“Parents do not have needs. You ever read the book ‘The Giving Tree?’ It’s about this tree and this kid keeps coming and taking stuff from it his whole life until there’s nothing left but a stump and then the kid sits on the stump. That’s being a parent.” – Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), Bates Motel
Few television actresses are giving the kind of material that Vera Farmiga has been blessed with in A&E’s drama Bates Motel, which recently completed a much-improved third season that saw the series draw closer to the original Psycho mythology. As Norma Louise Bates, Farmiga’s turn over the show’s first two seasons primarily focused on two aspects of her character: her unending love for her son, Norman (played by the brilliant Freddie Highmore), and her admirable (to a fault) ability to ignore the truth and plow forward with psychotically plucky optimism.
Yet, in Season Three, Farmiga and her writers have grown Norma beyond the singular tropes that covered the first two seasons. Her cracks and neuroses begin to unravel, exposing the raw nerve at the core of this battered and embattled woman. Farmiga’s performance over Bates‘ third season ranges from one of a mother’s unbridled adoration to a woman scorned’s fury to a sexual woman’s seduction to giddy (if fleeting) empowerment. Farmiga’s transformation over the season has been a marvel of complex and awe-inspiring acting, and, if the Emmy gods pay attention, then she will be awarded with a nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series on nomination morning.
Farmiga’s finest hour over the 10-episode season (and hopefully one she considers for her official Emmy submission) was its sixth hour: “Norma Louise.” Here, Norma reacts poorly to an earlier confrontation with her sons – Dylan and Norman – over her brother’s secret wish to reconnect with her. Remember that Norma’s brother effectively raped her as a young girl, impregnating her with Dylan. Furious at her sons and terrified of the potential reconnection, Norma storms out of the house, fleeing White Pine Bay in an attempt to restart her life. That’s what Norma does – she runs away, constantly looking for the Next Best Thing. In Portland, she tries on a new persona by buying new clothes and trading in her car. When she seduces a man at a bar, he assumes things will progress in his truck, but Norma, faced with sexuality as the unsettling undercurrent of her brother’s actions loom large, freaks out on him, raging against the confused suitor.
Later, she experiences a similar attraction/repulsion relationship with psychologist James Finnigan who attempts to dive into her troubled past under the guise of helping Norman. It’s clear he considers her damaged goods as well. She begins to open up to him after he gently earns her trust and shares perhaps a bit too much about her past. Frightened, she tries to leave, but James pulls her back inside, carrying her upstairs where she can rest. Norma then does what only a sexual creature can: she uses her looks and body to divert James’s focus on her troubled past. Despite the inappropriate nature of the relationship, Norma is able to fully seduce him. When she arrives home, she agrees to meet with Caleb, and the episode culminates in a tender, emotional scene in which the two damaged people ultimately – if only for a moment – reconnect with tears and embraces.
Just within the single episode, Farmiga leads us on an incredible journey through the tortured psyche of Norma Bates from mother to whore to the damaged little girl in a woman’s body. It’s a touching, incredibly powerful episode that changes not only the character of Norma Bates but the direction of the series. Only an actress of incredible range and laser focus could convincingly take us on this journey, let alone leave such vivid scenes burned into our collective memories. Taken piece by piece, Norma’s path over the season dangers on touching so many emotional hot spots as to become unbelievable, yet, somehow, Farmiga carries it beautifully. Whether though outcries of rage or silent glances, she manages to gracefully connect the pieces of Norma Bates. Even in the subsequent episode – “The Last Supper” – she tries to return to the bliss of ignorance, to regress into the world of denial, by constructing an impossibly perfect family meal, and Farmiga makes the regression a believable one. Here is a woman that, above all, wants a sense of normalcy in her life – the one thing she can never have.
Vera Farmiga has always been a top-notch actress – the rare combination of beauty, brains, and raw sexuality that echoes the great Hollywood actresses of the 1940s. However, modern Hollywood doesn’t understand how to use her. Fortunately for her and us, she has been given the opportunity to mold one of cinema’s most infamous mothers into a flesh and blood woman on television. Bates Motel isn’t the story of Norman Bates, ultimately. It’s more the story of (presumably) the fall of Norma Bates, the shattering of a woman whose greatest mistake was thinking she could be a good mother.
Farmiga has once before been Emmy nominated for the role in Season One but was overlooked in Season Two (understandable given the overall deterioration in quality for the sophomore season). Yet, Emmy voters need to reconsider her towering achievements in Season Three and nominate her once more. The field is crowded for sure, but there is little excuse for not recognizing this talented actress this year. I beg all Emmy voters to consider her “Norma Louise” performance before checking off the obligatory Julianna Margulies or Viola Davis boxes (no offense to those fine actresses).
You wouldn’t want to upset Mother, would you?