'Bates Motel' Boss Previews a Darker Norman in Season 3, More 'Psycho' Nods

Bates Motel Still - H 2015
James Dittiger

Bates Motel Still - H 2015

When A&E's Bates Motel returns for its third season Monday, viewers will meet a darker version of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), enjoy a playing field full of Psycho homages and what could be the end of innocence for the eventual serial killer.

The season picks up with the end of summer and Norman is headed back to school following Miss Watson's (Keegan Connor Tracy) death. On the home front, Norma (Vera Farmiga) receives disturbing news from her past. And a new motel guest (Revolution’s Tracy Spiridakos) arrives to throw everything off balance.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with co-showrunner Kerry Ehrin to discuss the shifting story lines, creating dramatic tension and how she and fellow producer Carlton Cuse continue to integrate Psycho more into the series.

Season two focused a lot on the town itself. Are we getting back to core characters this year?

That’s correct. We are looking more inside the family relationships this year, inside more dark secrets, and we will find out a lot more about who these enigmatic characters are. Why we’re so fascinated by them and what made them the way they are.

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At this point when you’re breaking stories, how do you balance staying true to Psycho while staying within your own show?

Once Carlton and I inhabited this fantasy world, it never felt like Psycho to us. Psycho was always present but it’s almost mythological. It’s like Odysseus. It’s like a mythological character where that’s something we’re writing about, but it’s such a specific interpretation of that story and this character. This story feels very real to us to the point where when we do put an homage in, we often take it out because it breaks the reality of the world we created. If it feels too heavy handed then it pulls you out of the actual fantasy world. So we’re really careful about where we use them and make sure we really are using them and not just throwing them in for the sake of throwing them in.

Is that part of how this season’s promotional video with the famous peephole scene came about? Was it discarded from the show itself?

We’ve always considered putting that in. The thing is, even in Psycho, it’s a bit of a questionable device because don’t people see the hole in the wall? The reality of that has always bugged us. We’ve toyed around with different ways to do it and so we are getting more into that. Part of the story where Norman is a little more voyeuristic, where he’s fighting these urges that he has, that he can’t win over. But we’re trying to do that voyeurism in different ways.

As Norman gets older and develops these feelings toward other women, how does that speak to Norma needing (or wanting) her son to herself?
She always does. That’s her fatal flaw. She has that deep loneliness that comes from someone who was not raised in a loving household by loving parents. She has abandonment issues and she obviously has never been in therapy. She doesn’t understand any of this so she’s reacting to what she’s feeling. She’s mercurial because of that. And unpredictable. She does need to keep him close and that has been why she’s always made some bad choices; because of that weakness and that need in herself that she has not learned to overcome.

What about Norma’s other son, Dylan (Max Thieriot). Where is he headed this season?

Dylan went through such a dark journey last year finding out about his parentage. He ran away from his family and then realized he did love them. So this year is about him like he’s been reborn. He’s trying to lead the life he’s always wanted, the way he thinks is right. And that does play into the whole criminal aspect of what he’s been doing. He has a fresh take on it. And also his dad (Kenny Johnson) — who is also his uncle — re-emerges right when he’s having a kind of a renaissance with Norma. So that just creates an incredible tension for him.

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Does that mean there will be less emphasis on the drugs this season?

It’s a very different take on it. It’s a little more Forty Acres and a Mule take on it.

Is there a challenge in creating such lasting tension on a show like this?

This is one of the hardest shows I personally have ever written because you do have to balance. You have to deliver suspense, but you don’t drive stories with suspense, you drive stories with character. It’s very nuanced storytelling so it has a certain pace to it that doesn’t lend itself to a fast pace of suspense. So I think it’s a particular cocktail, the tone and the timing of the show. And that goes for every aspect of the different creative factions of the show — breaking stories in the writing room. With how the directors approach a scene that perhaps doesn’t have any big suspenseful surprises in. It still has to have an underlying tension in it all the time. And that comes from the characters and their anxiety about everything all the time. Especially Norma, who probably has an anxiety issue! And who wouldn’t, under those circumstances. But it definitely permeates every aspect of the creative aspect of the show, keeping that balance.

When do you show a graphic scene and when do you leave it up to the imagination?

In general the instinct is to hold back. I’m a great believer in the intelligence of the audience and that you don’t have to spoon feed them things. It’s more interesting to evoke an idea or a feeling from them than to tell them to feel it. And when you’re gifted with fantastic actors who can deliver the nuance and reach into the audience to make them feel things ... So much of the story is told through their faces. It’s interesting to have a light hand with the writing and let that happen.

Bates Motel returns Monday, March 9 at 9 p.m. on A&E. Stay tuned to THR's The Live Feed after the episode for more Bates scoop from Ehrin.

Twitter: @amber_dowling