With only two episodes left in Bates Motel’s first season, it’s surprising to see the season’s penultimate entry, “Underwater,” engaging in so much wheel-spinning. Things happen in this episode, to be sure. Events occur. Dialogue is exchanged. Plot ideas are dangled in front of us in subtle and blunt ways. But very few of the things that happen here feel very relevant to the ongoing storyline. It’s telling that in the episode’s final moments, as a cliffhanger to lead into the season finale, the show has to half-invent a crisis out of thin air.
The focus of the episode is on Norma, as she grows increasingly fed up with this town and its inhabitants; the dead body found in her bed last week certainly not helping matters. (We never find out to whom that body belonged to, by the way.) Vera Farmiga, a very good and dependable actress, is at her most manic and flustered in this week’s installment, reacting angrily to everything and everyone, whether it be her sons’ snarky remarks as they burn a soiled mattress or Dylan’s cadre of motel guests that are found smoking pot right on the porch. The altercation she has with them returns to a theme introduced several weeks ago (that White Pine Bay is a town whose economy runs on drug money, and the police are complicit in that endeavor), but the main takeaway that Norma has is that it’s time for she and Norman to skip town for good.
This, as a subplot, I submit, is flawed from one key standpoint: we know that they won’t. Never mind the fact that there’s no show called Bates Motel if Norma Bates gives up the motel, but there’s also no Psycho, either. So despite much blustering from Norma about how they need to leave, there’s no real tension here, except in the scene where Norman finally tells his mother off, complaining that she’s always looking for a quick fix, that misery and trouble follows the family everywhere they go, and that she, Norma, is crazy. The moment is played for small, tragic irony (given what we know about Norman), and seems to be the sole moment that supplies a point to the “we’re leaving town” subplot…so naturally it must be undercut immediately with a scene where Emma has a bad reaction to a marijuana-laced cupcake.
Emma, who the writers seemed to have such a good handle on last week in the scenes where she stood up for Norman, really takes a tumble here, shoehorned into a tiny little sequence about her and one of the pot harvesters, who she catches smoking a joint. The kid, who clearly is taken with Emma, gifts her the aforementioned cupcake, which Emma (knowing full well what it is) pushes aside but then eventually indulges, too quickly. The chain of events feels pretty arbitrary, reverse-engineered to get Emma high but with no internal character logic that would make the whole thing work. And for what? A little, quirky humor beat that doesn’t really pay off any other way. It feels designed to keep Emma in play and also plant the seed of a little flirtation between her and Johnny Cupcake, but not in a way that makes sense at all for who she is.
There’s a lot of that going around this week, however, since much of the episode involves characters thinking about trading in their romantic partners. Norman’s teacher, Miss Watson, becomes increasingly supportive of his creative writing efforts, and there’s an unmistakable sexual undercurrent that bubbles through their scenes. It makes sense from Norman’s perspective (he feels unloved at home, and Mrs. Watson, with her fashion choices that seem plucked from the 1940s, makes an agreeable mother surrogate). But I don’t have a clue what his teacher is thinking here, although this happens quite a lot in real life these days, and I don’t truly understand it then, either. So I’ll give it a pass
Meanwhile, Bradley and Dylan grow much closer this week, as she enlists his help to break into her dad’s former office, in the building where the drug operation is carried out. There’s nothing overtly romantic in Bradley and Dylan’s scenes here, but I chalk that up to a lack of chemistry rather than effort, because any student of television has a nose for stories that exist solely to pair off previously unconnected characters, and this qualifies. The break-in is surprisingly easily accomplished (one altercation between Dylan and Danny is brushed away). Bradley, because she’s such a soulful snowflake, is looking for a locket from her father but comes across some suspicious letters that might prove an affair, and so Dylan comforts her…and that’s basically it. The way Dylan looks at Bradley, it’s clear what he’s thinking, and she’s just dumb and confused enough to probably fall for it. Which means it’s a little silly that we’re going to be strung along for a little while on this romantic subplot, which will exist solely to drive Norman bonkers.
Not that he needs much of a push; we learn tonight that he’s having dreams involving drowning Bradley in a tub, and with his stuffed dog now staring at him in his room, his violent tendencies now being questioned by his brother, and his relationship with mom near the breaking point, it’s clear that Norman Bates is well on the road to becoming the man he’s meant to be. In the episode’s creepiest scene, Norma, disgusted at sleeping in a room that held a corpse, climbs into Norman’s bed and waves off the boy’s attempts to sleep separately on the floor. Norman, who still has at least one foot in the realm of normalcy, knows this isn’t right, but it’s clear that he enjoys it a little too much to fuss, which is a chilling note of the two’s intimacy, but it still feels kinda been there, done that.
Norma, for her part, reaches her fever pitch when she assaults her real estate agent with her handbag, after learning in no uncertain terms that Bates Motel is now (thanks to the coming expressway) practically a worthless property. As if sensing that someone is needed to really put a button on Norma’s bottoming-out desperation, in comes Mr. Abernathy, An unseen menace this week until this moment (he sent a bouquet of flowers that the Sherriff dismissed as any threat), he surprises Norma in her car. He insists that Deputy Shelby owed him $150,000 and that Norma is the only one left who would have it. Delivering both an ultimatum and a rendezvous point, he’s soon on his way, leaving Norma to figure out what the heck she’s going to do, and leaving us in the audience to wish that this episode had more of that tension, that inexorable sense of building towards tragic and grave consequences, and fewer kooky scenes involving pot cupcakes.