2:54pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: How 'Bates Motel' Made Good on Great Expectations
[This article spoils the series run of Bates Motel, including its April 24 series finale.]
Expectations were never going to be kind to Bates Motel, which premiered in 2013 with Psycho looming on the horizon as a potential plot point and a standard that could really never be met.
TV is, in general, not a medium that responds well to insurmountable expectations. For every Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones or Outlander that lives up to, or comes close to living up to, the established property it's tied to, there are countless disappointments and mediocrities. For every Boardwalk Empire, which arrived on HBO preordained to be viewed as the next Sopranos and managed to eventually stand as a very good show on its own right (while still eternally being viewed as a disappointment in some circles), there are dozens of failed Next Great Cable Dramas, punchlines like Vinyl or Low Winter Sun or cautionary tales like Luck. Keep an eye on The Handmaid's Tale and American Gods, two shows that are at least initially threatening to rise to the level of their expectations.
Bates Motel was never going to live up to Psycho, which isn't one of those classic films that has a glibly earned reputation for being dated or not working the way it used to. Psycho is still one of the greatest movies ever made, and there's a part of me that still thinks Bates Motel was foolhardy to exist at all.
Wrapping its five-season run on Monday (April 24), Bates Motel never finished a year in my Top 10, and 2017 probably won't be any different, but I can't help but feel like, in becoming a show that I ultimately quite liked and at times thought flirted with greatness, Bates Motel overcame more obstacles than some shows I perhaps loved more.
Two seasons as a very good show don't, for me at least, change the fact that Bates Motel had three seasons as a frequently not-very-good and occasionally bad show. Reflecting on some of the stuff that happened in White Pine Bay in those opening seasons, I can't force myself into feigning nostalgia for Deputy Shelby and the human trafficking ring, for anything relating to the local drug trade, for anything relating to Bradley or Cody, for Norma's fling as a musical theater star, for that guy Emma lost her virginity to, for the threatening cabal that ran White Pine Bay's government. Bates Motel made me giggle more than it shocked me or moved me in its first few years.
From a distance, I can understand how the pieces were being moved around in the direction of a necessary destination, even if I didn't like most of the pieces. We needed Dylan (Max Thieriot) to have an arc in which he unexpectedly rose above petty criminal roots to became the story's hero, needed Emma (Olivia Cooke) to offer salvation for Norman (Freddie Highmore) until exactly the moment we realized Norman was beyond salvation, needed Norma (Vera Farmiga) to briefly find love with the most dangerous and least appropriate person possible (Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Romero). The first three seasons were almost exhaustingly plot-heavy and I believe that the characters could have reached the points they reached with better storytelling driving them there.
It was mostly Highmore and Farmiga who kept me going with the show until the endgame began to kick in at the start of the fourth season, revved its engine as Norman briefly got the mental health treatment he needed and then went into overdrive with Norma's demise in the fourth season's closing episodes, still the show's peak. I've written extensively about that and also about the savvy and tricky way in which Bates Motel reached the events of Psycho and turned them on their head. Instead of Mother killing Marion Crane, Norman let her live and then killed Sam Loomis in the show instead.
Rather than being a murder that represented Norman's deep slide into a dissociative state, this shower killing represented Norman's first full, horrified awareness of his crimes. Rather than sliding to the bottom of a swamp in the trunk of her car, Marion Crane drove off to safety, though I fear bad things happened to a woman driving alone with a large amount of cash, but no cell phone or tire iron. That left Bates Motel having to chart its own closing steps without any kind of Psycho roadmap. It became clear that Bates Motel wasn't going to have an equivalent for Martin Balsam's Detective Arbogast and that after director Phil Abraham's playful, gory evocation of the famous shower scene, we wouldn't get any kind of homage for the top-of-the-staircase Psycho stabbing, which for my money has always been scarier than Hitchcock's shower.
We came into Monday's series finale and I guess I was rooting for one thing and one thing only: Romero couldn't win.
Even if Romero had just been a morally flexible cop who loved Norma and hoped to avenge her, I still wasn't going to be rooting for him. Then Romero killed Ryan Hurst's Chick and any residual sympathies I might have had faded away. Chick probably did some bad things, but by the end he was just an interested and concerned observer who wanted nothing more than to be the Boswell to Norman's Samuel Johnson, to be a kimono-wearing chronicler of a story of tragic dysfunction. I'd spent much of the season hoping that Chick would get his own "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee ..." epilogue, but Romero destroyed that.
Thankfully, although Romero got to beat Norman to a pulp, Norman got the jump on him, hit him with a rock and shot him multiple times.
But who then was left to survive the story?
I briefly thought Brooke Smith's Sheriff Greene was going to be the story's Arbogast proxy and when Norman returned home after killing Romero and discovered that somehow there wasn't a SINGLE local cop staking out his residence, I thought Sheriff Greene might show up, go poking around the house and get stabbed at the top of the stairs, falling backwards. But Sheriff Greene wasn't all that good at her job, nor was she important to the story as anything more than a mechanical device to briefly take Norman into custody. Brooke Smith gets the unique distinction of having survived both Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates, but she survived in this case just because she wasn't smart enough to be in the right place at the wrong time.
Creators Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse often referred to Thieriot's Dylan as the story's innocent, and I never entirely bought it, but by the end I definitely bought that Thieriot was giving a very strong performance, especially opposite Cooke's Emma. The penultimate episode was astounding when it came to depicting the conflicted emotions Dylan and Emma would be feeling in this situation, their simultaneous sympathy for Norman and his own underlying victimhood, but also recognition of the pain and suffering he'd caused. Emma's last line to Norma/Norman, "Tell him I miss him," was melancholy and beautiful.
In the finale, Dylan had to confront a Norman who essentially rebooted himself back to the pilot and re-enacted the optimism that brought mother and son to White Pine Bay in the first place, hoping for a second chance. Every bit of growing horror he felt culminated in seeing Norma's corpse, dressed in bright red and eyes hollowed with smeared mascara or decomposition, seated at the dinner table. Dylan barfed his guts out. As one would.
Norman's death was either suicide-by-Dylan or just a mercy killing on Dylan's part, as he sent Norman off to join his beloved mother in a spiritual forest that might count as heaven if you assume that either Bates was going to heaven. Dylan closing off the deviant branch of his family tree was a triumph for his own normal family domesticity and it made more sense to conclude this version of this story than Hitchcock's more conventional triumph of law and order and amateur psychology. The closing monologue explaining Norman's mental state isn't Psycho's best moment, and it represents an explanatory bridge that Bates Motel crossed long ago.
After opening with three seasons that were over-plotted, Bates Motel had a finale that was under-plotted and it worked. The police kinda gave up and left the story to resolve as a family squabble. Instead of there being an epic manhunt as one would expect in a situation in which a confessed serial killer escapes, Norman was allowed to steer himself toward his own demise, with Highmore playing this last chapter as Grand Guignol-style comedy, sticking to his own delusion even as he was caked in blood and dirt and misery. There's too much great TV for me to tell you that Highmore not getting an Emmy nomination would be a sham, but he's surely a posterboy for the reality that the Emmys could go to 10 nominees in major categories to better reflect all of the great work being done in the medium.
Hitchcock left Norman Bates famously dissolving into his mother's desiccated visage, alive but lost in himself. Ehrin and Cuse preferred to leave Norman in the ground, sharing a tombstone with Norma — her half etched with an epic love letter from Norman, his half reading only "1995-2017." It felt right.
It's amazing Bates Motel ended as well as it did.