I would be lying if I said I haven’t been waiting for this moment on the edge of my seat. I have been waiting for the prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s canon work of horror and suspense, Psycho, for months now. I’m a huge fan of the master and was hoping that Bates Motel wasn’t just some television mini-series fly-by-night operation. Well, it wasn’t.
If a boy’s best friend is indeed his mother, then Vera Farmiga’s Norma Bates is the sort of friend every good boy needs. She takes the iconic image and idea of Hitchcock’s “mother” and changes her into one of his blondes, complete with steely gaze and a set jaw. She steps into the ideal that Hitchcock established through the likes of Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren and delivers a performance both brutal and elegant. From the hem of her flared skirt, to the tips of her bloody fingers, she is Norma. She is a lovely foil to Freddie Highmore’s Norman.
The first episode opens on a scene of quiet confusion. Norman awakens in his room; a black and white movie plays on the television. As he maneuvers his way through his house, the world seems tilted sideways. He finds his father in the basement, dead and bleeding out on the floor. He frantically calls to his mother and finds her behind a locked door. He pounds furiously, screaming “Mom!” This is the intensity that underpins the entire show. Everything is soiled with bloody confusion. Who is responsible for this? Norman or his mother?
The relationship between Norma and Norman is immediately established as one seemingly “out of time”. Though the setting is current, they are classic. Though modern details pepper the scenes, sometimes forcefully, we still get a sense that the Bates live somewhere outside of the rules of our age. The Oedipal tragedy of their lives and their struggle to be “normal” unravels almost immediately.
Vera Farmiga is ruthless, totally abandoned to the rules of the world that executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) set for her. She does not hold back in anything she does with Norma and if the rest of the cast are going to keep up they need to be quick on their feet. Farmiga delivers what may be one of the most controversial scenes I have watched in a long time, and what I think will again challenge audiences to ask themselves, just as the original Psycho movie did: how much is too much? What are the boundaries, and if there are any should there be?
Freddie Highmore embodies the gawky elegance of Norman Bates, his reed-like body a perfect adaptation of the young Anthony Perkins original. He isn’t your average guy, as the character played by Nicola Peltz, Bradley Martin, an attractive young girl in Norman’s class points out in one of those starkly juxtaposed scenes of modern excess. “You’re different,” she says to him, flirtatiously.
“People who are different don’t know they are different because they have nothing to compare it to,” he replies, softly.
This is during a scene in which he has sneaked out of the glowering house that he and his mother share under the pretext of “studying”. He has, in fact, been shanghaied into attending a high school party. Drugs, booze, implied sex, and teens. This is not your parent’s Psycho.
Rape, at the best of times, is a difficult topic to breach. Indeed, it seems that in the current atmosphere of the Steubenville trial, the word is on everyone’s lips. Everyone has an opinion. When Freddie Highmore walks in on a scene unfolding, Farmiga is challenged to act, midway through the first episode, in a way that establishes her character’s fierce instinct to survive after being brutally raped by the motel’s previous owner, Keith Summers. When he suggests she liked it, she runs a knife through him, repeatedly.
Part of you wants to hate Norma. She isn’t your average protagonist. Her moral compass is seriously off. But she wants so desperately to have a “good life”. She wants to live a fairy tale ending with her son, running this business in a new place, with new people (even at the expense of neglecting her son from a previous marriage, indicated in a stilted phone conversation had over a rack of raw meat). She’s committed, to herself and to him. I want to tell her, “you’re seriously screwing up here”. Hell, she admits it over Keith Summers corpse in a rowboat, as she and Norman dispose of the body. But something about Farmiga’s delivery justifies the violence. Something about her instinct to protect herself and protect her son feels so close, so authentic, even when she is covered in the man’s blood you sort of want to hug her. If only she weren’t so damn capable…and scary.
Norma shouts at Norman, immediately after freeing herself from the handcuffs that bound her to the kitchen table, “Where the hell were you, Norman?!” She blames him. And he blames himself.
Norman’s self-consciousness is understandable. In every scene with another male, you sense his impotence in the face of his own gender. You sense his inability to come to terms with his emerging sexuality. His masturbatory fantasies are illustrated, quite literally, recorded in a journal in which he secretively sketches scenes of violence and tenderness, respectively. It’s creepy as hell.
Within those pages lie the foreshadowing of things to come, or things that are. You can’t know for sure. This is the thing that is most interesting about Bates Motel. You just can’t predict where it is. You know where it’s going and it’s nowhere good.
But you still root for the Bates. They desperately want what seems so easy for other people. Normal. That elusive monster on the horizon that we are ever striving for. I think what Bates Motel will try to establish throughout the course of the coming episodes is that there is no such thing as normal. The Bates’ survive. They adapt, even when adapting means destroying everything around you. Norman never had a chance. He was born inside of his trap.
A&E saw its strongest premiere to date, with 4 million viewers tuning into Bates Motel’s first episode, and I for one hope it sticks around for a little while. Maybe we need to take a hard look at the ugliness that lives under the surface from time to time. Maybe if we can scratch the surface we can get around to scraping the rest of it off.