Review: Bates Motel ‘A Death in the Family’

When I came upstairs into my bonus room to watch A&Es Bates Motel, the closed captioning was defaulting to on. Sometimes, with all the Scandal, Bachelor, or Revenge going on downstairs, it’s difficult to hear the quieter dialogue upstairs, so I have to resort to old-people TV watching. I mention this because Season Three of Bates Motel begins with Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) spooning with his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). On-screen, the closed captioning revealed that “Eerie music” was playing.

Honestly, it didn’t have to tell me that. The music was the least eerie thing about the whole scene.

In its third season, Bates Motel has to figure out what it exactly wants to be. Season One felt like a pale imitation of Twin Peaks with its picturesque Northeastern vistas serving as backdrop to a mixture of drug trafficking, sex trades, and the central business between Norma and Norman. Season Two shifted its focus more on the town’s drug trade while escalating (slowly and lately in the season) Norman’s mental instability. It ended a dull span of episodes with a tense season finale, fully revealing the monster we always knew Norman Bates could be. So, Season Three, in my opinion, needs to start shuttling its characters towards their final (inevitable) conclusion. As an independent piece of entertainment, its only success outside of the Norma/Norman dynamic has been with a new character, Norman’s step brother Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), who is arguably the only new character with a fully fleshed personality profile. Everyone else seems to be The Teacher, The Nice Girl, The Cop, The Whore…


In the season premiere, it’s time for Norman to go back to high school and begin his senior year. After spending a summer in Norma’s arms (and bed), he doesn’t feel the motivation. The premiere’s best sequence involves Norma and Norman having an argument in front of the school before she forcibly removes him from her car. With everyone watching. Later, Norman attempts to eat lunch in the cafeteria but hallucinates the talking, bloody corpse of Miss Blair Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy). After running home and uncharacteristically admitting the truth to his mother, Norman manages to negotiate home schooling and a promotion to hotel manager. Thus sets into motion Norman’s budding isolation at the hotel while effectively eliminating the unnecessary Bates 90210 feel to the high school drama from Season One and partial Season Two.

This development is critically important to the overall story as Norman finds himself attracted to a new hotel resident. Later in the episode, he catches sight of her in her bra and panties, preparing to take a shower. The familiar sound of a shower turning on and water running into the tub is a welcome beacon to faithful viewers. Norma catches him snooping and gives him a brief, stern lecture. After all, he’s motel manager now.

Norma isn’t really herself this episode. She’s dealing with a sort of attraction/repulsion to Norman’s clinginess (drug-dealing Dylan has to tell her its not appropriate) and with the death of her estranged, mentally damaged mother. At first, Norma doesn’t care, but she later breaks down in a tender moment, lamenting the fact that she never really had a mother. Without having much to do, Farmiga still turns in a top-notch performance, navigating a range of emotions from shame to love to grief. She’s matched increasingly by Highmore as the sensitive Norman. It’s going to be a challenge for the actor to negotiate between teen innocence and a budding romance with the dying Emma (Olivia Cooke) and with his budding psychotic impulses. Highmore is as up to the challenge as Farmiga has proven to be, assuming the writing is there to give him the opportunity.

The season premiere gives a promising start to the new season, ramping up the intrigue and Bates creep factor while minimizing the local drug dramas. Even Dylan’s scenes dealt more with the awkward (to say the least) relationship between him and his uncle/father than with his job as local drug kingpin, a title that Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) seems intent on giving him but Dylan refuses. It was an effective, atmospheric, and fast-paced hour that is miles above many of the episodes from Season Two. Plus, there’s a quick development at the end of the episode that, while predictable, clearly signifies the creators are swiftly moving forward in the right direction. And that’s a good thing because we didn’t tune in to watch a pale retread of Twin Peaks.

We want Mother. And we want her now.

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