Last week, Bates Motel piled on the crazy elements in an off-putting attempt to capture the small town weirdness of one of the show’s inspirations, Twin Peaks. This week, Bates Motel took a step back from introducing new pieces, devoting more time instead to how the established pieces fit together. While the attempt wasn’t the grand slam that I wanted it to be, it at least showed that the strategy of the series, going forward, isn’t necessarily going to be just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Although I have a feeling that will eventually come.
As we pick things up, Norman is still decompressing from his Nancy Drew-esque adventure with Emma from last week, so much so that he actually blacks out during class, just after a mini-psychotic episode where he fantasizes about his teacher appearing in sketches from the journal still held by Emma. Emma, who feels incredibly guilty about dragging Norman into all this, nevertheless steadies her resolve to get to the bottom of this mystery. In a nice bit of restraint in the writing, Emma makes an effective case for why the circumstances of these girls’ deaths matter, without ever underlining the fact that someday soon, she will be a dead girl herself.
Speaking of women who will be dead soon, Norma is doing everything she can to keep things from falling apart, which is made much more difficult a task when the sheriff’s men arrive at the Bates Mansion with a warrant. She’s not concerned, because she doesn’t know about Norman’s burgeoning tendency to take mementos from murder scenes, like Mr. Summers’ belt, which is stashed under Norman’s bed until Deputy Shelby finds it. This leads to a fit of panic from Mrs. Bates and so she cozies up to the deputy over dinner to pry information out of him, which eventually, presumably leads to some late night action. (She stays out way past her expected time, and Norman grows…nervous? Jealous?) Farmiga continues to impress as sociopathic Norma, especially the way she kinda stumbles into seducing the Deputy while still giving the impression that, as a human being, she’s barely given him a passing thought.
Meanwhile, Dylan meets up with his acquaintance who offered him a job last week—and wouldn’t you know it, these folks are connected to the White Pine Bay drug trade (to be fair, everyone is, apparently). Soon Dylan is out patrolling the pot field, learning tidbits about the trade and their connections to other townspeople (including those two burn victims we saw last week), and then…that’s it. The Dylan material is the weakest stuff this week, because it just feels like a placeholder for establishing future conflict, and Dylan is such a walking cliché (the arrogant, slacker half-brother who disrespects the family) that I can’t drum up much interest. Even his scene with Norman this week is off, because it’s essentially a repeat of last week’s conflict (“Mom’s smothering you”), at reduced temperature.
The connective tissue between all of these elements is Norman, and I’m glad that this week Bates Motel has allowed Norman to come into the fore, and really started to think about the things that make him tick. His classroom fantasy felt like a plausible melding of sex and violence that a typical killer would be inspired by, and I like his whimpering “What is wrong with me?” when he realizes his missing murder souvenir might be the family’s undoing, which is matched by a perfect delivery of “I don’t know” when Norma presses him to explain what he was thinking, and he can’t.
Even one of my issues from last week feel like it’s being cleaned up here, as Norman’s attack on Dylan might have been another blackout, as the boy doesn’t remember anything about it. This at least adds some wrinkles about Norman’s character rather than just going for an easy beat of violence. We’re also explicitly told that Norman suffers from hallucinations associated with guilt (Norma comes to him in a vision), and I like the series’ stabs (here and there) so far at figuring out these early phases of psychosis.
And it’s especially good to see Norman taking action, even when it’s foolhardy action like breaking into the Deputy’s house to recover the belt, leaving fingerprints everywhere, and the venturing downstairs to check out the deputy’s terror dungeon, complete with a malnourished Chinese sex slave. It’s clear to me that every episode of Bates Motel is going to end with a mythology-spinning gotcha!-style revelation (like Lost, but so far not done as well), but here I can’t say it’s very shocking, if only because the Deputy so far is such a cipher (and numerous characters have said what a good guy he is), that of course he’s holding a young woman in his basement; that’s the cynical twist-for-twist’s-sake level that Bates Motel seems to like operating on. We’ll see what happens with it.
Bates Motel, given a few more episodes, might be falling into a nice little groove here, although, I hate to keep pointing this out, but much of the dialogue remains terrible. My favorite moment was when Bradley, Norman’s classmate, visits him in the hospital post-blackout, and then Norman returns the sentiment when he says, meekly: “How’s your dad?” Oh, you mean the massively third-degree-burned stunt driver from last week? Yeah, that guy. Or how about when Norma and Norman talk about their paranoia regarding the police investigation right in the hospital hallway? Nevertheless, the relationship between mother and son remains compelling. I especially liked the way Norma’s voice registered such disappointment in Norma’s behavior, reminding us of the times that maybe we let down our own mothers in our lives, although probably not in ways that involved the threat of capital punishment.