Critic's Notebook: 'Bates Motel' Goes 'Psycho' With Rihanna's First Appearance

Rihanna's Marion Crane made her first 'Bates Motel' appearance Monday night (and had some strong scenes), setting up what looks to be the riskiest set of episodes yet.
Cate Cameron/A+E Networks
Rihanna on Monday's 'Bates Motel.'
[This article contains spoilers for the Monday, March 20, episode of Bates Motel.]
 
At the end of the fifth episode of the fifth and final season of Bates Motel, the Psycho prequel arrived at a place that, at one point, creators denied they were ever going to reach.
 
Going back to the original Television Critics Association press tour panel for Bates Motel in January 2013, Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse faced a lot of questions about destination — specifically whether the A&E drama was heading toward the events of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film or if Norman and Norma Bates' story might go in a complete different direction at some point, if it wanted to.
 
I was one of several critics at that panel who inquired specifically if Bates Motel was targeting the arrival of Marion Crane (the Janet Leigh character from the movie) as something of an end goal.
 
"I don’t think so, no," Cuse replied initially.
 
But later on, when destination came up again, Cuse reframed the thought a little.
 
 
"[I]n some general form, we are going to catch up with a version of the character from the movie," he said of Norman, "but we don’t feel literally bound, as someone asked earlier, to have Marion Crane come rolling into the Bates Motel."
 
At the time, the whole thing felt like a slow-moving and unnecessary disaster to me, so if you'd told me that four years later a Bates Motel episode would conclude with Marion Crane rolling into the Bates Motel, I'd have had three reactions:
 
1) I'd have chided Cuse and Ehrin for needlessly obfuscating when they probably knew all along that they wanted to get here.
2) I'd probably have been generally skeptical about how and why Bates Motel would be bothering to tamper with a classic (and I say that as somebody who's abnormally tolerant of the Gus Van Sant Psycho remake).
3) Because of the second reaction, I'd have assumed that it was the series finale. Marion Crane pulls off the road and...Credits.
 
Instead, Bates Motel is still riding the crest of a terrific fourth season that culminated in a near-perfect examination of the circumstances behind the death of Norma Bates. That heartbreaking demise, expertly played by undervalued leads Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, bought Bates Motel the ability and the right to continue the process of dancing up to and perhaps even past the film.
 
It also opened the door for the piece of stunt casting that really made Monday night's episode soar.
 
Man, that Cuse was just made to be a TV star, wasn't he?
 
I kid, but only a little. I don't know the logistics behind why Cuse's name had to be in the episode's opening credits as a guest star and why the co-creator couldn't just be an Easter egg surprise for whatever portion of the Bates Motel audience can recognize Cuse. But I guess when it comes to anticipation your choices were, "Wait. Carlton Cuse is going to be in this episode?" and eagerly keeping an eye out, or "Wait, was that Carlton Cuse?" and possibly missing him entirely.
 
Cuse, of course, played the cop who stops Crane as she attempts to leave town with a suitcase full of money in her trunk. He's just a suspense device. Marion has a different destiny. In the movie, if you pretend you don't know anything about where the story's going, he's an effective suspense device. On Monday night's Bates Motel, I think only compulsive Losties even noticed Cuse was there, because he was playing opposite that other piece of stunt casting. 
 
Welcome to Bates Motel, Rihanna. I think we're past the point at which anybody other than the most outdated of snobs finds it odd when a star of any stature decides to do TV. Still, Rihanna's deciding to make a plunge into high-profile acting as part of a basic cable drama in its fifth season playing a role famous for its iconic demise? That's a bit unusual.
 
I think Rihanna's casting here serves two purposes. Getting more exposure for Bates Motel is nice, since it's a show that has become very good — unexpectedly good. Bates Motel is about to end even if 20 million people watch the next few episodes. The second purpose is more important, and that's the way in which Rihanna being an inevitable distraction is entirely intentional.
 
Granted that Rihanna's introduction was as un-stunt-y as I could have imagined. Midway through the episode, we got the Bates Motel equivalent of the opening scene in Psycho, with Marion (Rihanna) and Sam Loomis (Austin Nichols) in bed after a midday tryst. With its through-the-hotel-blinds voyeurism and Leigh's risque-for-its-moment white bra, that Psycho opening is rather provocative, but this intro for Bates Motel's third-most notorious character and most notorious guest star was completely restrained. It offered neither glamour nor titillation.
 
The presence of Rihanna and unavoidable "Can she or can't she?" questions about her acting amount to sleight of hand to steer viewers away from something that Bates Motel has never had to deal with before. Up until now, the show has been able to pick and choose when an homage to Psycho might be desirable, and because a shot was composed in a clear nod to Hitchcock or the score echoed Bernard Herrmann directly, it was something you could fixate on or not. Monday's episode was the first time I ever felt like I needed to have my Psycho DVD as a second screen experience. 
 
As anybody else with my obsessive tendencies already knows, Bates Motel basically kept the structure from the original, but didn't Xerox much of its form. Sam's got debts and secrets. Marion's got a dead-end job and a desire to escape her circumstances and marry Sam. A real estate deal at Marion's office brings her into possession of a large amount of cash ($400,000 up from $40,000) and Marion's bosses are leering and dismissive enough that we don't hesitate to empathize when she decides to abscond with the money, driving off into a rainstorm. 
 
Bates Motel tossed in a joke about how Marion is hoping to get Janet's job — see what they did there? — but otherwise kept the nods to a minimum. The best suspense beats from the Hitchcock movie, including Marion's crosswalk intersection with her boss and the specifics of her interaction with the authorities, weren't there, because they didn't need to be there. Unlike viewers of the movie, we know exactly where Marion is going and we don't need the ruse of pretending she might get busted before she gets there.
 
Also unlike the movie, we don't need to pretend that Marion is the star of this thing. The producers didn't play coy by only having Rihanna and Marion pop up in the last seconds of the episode. This was a full introduction that took her up to the moment she seeks refuge from the rain at the only motel in the vicinity. 
 
The prelude has been dispatched. The fun is set up for next week. I've seen next week's episode, titled "Marion," and it provides plenty to discuss and be outraged at and highly amused by. Next week's episode would have left me irate if I'd heard about it four years ago, but Bates Motel has become a good enough show that I'm generally on board with what's coming.
 
 
Next week's episode is also the real showcase for Rihanna, and not just in that pervy way that you're expecting if you think what Marion needs after her tough day embezzling money is a nice, warm shower. It gets to some of what makes Marion Crane tick, and Rihanna has a couple of strong scenes. This week's episode was mostly about her being ogled by her icky superiors and making a run for it. She was fine, and the process of watching Rihanna and trying to judge her as an actress was a shrewd distraction from Bates Motel offering a movie's worth of exposition as a B-story. 
 
What was tantalizing in the episode was the suggestion of what conditions put Norman Bates in the frame of mind he's in when we meet him in Psycho. Norman's acts of violence have been tied to very specific emotional reactions in the series. In the movie, we know how Marion has spent her day before she checks into the motel, but we don't know what Norman's been up to that would cause what comes next. 
 
Now we've got at least some idea. Through the first four episodes of the season, Norman was in Norman-esque denial about what happened to Norma, carrying on like Norma was only playing dead and slipping into and out of his mother's persona with people like Ryan Hurst's Chick and Kenny Johnson's Caleb (people "they" pretended could be in on the secret). In Monday night's episode, the combination of an appearance by Damon Gupton's Dr. Gregg Edwards, reminding Norman of a key piece of information from their discontinued therapy (the matter-of-fact "Sometimes I see mother when she's not really there and sometimes I become her"), and his mother's car left at the seedy White Horse bar caused some pieces to click into place for Norman.
 
Pathologizing of latent and sublimated homosexuality has been a problematic part of serial-killer fiction (and nonfiction, I guess) for decades. Norman's discovery that "Norma" has been sneaking out and picking up men at the White Horse is complicated because his horror isn't at the fragmented realization about the men he's been sleeping with. He's, in fact, pretty clueless when the bartender and a guy at the bar are extremely familiar with him. Even as he realizes, he's disgusted with her behavior, not his own. It's his mother's violation of their secret and the slow connection to "and sometimes I become her" that's beginning to cut through the haze he's been in for over a year.  It's a very tenuous position that Norman's in as we end this episode. It carries over. As interpretations of the Psycho backstory go, this is more Brian DePalma than Alfred Hitchcock, but I think that's appropriate. 
 
This week's episode was a good start for what is the pivotal and most precarious set of episodes for Bates Motel. No matter what the producers claimed in the beginning, I'm not amazed the show got to this point. But after where Bates Motel began, I'm amazed at how excited I still am by what's in store.
 
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