serve story twists. But…well…maybe this time, right?