Season 2, Episode 8: Meltdown
I’ve had long-standing issues with the A&E series Bates Motel. The central characters Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) are fascinating, fully realized variations on the originals introduced to wide audiences in Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1960 Psycho. Sticking to the central locale of the Bates house and vacant motel is the key to the series success. The claustrophobia of Farmiga and Highmore bouncing off each other like seasoned theater pros is exhilarating.
But the Bates Motel creators have surrounded Norma/Norman with one of the blandest casts on television. They are interferingly boring, diverting our attention from the core story without adding to the mythology in any productive way.
The latest episode, Meltdown, underscores the problem. It begins with the fallout from Norma (justly) sabotaging Norman’s driver’s license test by revealing he suffers from blackouts. She conveniently omits his homicidal tendencies experienced during said blackouts.
Being an emotional teenager, Norman gives his mother the cold shoulder, and, through the episode, escalates in his subtle torment. The highlight of the episode is a brief scene in which Norman moves his taxidermy projects from the shadowy basement onto the living room mantle. We know it as the introduction of his infamous bird collection memorably featured in the 1960 film. Norma asks Norman if this is payback for her transgression. No, Norma, that’s not payback. You don’t want to ask about Norman’s payback.
The episode culminates in something of an epic showdown between the two. After fleeing a date where filet mignon and sex are offered, she returns home to Norman for comforting cuddles and their favorite family film, Double Indemnity. Norman refuses her affection, accusing Norma of betraying him and violating his trust. It’s the first time we see Norman’s pastel exterior crack and really direct his internal rage at Norma. This, coupled with a scene earlier in the season where “Mother” made her first appearance, is what I’m looking for out of Bates Motel.
Unfortunately, there’s roughly 45 other minutes of filler.
We have a few scenes of the mysterious town puppet master, Nick Ford, first offering Norma parenting advice but then later threatening her, her son Dylan, and presumably orchestrating Norman’s kidnapping that closes the episode. A villain in a show is obviously a good thing, but, when you’re paired against a hormonal Norman Bates, the heavy has to have more menace than the Quaker Oats man.
It’s interesting to add Dylan has Norman Bates half-brother, but only engaging when directly interacting with Norma and Norman. It proves true again this episode where his strongest scene is a visit at the “office” (drug den) by Norma. She has the line of the night when describing his locale:
“It’s nice Dylan. I mean, I don’t like the marijuana part, but I’m glad you’re doing so well.”
That line taking fully into the context of Norma Bates’s mothering skills is black comedy gold.
Unfortunately, Dylan’s storylines are usually where I go cross-eyed. He has drifted from the Bates house into drug trafficking, ultimately falling prey to a femme fatale who is obviously seducing him to kill her trouble-making brother. I see the point of having these characters around – juxtaposing families against the central Bates family – but it doesn’t enhance the themes. It waters them down.
Finally, the other major development of the evening was the revelation that the wrong man was convicted of murdering Norman’s slutty English teacher (there’s a well-trodden stereotype) just as Sheriff Romero discovered a match for Norman’s bodily fluid on her person. Romero initially covers for Norman unexpectedly but then confronts him, driving Norman running girlishly into the rain into the Bates house.
I’m being patient while the show rolls out its own version of the Norman Bates mythology. I enjoy the visual cues and references to the original film. But, if they don’t start picking up the speed in that direction and away from subpar subplots, I’m going to lose interest fast.
And I suspect Mother wouldn’t like that. Not at all.