‘Bates Motel:’ A Mother’s Work is Never Done

Bates Motel

A&E’s Bates Motel returns to begin the descent toward its inevitable conclusion

I welcome the season four premiere of Bates Motel with equal parts excitement and trepidation.

It’s not a question of quality. In fact, tonight’s season premiere was one of more exciting and sure-footed premieres the series has offered yet. No, it’s more of a question of wanting to avoid the inevitable. Assuming Bates Motel follows the inspiration of its predecessor Psycho, we know how all of this turns out. Thanks to the fantastic central performance of Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates, I kind of don’t want it to end in the traditional way.

After all, this Norma isn’t the frail prude lovers of Hitchcock’s original always imagined her to be, right? Farmiga’s Norma could kick Norma’s ass, I think. I’m just putting that out in the universe. It doesn’t have to end in a traditional way. Just sayin’…

At any rate, Bates Motel season four kicks things off with the favorite pastime of its main characters: cleaning up the bodies. As we ended season three with “Norma’s” first rolling of a car into the lake, we begin the new season with Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) sinking a boat with Bob Paris’s (Kevin Rahm) body in the hold. More critically, Norman is missing, and Norma (Farmiga) and brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) are frantically searching for him. Norman awakens in a field, repeatedly chatting with mother until an alarmed farmer knocks him unconscious. Despite Norma’s best efforts, Norman is forced to remain confined in a county-level psych ward for 48 hours. Through all of this, sweet Emma (Olivia Cooke) undergoes her much-anticipated lung transplant as her mother returns to town to reconnect.

This season premiere is notable for a marked shift in Norma’s characterization. She finally acknowledges the need to confront Norman’s psychotic breaks thanks to the threat of having him taken away. Sympathy for Norma may be a little bit of sympathy for the devil, but Farmiga works it for all she’s worth. Sure, Norman’s issues could and should have been addressed years before he becomes a murderer. She ignored the omens completely as one of television’s worst mothers on record.

Bates Motel

Yet, the beauty of Farmiga’s performance continues to root itself in the way she sympathizes with Norma’s dilemma. Her performance is best measured step by step through the seasons. We understand the problem with ignoring Norman’s psychotic breaks. We also understand how incredibly powerful Norma’s denial is. Season four shows Norma running from that denial, even if she comically returns to it inadvertently. I particularly loved a sequence in which she spent time cutting Norman’s hair preparing for a doctor’s visit while he casually describes a murderous “dream.”

The deliberate pace of the first three seasons has allowed Freddie Highmore the opportunity to grow into the Norma/Norman split. By the end of the season premiere, “mother” is at it again. It no longer feels like a child at work. Instead, Highmore has grown into the deadly adult we need Norman to be. The pair of Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore is evolves into a beautifully symbiotic acting relationship. Their scenes together are master classes, and they remain criminally under-recognized actors inhabiting these roles.

And that, finally, could be said of Bates Motel itself. After seasons of meandering subplots taking us away from our collective obsession over the central characters, the series has finally established itself on the road toward the inevitable conclusion. Even knowing (presumably knowing, I should say) the ending, I still find myself rooting for Norma to perhaps change the future. Bates Motel hasn’t the best drama on television, but it has steadily gotten better as its stories have gotten tighter. It is, though, one of the best acted dramas and most underrated dramas on television. Anyone telling you otherwise is fooling you.

But they won’t fool mother though…

Bates Motel
Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as her son, Norman in “Bates Motel.” (Photos courtesy of Bettina Strauss/Bettina Strauss/ A&E)

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