The PSYCHO-inspired “Bates Motel” is still finding its footing, but the last couple of episodes at least give the hint that it’s on the right track to do so. In last week’s episode, “Trust Me,” for example, one of the big questions I had in my last recap (Why is Emma is suddenly convinced that the events vaguely depicted in Norman’s notebook are real?) is answered almost immediately in Episode 3 when Emma confesses that she just wanted an excuse to spend time with our friendly neighborhood weirdo and didn’t believe it was true at all! It’s almost as though they read my mind. Good job, show, and thank you for continuing to allow Emma to make sense.
Anyway, Norman is too paranoid to fully embrace Emma’s awesomeness and freaks out at her suggestion that she keep the journal and runs off to class in a huff. During the class, Norman has an episode after gazing into the deep bowels of his teacher’s bosom and begins fantasizing about tied-up ladies before passing out. He’s rushed to the hospital and undergoes some tests as Norma talks with the doctor about his lack of a history of psychosis.
Norman seems to have lucked into being sent to the only hospital in the world with TCM, resulting in his idly lying around watching some older movie where Gladys is trying to go to the dance with Cousin Phillip (I have no idea what it was) while Norma has to run home to receive the new carpeting. (Seriously, when I was in the hospital, I was stuck with Oxygen and ended up getting hooked on “The Glee Project.” And they say these places are safe.) Pretty girl Bradley shows up because Norman was the only one to visit her while her father was in the hospital (which is a LIE, as we clearly saw her creepy boyfriend intimidate Norman at the hospital last episode.) and the two cuddle unconvincingly on Norman’s hospital bed.
Back at home, Norma’s carpet bagging hits a snag when the cops show up in order to search the house, and Norma reacts by – leaving? Seriously, Norma, as interesting as a character as you are, you’re not good at this whole “covering up a murder” thing, a fact made even more clear by her next move, picking up Norman and having a discussion with him about what needs to be covered up in the middle of a hospital corridor.
As bad as Norma is at covering things up, however, Norman’s even worse. When the duo arrives back at home, Norman runs upstairs to find that Keith the Rapist’s belt is no longer stored under his bed. He confesses his theft to mom, who seems more confused than horrified that her son would hold on to a memento of her brutal sexual assault. Mom immediately sets her sights on Deputy Shelby with the idea of flirting her way out of the situation.
Meanwhile, brooding bad boy Dylan heads off to his first day on the job of guarding the pot fields with the curiously non-weepy Ethan, whom we learn, in the closest thing to a character trait he’s given, has never heard of DELIVERANCE. Around the campfire, Dylan tries to get some information about Ethan’s former boss, but just gets some more vague “eye for an eye” responses. After being told they can’t smoke the stuff they’re guarding on the job, Ethan offers to get Dylan drunk instead, and there’s a fake scare. We get it. The town is ominous and there’s a big cover-up and justice and the creepening.
Emma drags her covered-in-stickers oxygen tank back over to the Bates place and she and Norman investigate motel room 4, where the book’s scrawlings seem to point. They discover a Chinese symbol, which Emma is naturally excited about, but Norman’s too busy being preoccupied by the flirty text he gets from Bradley, because he is stupid.
Norma’s attempts to flirt her way out of a potential murder rap go better than expected with dreamy cougar hunter Shelby, who invites her over with the offer of a cooked meal. The news of his mom’s big date makes Norman’s lip tremble with anxiety, but Shelby’s calm reassurance that nothing will happen (along with his manly-yet-polished home) make Norma’s trembling a little lower on the body, and the two begin making out after he tells her he has the belt, he didn’t care much for Keith either and that he’s going to take care of her, everything is going to be fine, and that she’s so beautiful it makes his heart hurt. Romance! Or two people using each other! Or both!
I honestly don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this relationship, and that’s a good thing. Norma is technically just trying to use Shelby to get the belt, but she certainly seems perfectly happy to get a little actual action in there as well. Shelby clearly has his own motives, because, y’know, ominous town of secrets, so it’s not really clear if one is using the other or if it’s an actual romantic entanglement. If Shelby was played by, say, M. Emmet Walsh, it would be obvious that Norma was just holding her nose and doing it to keep out of jail, but Shelby seems like a decent, attractive guy with whom a twice-married woman in her 40s who may be a little unhinged may want to become entangled.
Back at home, Norman and Dylan bond a little bit, and Dylan chastises Norman for calling Norma “mother,” which is indeed a bit creepy. When Dylan compliments his half-brother about attacking him with a meat tenderizer, Norman acts as though he has no memory of the event, leading them to just shrug it off with the agreement that their family is just messed up. No argument there!
Norma comes home in the middle of the night (presumably because Shelby is like Jason on “Gilmore Girls,” and he can’t sleep if there’s someone else in the bed) wakes up Norman by, er, rubbing his ass a little, and explains that Shelby has the belt and she’s just really exhausted but things are okay. Norman immediately tells her that she’s being used, and she confronts him about why the hell he wanted to keep a memento of her sexual assault. Norman apologizes.
It’s a strangely sweet scene, and in lesser hands, it could have come off as awkward if not positively unsettling, but Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore pull it off beautifully. The relationship between the two them should be center of the show, and scenes like this really show the potential that the show has.
The event makes for an increasingly freaked-out Norman, who jumps at Emma when she tries to talk to him about the notebook again. The next night, Norman has hallucinations of his mother blaming him for the incident with the belt, and Norman takes it upon himself to sneak into Shelby’s place and steal it back.
Here things kind of fall apart. First off, we’re not given any indication as to how Norman knows where Shelby lives, or why he wouldn’t be at home in the middle of the night, so it seems poorly thought out to begin with. Granted, “poorly thought out” describes about half of Norman’s actions, but this feels more like a writing issue, as Norman not only has no problem getting into the house and banging around every drawer without a problem, but manages to do so for several minutes before Shelby’s dog (whom we’ve never seen before) shows up to attack him. Is Shelby’s dog just the laziest guard dog ever?
Norman ends up down in the basement, where he finds a disco ball-lit dungeon area, with a young woman tied up and begging to be rescued. This impressively seedy plot twist is followed up by the sight of Shelby getting home from wherever and then—oo, credits! No, wait, a preview for the next episode that assures us that Norman will get out just fine. Thanks, A&E promo monkeys. We didn’t need dramatic tension anyway.
And Norman does, in fact, get out just fine, though the girl doesn’t, as Norman runs out a window in a panic. (Apparently you can “download her sketchbook on the iPhone store” which must be a huge relief to those who care about human trafficking.) His escape is helped by Dylan, who happens to have noticed a stoic and hypnotized-looking Norman on his way to the house. Dylan has apparently followed him and distracts Shelby by ringing his doorbell and claiming he was out of gas.
The next day, Norman tries to see Emma, but she’s sick, so Norman has a brief chat with her dad. He doesn’t make much of an impression outside of “concerned father,” but he’s played by Ian (BACKBEAT) Hart, so we know he’ll be important later. Norman tells him that he’s “decent,” which seems questionable at best.
Meanwhile, Norma and Shelby are getting hot and heavy in a car and decide to make their way to one of the hotel rooms for some afternoon delight. Afterwards, Norma calls Shelby “pretty like an old woman,” because Norma has absolutely no idea how to compliment anyone.
Dylan shows up and things are awkward because Shelby and Dylan recognize each other, but to the show’s credit, Shelby’s reaction doesn’t become a “nice guy who is secretly evil” cliché with a close-up of a leering, sinister glare. In fact, Mike Vogel’s portrayal of Shelby is so low-key that you doubt he’s even aware that his character is supposed to be part of a slave ring, to the point where you begin to suspect that the girl was all a hallucination on Norman’s part. The follow-up scene in which Shelby talks to Norman on the street and offers to take him fishing is so well-crafted (with the exception of some of the dialogue, like Shelby’s comment that “death is profound” in mention of Bradley’s father) that you really have no idea what to think. “Bates Motel” does ambiguity pretty damn well.
It’s so ambiguous that when Norman explains to his mother that the guy she’s been seeing has a lady locked in his basement, you’re on the side of Norma, who thinks he’s delusional, especially after he tells her that he snuck in because he told her to do it. Norma sneaks into Shelby’s basement the next time she’s off doing some cop-loving strumpetry, just to be sure, but there’s no evidence that a girl was ever there, of course, outside of a booboo on Norman’s foot. Norma finally tells Norman that he’s “acting crazy” and demands that he go fishing with his new future stepfather, which he reluctantly does, and it’s, of course, is awkward and ambiguous and compelling.
Shelby is called away from his “Fishing With John” episode with special guest psychotic Michael Cera because they’ve found Keith’s hand, identified by his “ugly watch.” Norman skips off to spend time at a malt shop with Bradley, which the music tells us is supposed to be sweet and nice but I JUST DON’T CARE ABOUT THIS RELATIONSHIP. I am, in fact, relieved when Bradley brings up a hand that was found and Norman freaks out, storms back home and tells his mother, who consoles him by telling him “It could be any hand! There’s a million hands!” This is awesome mothering.
Sheriff Romero calls Norma in for an interview, and Norma passive-aggressively baits him by denying to help in anyway. Romero tells her that they plan to match the carpet fibers found in the hand’s fingernails with the carpet that Norma threw out, but they don’t have the sample, leading to a great moment where Norma denies knowing where they dumped out loads of carpet. Passive-aggressive Norma is the best Norma.
Actually, I take that back – the best Norma is freaked out Norma, which we get when she and Norman drive around town trying to recover the carpet from the dump, only to discover that the dump is closed. Norman calms her down, but for a few seconds we get to see the frantic, shrieking, flailing mess of madness hidden just underneath the surface. It’s a moment that wouldn’t be so effective if Norma wasn’t so regularly in control, and it’s handled perfectly.
Back at home, Norman hangs out with Dylan, and the two begin bonding again, but this time, Norman can’t control himself and the whole story starts pouring out of Norman’s mouth, as though Dylan has just started watching the show and Norman is recapping the first three and a half episodes. Dylan takes this in stride and tells him he’ll help, and when Norman gets a text message from Bradley, his half brother encourages him to head over to her place, because “Hi” means “Come over here and do me” in teenage, apparently.
Which, ugh, he does, and the two do it while Bradley’s mom is asleep somewhere. Or maybe they don’t, and Norman is fantasizing the whole thing, which at this point, wouldn’t be entirely shocking and would actually make a lot more sense than Bradley falling for gangly, aloof Norman. That’s what I’d like to think, anyway.
Norma discovers Norman is gone, and Dylan tells her that he’s “out with a girl he likes. And I hope to hell he’s getting laid.” Norma freaks out, especially after Dylan tells her the girl is taking Norman away from him, and she slaps him, resulting in him restraining her against the wall which – is thankfully interrupted by the doorbell. Unfortunately, it’s the Sheriff and his pals, and they’ve come to arrest Norma for murder. Shelby looks sad. Credits!
There’s still a lot happening in each episode of “Bates Motel,” and it’s still almost going too fast to keep up with – there’s a lot of more questions being asked than answered, and I’m not entirely sure there’s an endgame for all of them, especially since it looks as though they’ve been renewed for a second season. (I’d be a lot more comfortable with this premise as a mini-series with a definitive ending.) Fortunately, we’re actually getting some character development along with the heavy plotting now, and the relationship between Norma and Norman is quickly becoming the strongest part of the show. That said, “Bates Motel” could still stand to lose, or at least define, a few of the supporting characters – hell, Keith’s been dead for three episodes and we still have no clue as to how someone who apparently was a point person in an underground slave/pot ring managed to fall behind on his finances to the point of having a motel he inherited fall into the bank’s hands. The series still has some opening episode sea legs, but it is slowly finding its strengths, and it’s clearly significantly better than the franchise-killing show that some feared.
– Paul Freitag-Fey
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