Review: Bates Motel 1.5 “Ocean View”

Ocean View

Norma Bates has got some issues, doesn’t she?

Last week’s episode ended with Norma (Vera Farmiga) being arrested for murdering Keith.  Tonight’s episode begins with her sitting in jail and telling both Dylan (Max Thierot) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) that they’re not acting properly upset over her situation.  “Just leave me here,” she tells them, “I don’t need your help.”

Of course, Norma has a bit of a point.  Dylan, after all, waits to eat breakfast before going to see her and, in a nicely subtle moment, Norman briefly smiles at the sight of his mother imprisoned.

Anyway, Norman, with the help of Emma (Oliva Cooke), manages to find the money to pay the bail bondsman and get Norma out of jail.  Once freed, Norma proceeds to insult her attorney and yell at Norman for “getting laid” while she was getting arrested.  Norma should be careful because it seems like that’s the sort of thing that could lead to Norman becoming a cross-dressing voyeur.

Fortunately, evil Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel) purposefully misplaces some evidence which leads to the charges against Norma being dropped.  While Norma’s understandably grateful, Norman still feels that Shelby is dangerous.

Meanwhile, Dylan is still planning on moving out of the hotel.  His co-worker Ethan loans Max the money to get a place of his own but a few minutes later, some random guy shows up and shoots Ethan in the neck.  Dylan takes Ethan to the hospital and quickly leaves before anyone can ask him any questions.  Then, as he’s driving back home, Dylan happens to spot the shooter wandering down a conveniently deserted alley.  Dylan reacts by running the man down with his pickup truck.

Finally, Emma and Norman team up to search for and, eventually, discover Shelby’s sex slave.  They take her back to the hotel where Norma discovers them and demands to know what Norman’s doing with not one but two girls.  Norman explains who the girl is.  Norma, at first, refuses to believe him but then the girl herself identifies Shelby as being the man who was holding her captive.

Yes, it’s just another episode of Bates Motel

I’ve been struggling for the past few weeks to explain just what exactly it is that intrigues me about Bates Motel.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy the show.  Vera Farmiga kicks ass.  Max Thierot is hot.  Freddie Highmore is creepy yet sympathetic and Olivia Cooke deserves her own Veronica Mars-like show where she solves crimes.

However, there’s also no denying that Bates Motel is a frequently uneven show.  Scenes that work are often followed by scenes that fall flat.  Intriguing plot points (like the fact that the citizens in the town apparently burned a man alive at the end of the second episode) have been brought up just to never be discussed again.

And yet, I still find myself looking forward to seeing where each episode of Bates Motel is going to go.  As I watched last night’s episode, I finally realize why I’m still watching this show.

Bates Motel is seriously weird.

Some of that’s intentional, of course.  However, a lot of the weirdness of Bates Motel comes from the fact that the show is still struggling to define just what exactly it is.  Is it a psychological thriller?  Is it horror?  Is it a mystery?  Is it an adaptation of young adult fan fiction with Emma serving as a Mary Sue for the unseen author?  Or is it a show about a single mother and her two sons trying to make a new life for themselves in a quirky small town?  Is it Lost or is it Gilmore Girls?

After watching last night’s episode, I’m convinced that the people behind the show have absolutely no idea.

But you know what?

That’s okay because it’s actually a lot of fun watching them trying to figure it out.  Since Bates Motel isn’t sure which genre it belongs to, it’s also free to ignore the rules and conventions that come with having a definite identity.  As a result, Bates Motel is a show where anything truly can happen.

Eventually, the constant tonal shifts are going to get exhausting.  Regardless of how well-acted the show may be, it’s difficult to remain emotionally invested in characters who are free of consistency.

Hopefully, Bates Motel will have found its identity by the time its second season rolls around.

For now, however, I’m just having fun discovering what’s going to happen next.

Random Observations:

  • Ethan turned out to be a pretty good guy.  Too bad he got shot in the neck.
  • This episode’s best Vera Farmiga moment: her defensive meeting with her attorney.  “How old are you?”
  • “Ur mom’s bail has been posted.”  That’s got to be one of the saddest texts ever.
  • Dylan is in danger of becoming one big deus ex machina.  Last week, he happened to show up in time to help Norman escape from Shelby’s basement.  This week, he just happened to show up on his motorcycle when Norman needed a ride home.
  • That said, I absolutely love Max Thierot and, episode-per-episode, his scenes with Freddie Highmore have always been a highlight.
  • Just in case you had forgotten this show is a prequel to Psycho, last night’s episode featured Emma getting Norman’s attention by ringing the bell at the front desk, a la Janet Leigh.
  • “I love you, you idiot!”  Yes, those are words that every girl hopes to hear.
  • The Bates Motel has its own web site?
  • Also, you can download the show’s “manga” notebook from the A&E website?  I guess that’s the difference between A&E and CBS.

Review: Bates Motel Episode 1.4 “Trust Me”


Last night’s episode of Bates Motel might as well have been called “Norman Bates Gets Laid.”

Oh sure, a few other things happened during the episode.  Norman hallucinated, Norma criticized, Deputy Shelby smiled blandly while thinking evil thoughts, a disembodied hand turned up, Dylan learned the truth about the man that Norman and Norma murdered way back in the first episode, and finally, during the show’s final moments, Norma got arrested for that very murder.

But, for the most part, this episode will mostly be remembered as the episode where Norman Bates got laid.

As I’ve said in previous reviews, Bates Motel’s main struggle has always been to find anything new to tell us about the character of Norman Bates.  The character is so iconic that even those poor souls who haven’t seen Psycho are aware that Norman Bates owned a motel, dressed up like his dead mother, and killed people.  On Bates Motel, Freddie Highmore has done a good job bringing the teenage Norman Bates to life but it can still be difficult to emotionally connect with him because you know that eventually he’s going to grow up to be a peeping tom serial killer cross-dresser.

However, after four episodes, I think that actually might be Bates Motel’s greatest strength.  Since we know what Norman’s eventually going to become, it’s oddly compelling to watch him do things that we usually wouldn’t give a second thought to if they were being done by any other character on television.  For instance, any character on television could have ended up having sex with the oddly-named Bradley (Nicola Peltz).  But, since the character here is Norman Bates, the viewers are now left wonder whether Bradley will survive the experience.

And that’s why, even if it’s occasionally a struggle to remain emotionally invested in the adolescence of Norman Bates, I’ll be back next week to see what happens.

Random Observations:

  • Of course, I’m assuming that Norman and Bradley actually had sex.  The scene itself was filmed in such an over-the-top, romanticized manner — with Norman and Bradley making love under those crisp blue sheets and Bradley smiling beatifically — that I actually found myself wondering whether it was meant to be one of Norman’s hallucinations.  With this show, it’s definitely possible.
  • In case you were wondering, last week’s cliffhanger was resolved by having Dylan distract Shelby long enough for Norman to sneak back out of the basement.  Norman told Norma about Shelby’s sex slave, which led to Norma checking for herself and finding no evidence of anyone being held prisoner in the basement.  Though I know it’s a long shot, what if the woman in the basement turns to be another Norman hallucination?  That would be a neat twist to the plot, no?
  • In fact, what if the entire show is just a hallucination!?  Okay, I need to stop before I blow my own mind…
  • If anyone was born to play a femme fatale in a film noir, it’s Vera Farmiga.  It’ll be a crime if she doesn’t, at the very least, receive an Emmy nomination for her performance here.
  • Emma’s father (played by veteran British actor Ian Hart) seemed to be a bit creepy, didn’t he?  I’m not sure if the character was actually supposed to be that menacing or if we were just supposed to be seeing him through Norman’s eyes.  If nothing else, his overprotectiveness of Emma nicely  parallels Norma’s attitude towards her youngest son.
  • When he was first introduced, I was a little bit uncertain about the character of Dylan.  I wasn’t sure whether or not his character was actually necessary.  However, I think the character has developed quite nicely and I actually enjoy the scenes where Dylan’s mask slips and you see that he actually does care about his half-brother.  Plus, it helps that Max Thierot couldn’t be unlikable if he tried.
  • Speaking of good performances, I’m continuing to love the subtle menace that Mike Vogel brings to the role of Deputy Shelby.  I loved the scene where he took Norman fishing.
  • The most frequent complaint that I’ve heard about Bates Motel is that, despite the fact that a lot is happening, the show’s main story tends to proceed at such a deliberate pace that it’s occasionally difficult to remember what that story was supposed to be in the first place.  Personally, I appreciate the fact that the show is taking its time.  For horror to work on television, it’s important that the show’s atmosphere be just right.  And a good atmosphere requires patience.
  • Bates Motel, incidentally, has been renewed for a second season so, for now, it can take as much time as it wants.

Review: Bates Motel S1E3 “What’s Wrong With Norman?”

whats-wrong-with-norman-bates-motel-whats-wrong-with-norman-freddie-highmore-vera-farmiga“What’s wrong with Norman?”

It’s a legitimate question because, as the saying goes, that boy ain’t right.  It’s also the question that gives Bates Motel its excuse for existing.

Still, even as we consider what’s wrong with Norman, we might want to ask what’s wrong with everyone else in White Pine Bay?  Seriously.  Last week’s episode ended with Norman (Freddie Highmore) and Emma (Olivia Cooke) being chased by pot farmers while some guy was being burned alive in the middle of the town square.  Meanwhile, Norman’s brother Dylan (Max Thierot) has found a new job working for the same pot farmers who were chasing his brother and, perhaps most disturbing of all, everyone in town seemed to be oddly excited about a logging festival.  And let’s not even start with the fact that everyone seems to exclusively watch black-and-white televisions or that the most popular student at the high school is a girl named Bradley…

Seriously, White Pine Bay is a weird town with an unwieldy name.

However, after spending the previous two weeks setting up its story, this week’s episode of Bates Motel focused on Norman.  Having managed to escape the pot farmers, Norman is back at school and being rude to Emma.  When Emma attempts to apologize for what happened and says that she really was just looking for an excuse to spend some time with him, Norman rather coldly suggests that maybe she should give the little faux-Manga booklet back to him because, after all, “it’s pornographic.”  I actually really liked this little scene.  Olivia Cooke and Freddie Highmore have a lot of chemistry and Cooke’s desperate attempt to explain herself was poignant while also hinting that Emma might have some secrets of her own.

(Seriously, I was pretty wild back in high school but I still would never would have thought that of searching for a sex slave as the perfect opportunity to flirt.)

Anyway, after that, Norman ends up in class trying to take a test.  However, instead of concentrating on the test, Norman keeps imagining the sight of his teacher (and, briefly, his mother) bound and gagged.  This leads to Norman fainting in the middle of class and being sent to the hospital where, along with watching one the town’s many black-and-white televisions, Norman also gets to cuddle with Bradley when she comes to visit him.

(Okay, technically, the TV may not have been a black-and-white set because Norman was watching an old movie.  However, I like to think of White Pine Bay as being a town where color television has been outlawed.)

Norman is eventually sprung from the hospital by Norma (Vera Farmiga) because Norma, as always, is having problems of her own.  Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is convinced that Norma had something to do with the disappearance of Keith, the former owner of the motel.  (Romero’s right, of course.  Keith was murdered by Norma in the premiere episode.)  Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel) informs Norma that he found Keith’s belt under Norman’s bed.  Shelby explains that he’s hidden the belt from Romero but it’s also pretty obvious that, unless Norma continues to do things like attend the local logging festival with him, Shelby might be tempted to let Romero know what he found.

After Norman finds out what his mother is doing and why, he ends up having another hallucination where Norma orders him to get that belt.  However, once Norman sneaks into Shelby’s house, he discovers that Shelby has a woman chained up in his basement…

The main complaint that I heard about the first two episodes of Bates Motel is that, storywise, they moved at too deliberate of a pace.  That was definitely not an issue with last night’s episode.  The episode moved at a good pace, Highmore’s sympathetic yet remote performance is developing nicely, and Vera Farmiga continues to kick ass with her cleverly over-the-top interpretation of Norma Bates.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

A Few Random Observations:

  • Earlier, I wondered how Bates Motel — with its combination of black-and-white TVs, old cars, and iPods — is meant to fit in with the larger Psycho mythology.  After tonight’s episode — which featured Dylan making a rather pointed reference to Deliverance, a film that came out 12 years after Psycho — I am all the more convinced, much like Lost, Bates Motel is meant to be taking place in an alternative universe of its very own.  The show’s writers are obviously having fun playing with the apparent timelessness of Bates Motel and I’m having fun watching them do it.
  • Obviously, Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga are getting the majority of the critical attention but I happen to love Mike Vogel’s performance as Deputy Shelby.  Seriously, Vogel has transformed Shelby into the epitome of bland villainy.  Watching him, I find myself reminded of Jim Thompson’s classic pulp novel, The Killer Inside Me.
  • I also enjoyed the scene where Dylan and Norman finally did a little brotherly bonding.  It was well-played by both Highmore and Thierot.
  • Did I not predict last week that Dylan would end up working for the pot farmers?
  • I do have to wonder if this episode is going to serve as a template for all future episodes of Bates Motel.  Is Norman going to have a weekly psychotic episode that’s going to lead him to discover more people up to no good?  If so, Bates Motel could run the risk of turning into Dexter: The Motel Years.

Review: Bates Motel 1.2 “Nice Town You Picked, Norma.”


Norman Bates has a brother?

Wow, who would have guessed?

That was the main addition that last night’s episode of Bates Motel provided to the Psycho mythology.  Played by Max Thierot (who was so good in last year’s underrated The House At The End of the Street), Dylan is Norman’s half-brother.  He was born when Norma was 17 years old and, as this episode quickly establishes, he’s a little bitter that Norma abandoned him and his father so that she could marry Sam Bates.

Actually, he’s more than a little bitter.  Bitterness appears to be Dylan’s only emotion.  From the minute that Dylan shows up at the Bates Motel, he’s angry.  Though he greets Norma with “Hello, mother,” (presumably so the slower members of the audience won’t be confused as to who he is), he spends the rest of the episode loudly refusing to call her anything other than “Norma” or “the whore.”

Dylan’s relationship with his half-brother isn’t much better.  About halfway through the episode, Norman reacts to Dylan’s taunting by attacking him with a meat cleaver and gets beaten up for his trouble.  “I told you not to do that!” Dylan shouts after he tosses Norman down to the kitchen floor.

To be honest, Dylan would pretty much be insufferable if not for the fact that he’s played by Max Thierot.  Much as he did in The House At The End Of The Street, Thierot is able to generate sympathy for a fairly unsympathetic character.  It helps, of course, that when compared to Norman and Norma, Dylan almost seems to be sensible.

Norma, meanwhile, has bigger problems than just her oldest son deciding to move back in with her.  She’s still trying to cover up the fact that she killed the previous owner of the motel.  It doesn’t help that Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) has discovered the dead man’s pickup truck parked near the motel.

Norma handles the situation by flirting with Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel).  While Norman and Dylan are busy fighting in the kitchen, Norma and Shelby are at the town’s logging festival.  Judging from some of the feedback on twitter, I may be in a minority on this but I actually enjoyed the scenes between Shelby and Norma.  Vogel and Vera Farmiga had a very likable chemistry and I thought the scenes did a good job of establishing the town itself as a character.  Much as Lost had to leave the island, Bates Motel has to be able to tell stories outside of the motel and I think that tonight’s episode showed that it can.

Speaking of things happening outside of the motel, that’s probably where Norman (Freddie Highmore) should try to spend as much time as possible.  When he’s inside the motel, he spends all of his time looking at his little BDSM sketchbook and watching his mother while she undresses in front of him.  However, outside of the motel, he’s got a rather sweet relationship with a girl named Emma (Olivia Cooke).  Together, he and Emma research the origins of the sketchbook (“Don’t worry,” Emma says, “I’ve read lots of manga.”) and they even stumble across a local marijuana farm.

Norman ends up spending a lot of time with Emma because his other female friend, the oddly named Bradley (Nicola Peltz), spends most of the episode at the hospital.  Apparently, somebody set her father on fire.  However, as Deputy Shelby explains to Norma, the town has a way of taking care of trouble makers. That’s made pretty obvious at the end of tonight’s episode when Norma drives by another man who, in an apparent act of retribution, has been set on fire in the middle of the town square.

I enjoyed the second episode of Bates Motel.  It was full of atmosphere and Vera Farmiga’s performance continues to maintain the perfect balance between reality and camp.  Narratively, the story is still unfolding at a very deliberate pace but this episode provided enough intriguing clues to make me excited about seeing what happens next Monday.

That said, I still can’t help but feel that this show’s main weakness is the fact that , as opposed to being a stand alone series, it has to exist as part of the mythology of Psycho.  In many ways, Bates Motel reminds me of The Carrie Diaries, a prequel to Sex In The City that airs on CW.  It’s a well-acted show that’s full of a nicely observed moments but it’s still impossible for me to watch without thinking, “It doesn’t matter what happens because we already know Carrie’s going to eventually end up meeting and marrying Mr. Big.”

By the same token, I still find it next to impossible to watch Bates Motel without thinking to myself, “Eventually, regardless of what happens wit Dylan, Emma, or the pot farmers, Norman’s going to end up wearing Norma’s clothes, peeping on women in the shower, and killing them.”

Divorced from the Psycho mythology, Bates Motel is an entertaining and intriguing little show.  However, without the Psycho mythology, would a show called Bates Motel have ever made it to the air in the first place?

Random Observations:

  • The best scene, by far, was Norma’s alternatively friendly and creepy conversation with Emma.  “And what’s your life expectancy?”
  • How much do you want to bet that Dylan’s going to end up working with the pot farmers?
  • Speaking of the pot farm, am I the only one who was reminded of that episode of Lost where John Locke’s flashback dealt with the period of time he spent living on a commune?
  • I know I said this last week but seriously, how can you not love Nestor Carbonell?