Critic's Notebook: 'Bates Motel' Finale Caps a Season 4 Breakthrough

Freddie Highmore shined as things finally started to get truly 'Psycho' on A&E's prequel.
Cate Cameron/A+E Networks
Freddie Highmore of 'Bates Motel'

[This article contains spoilers for the May 16 fourth-season finale of A&E's Bates Motel.]

To say that I had trepidations about Bates Motel when it premiered would be an understatement.

It wasn't just that Psycho is, as such things go, a perfect movie that subsequent sequels proved required no expansion or embellishment. There was also the problem that the Bates Motel creators, Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse, weren't committing to how this version of the story would eventually dovetail with Marion Crane and the events of the movie, so it was never clear what was canon and what could be changed or whether Bates Motel saw Norma Bates' death as the end of the series. At an early TCA press tour panel for the show, I joked if Bates Motel was going to be How I Stuffed My Mother and that prospect felt both unsettling and totally unnecessary.

Watching early episodes, it became easily possible to enjoy Bates Motel for the lead performances from Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, as well as the very clear star-is-born turn from future Spielberg leading lady Olivia Cooke, but it was a show that was balancing two difficult-to-pair narratives.

On one hand, you had the increasingly swift slide into mental instability from Norman and the ever-looming consequences for his devoted mother.

On the other hand, you had absolutely everything else. You had the drug empire that dominated White Pine Bay and how that impacted Norman's seemingly unnecessary brother (Max Thieriot's Dylan) and the local law enforcement (with Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Romero). The first season had a human trafficking plot. There was the unsettling arc with Norma's brother/Dylan's father Caleb (Kenny Johnson) that dovetailed with a rural pot farm and the threatening mountain man played by Ryan Hurst. There was something with a White Pine Bay secret society of affluent men and their love for prostitutes and then, into this season, federal officials looking into the death of Kevin Rahm's Bob Paris and questions about Romero's relationship to banker Rebecca (Jamie Ray Newman).

The core Norman/Norma story was generally good, but it always felt elongated and the filler was rarely satisfying, even if somehow I liked how ridiculous it was that certain things were happening as they spun their wheels. Like ... Norma Bates auditions for a musical and everybody knows she deserves the lead, but she proves threatening to the town's Queen Bees and they don't give her the part? Why is that happening in my Psycho prequel? Sometimes the direct nods to Psycho were tantalizing and enjoyable, but they always came with the unstated concern, "How much are they going to draw this out? Wherever we're going, how long will it take to get there?"

That's my own drawn-out build-up to this: The fourth season of Bates Motel, which concluded on Monday night, was good enough to justify and validate the show's whole up-and-down run to this point.

[It's here that I'd advise you to stop reading if you haven't watched or caught up on Bates Motel. You can still catch up.]

The entirety of the season was very good, but the last three or four episodes were almost shockingly satisfying. The existence of Psycho meant that we were always heading toward Norman killing and essentially absorbing his mother, but I'd never given any consideration to how a version of this primal scene might play out that would make it meaningful and powerful, but kudos to Ehrin and Cuse and end-of-season directors Tim Southam and Tucker Gates for succeeding.

And the highest of praise to Highmore, who also wrote the season's antepenultimate episode. Versatile young man, this one. All along, Highmore has been good enough to warrant being part of a broader Emmy conversation, but this season he did enough that any list of the 10 best drama series performances on TV must include him. Even as Norman was getting increasingly closer and closer to, for want of a better word, "psycho," Highmore was actually making the character closer and closer to understandable and grounding his building violence in such a real sense of sadness and loneliness. "Unfaithful," the episode Highmore wrote, featured the amusing and twisted origin story for Norman's motel-wall peep hole and a fully enraged Norman wielding an ax, but it also showcased Norman's palpable betrayal at the coupling of Norma and Romero. The following episode concentrated on Norma's ever-more-deluded refusal to believe that Norman could be a threat to her, including the heartbreaking scene in which she sent Dylan away, accusing him of jealousy, when we all know that Dylan was as close as the show came to a moral center, even if he was an upwardly mobile drug kingpin.

The penultimate episode, "Forever," culminated in the act that we waited the entire series for, and I don't know what I was expecting, but the poetic and haunting attempted murder/suicide, enabled by the house's faulty, gas-leaking boiler, wasn't what I had in mind. Norman was lost already. Norma was committed to standing by Norman even if it meant alienating her other son and the man who loved her and who had proven willing to do anything for her. "We're supposed to be together, aren't we?" Norma agreed when Norman proposed an escape, running away to Hawaii. Instead, as she slept, he turned on the gas, which made it through the entire empty house, drifting room-to-room to the tune of "Mr. Sandman," and peacefully put an end to poor Norma's life, with her son spooning her. But the horrible irony of Romero bursting in and being able to save only Norman and Norman waking up and realizing what had come of his plan, the prolongation of a life he had no desire to live, now without his only reason for living? That was the worst thing imaginable and exactly the right execution of this moment.

Monday's finale picked up and rescattered the pieces, with both Carbonell and Highmore delivering one gutting moment after another. Romero confronting Norman both in the hospital and the church probably presented Carbonell with career-best acting opportunities. And Highmore was at his best in a conversation with Dylan in which Norman tells his brother it's best they don't communicate anymore, but fails to mention that their mother is dead, and then in a eulogy for Norma that ends in frustration and anger at his mother's abandonment.

But the finale was also ... FUNNY. The brotherly chat had Dylan say, "I doubt she'll reach out to me," followed by Norman's expertly timed, "Well, maybe not for a while." And stuck in the midst of a meeting with the funeral home director and his son, you had Norman responding to a question about whether Norma should be embalmed with smiling pride at his knowledge of taxidermy. That scene also had the strange dynamic between the funeral home owner and his son as the father raved at his daughter's gifts at body preparation. Oh, and the triumphant and lively return of previously stuffed Juno, also part of Norman's mental institution art project, should have brought a discomfiting smile to many a face. Ghost Dog!

It was the last five or six minutes, though, that landed so beautifully and because of a surprising source. Hurst has amply proven himself as an actor between Sons of Anarchy and The Outsiders, but this was a performance that really came out of nowhere because of how smartly the writers handled Chick. This was a character who arrived in White Pine Bay a beaten, battered man out for revenge, and we all assumed he was lying about repairing Norma's stained glass window to get close to her either to get at Caleb or maybe to harm Norma. Instead, he saw something in her damaged past that he could relate to and an unlikely bond formed (plus he fixed her stained glass). It was exactly right to have Chick show up at Norman's door after Norman dug up his mother's body and lugged her up the steps to the house and placed her on the couch, trying desperately to get her to open her eyes. Chick represented, again, a threat, but he also was full of real sadness himself. The enchilada casserole would have been contribution enough, but having Chick spot what Norman had done and having him, on some level, understand made total sense.

"You do what you have to do," Chick said. "But you understand she's dead, right?"

Even Norman didn't know how to react.

The closing sequence, with Norman contemplating suicide but being lured downstairs by the sound of Ghost Juno barking and Norma playing "I'll Be Home for Christmas," could really probably be an end for the series. The camerawork through the suddenly warm and holiday-decorated living room, Norma in a crimson dress playing the piano, out the window and revealing the twinkling Yuletime lights on both the home and the already twinkling motel neon was a lovely illusion.

"... But only in my dreams."

We'll return to Bates Motel next season and I suppose we'll have to revisit Romero, newly arrested for lying to federal officers, and to Dylan and Emma in Seattle, and it sounds like Marion Crane is ready for some embezzlement and a desperate drive in the rain. Maybe that will work and maybe it won't.

Over the years I've said enough skeptical things about Bates Motel, so it's only fair when appropriate to pause and admire its achievements and this season was full of them. Well played, Bates Motel. Well played.

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