This week’s episode of Bates Motel, “Trust Me,” is so far the series’ strongest installment, and also its most cohesive. For once, everything seems to be in synch: the off-kilter performances, the sense of small town menace, the peculiar supporting characters, the teen drama, the family conflicts. If this is an example of what we can look forward to from Bates Motel every week now that the set up and introductory episodes are out of the way, then I’m more optimistic about the longevity of the series. Good timing, too: Bates Motel just got picked up for a second season.
“Trust Me” gains much strength from the fact that the opening act of the first season is completed, and now we can move onto plot developments that stymie and challenge our expectations. This is an especially crucial turning point since Bates Motel being a Psycho prequel means that our expectations come fully formed. So it’s good to see them threatening to smash some of those expectations to bits. I like it when a TV series establishes rules for what it will or won’t do, and then begins to deliberately, smartly, break those rules. Not that anything too shocking happens in “Trust Me,” but there are developments here that seem to be testing the shackles of Bates Motel’s “prequel-ness.” Good, I say.
Let’s start with the biggest example, the ongoing police investigation into Mr. Summers’ death, represented by the double act of Sherriff Romero and Deputy Shelby. Shelby is more front-and-center as an antagonist, especially after Norman barely escapes from seeing the chained-up girl in the deputy’s basement (with a little help from Dylan, who we learn was following Norman the whole time). Although Norman tells his mother of this development, the next night Norma enjoys a little post-coital snooping around the deputy’s basement, and comes up with nothing. Did Norman imagine the whole ordeal? We know he’s prone to hallucinations and an inflamed imagination…
Yet Shelby’s threatening presence hangs over the episode. He doesn’t seem to know that Norman was down there, but his every action seems soaked in ulterior motives. His frequent shacking up with Norma now feels more salacious and unwholesome. He bumps into Norman on the street, and the encounter is decidedly passive-aggressive. And his subsequent fishing trip with the young lad (where he insists he’s going to be in his life whether he likes it or not) has a touch of sincere creepiness. Norman is still suspicious that the deputy will abuse the power he has over the family, and we may see that borne out in how quickly Norma is brought in for questioning once a severed hand is drug out of the bay. The sheriff eventually admits he has very little evidence…is this simply the deputy leading his boss by the nose?
Whatever the motivations (and I’m sure we’ll find out more later), I like that Bates Motel is tightening the screws on the Bates family, refusing to make things easy for them. Carlton Cuse and his staff know that this mother and son can’t exist free of real legal danger in perpetuity, because then the series would feel impossibly reverse-engineered from the original film. By adding these plot wrinkles, Bates Motel is making its first truly persuasive case that it has a fleshed out story to tell, not just a vague outline of “Psycho prequel + Twin Peaks.”
What also helps that assessment is that the episode is, comparatively, tightly focused. While questions remain in the series’ overall tapestry, like “what’s going on with the sex slave ring and the pot farm?” and new ones are asked like “do Dylan and Deputy Shelby already know each other?” they are primarily shifted to the back burner to focus on the family drama. Norma, falling into an emotional tailspin when the path to further police action becomes painfully clear, is distant, not aided by the fact that her late-night booty calls with the deputy already leave Norman feeling jealous and possessive. At Norma’s low point, the young man even lashes out at her with an angry chorus of “I told you so,” which, given who we’re talking about here, is a step that borders on apocalyptic.
As if sensing the power vacuum here, Dylan steps into a more nurturing role in the house: grocery buyer, conscience, and even confidant to the despairing Norman, who, desperate for an ally, spills everything about the Summers murder to Dylan (in a scene well-played by both actors). While this inspires Dylan’s own confrontation with Norma, it also believably leaves Norman in a place that is receptive to hear Dylan’s advice to go over to Bradley’s house. For once, Dylan actually seems to care about his half-brother’s well-being, rather than just one-upping his mother.
And so Norman makes a late night visit to Bradley’s while Norma wakes up in the middle of the night and worries (in a neat reversal of Norman’s own worries from earlier). Bradley, who has now officially lost her burned father, bonds with Norman over the pair’s mutually shared grief for absent dads, and so answering Bradley’s late night text, Norman comforts the nice girl in her house, and then, rather surprisingly, he loses his virginity to her.
This is a bold note, tenderly played, and I like the way the show is marking the tragedy of Norman Bates, who not only could have a normal teen life, but in these rare fleeting moments, actually does. (Emma is MIA this week, nursing an infection, and so I expect a love triangle to emerge here; we’ll see how what happens.) Of course, every time Norman goes out with a friend, bad things happen, and so that’s exactly the moment that Norma is arrested for murder. I don’t think the boy’s going to take that well. But it’s another well-conceived brick in the road that Bates Motel is paving, and it’s refreshing to see what looks like a solid direction for that road to take.