Bates Motel – “Caleb”

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Caleb – Season Two, episode 3 – original air date 3/17/2014

The third episode of Bates Motel is very solid overall, and the writers deserve a shout out.  However, it must be said up front:  when Norma’s brother  Caleb (played by Kenny Johnson) arrived at the motel, and he and Dylan approached each other awkwardly, and stood talking, was there anyone who did not immediately realize that Caleb was Dylan’s daddy?   It was rather obvious from the first moment, apparently to everybody except Dylan.  I thought maybe even he might have had a suspicion, but it was clear from the look of shock on his face in the last scene that he did not.   So that last-minute reveal was no reveal at all, and now this series has taken a left turn into Chinatown.  He’s your uncle.  He’s your father.  He’s your uncle and your father.    Holy crap!  Poor Norma; it is amazing the amount of shit she has had to deal with, and the way she continually tries to find a way to provide a “normal” life for her children is admirable, as is the performance of Vera Farmiga.  She simply couldn’t be better.

This episode focuses on several characters meeting new people, creating new relationships.  And the episode is bookended by the reminders of the past, in Norma’s brother Caleb, the past that she just can’t seem to outrun.    Of course Norma did not get the lead in the play, as a matter of fact she got no part at all.   That’s small town politics for you.  Especially this small town.  The play’s director Christine (Rebecca Creskoff) quits in protest, and befriends Norma.   When she invites Norma to her garden party, we are worried for Norma.  Dear God, how is her crazy going to manifest itself this time?   But that is not the case.  Norma is very nervous, but handles herself well.  She is engaging, charming, and funny.  She even hits it off with Christine’s brother, George.  We almost certainly haven’t seen the last of him.

Meanwhile Norman befriends a girl named Cody, that we first saw as a grocery store cashier in this season’s first episode.  She is working as a tech on the play, and convinces Norman to join as well.  It is clear that there is some mutual attraction here, and Norman handles himself with a confidence that we have not yet seen.   It would appear that Emma is tired of waiting for Norman to notice her, for she cozies up to the guy that her gave her the pot-laced cupcakes in season one.   Emma is just feeling guilty over Bradley’s “death”, which we know was faked.  Emma’s honesty is disarming, as she admits that she feels guilt because she still doesn’t like Bradley even though she is dead.  We probably haven’t seen the last of Bradley either.

And Dylan is bonding with his Uncle Daddy, foolishly giving him all of his saved cash.   Dylan is probably the most balanced member of the Bates family, and considering he is the result of rape and incest, that is saying something.  He has a good heart, and a sharp wit.  When Major Douche (aka Zane) asks him what his next move would be in the escalating drug war, he takes the time to think about it, and then gives the perfect response.  He would do nothing.  It is a zero-sum game.  Bravo.

Just when things seemed to be going so well for all of the Bates, everything collapses in the final scene, and now they have another mess to face.  Norma seems equipped to deal with anything.  Bring it on.

Bates Motel – Season Two – “Shadow Of A Doubt”

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Shadow of a Doubt – Season Two, Episode Two – original air date 3/10/2014

Season Two of Bates Motel got off to a pretty good start in the first episode of the new season, picking up right where season one left off.  The story lines are intriguing, the characters interesting.   I wonder now, just as I wondered when this show began, just how long will this show be able to sustain any intensity, and a dramatic arc, when we already know there is no happy ending in store for anyone in the Bates family.   I thought about this a lot during this newest episode of season two, which was far less satisfying to me than the first episode.

As far as storylines go, there are several threads at work.  Bradley is hiding in the basement, having killed the drug kingpin Gil, who she believes is responsible for her father’s death.   Norman buys Bradley a bus ticket, and is going to drive her to the bus station in an adjacent town.  Just where Bradley is planning to go and what she is planning to do is never made clear.   But she lays low, waiting for her time of departure.

Meanwhile, in the drug world, Gil’s replacement arrives, and this is a character that is designed to be disliked by everyone.  He screams “major douche”, from his hairstyle, to his dress, to his manner of speech.  It’s hard to believe a guy like this could have climbed to middle management in the drug world without being killed by someone.  So it turns out that White Pine Bay has not only one, but two families in the drug trade?  And Major Douche decides that the other family must have offed Gil, so he kidnaps someone from the other crew, and kills him, in front of Dylan.  Is this going to turn into a Hatfield v. McCoy standoff?  Seems a little far-fetched.  And I’m not sure if Sheriff Romero is intriguing and enigmatic, or just poorly written.  He was pretty badass when he took care of Abernathy in season one.  Now at times he seems to be a lackey for the druglords.   Hopefully there will be some resolution with his character.

And finally we have the mother/son relationship with Norma and Norman, by far the most interesting storyline in this episode.  Ultimately, this harkens back to what Psycho was all about.  It can be by turns creepy, humorous, and touching.  Who else but Norma Bates would ask her doctor about her son during a gynecological exam?  Norma also has one of her strongest moments in the series, when she sings “Maybe This Time” at an audition for the local community theater, pouring all of her emotions into her performance, and stunning everyone, Norman included.

The episode ends with Dylan taking Bradley to the bus stop, first asking her to compose a suicide note.  And the Bates family tree expands with the arrival of Norma’s brother.  I’m assuming this is the same brother that used to abuse her, so he probably won’t be welcomed with open arms.

 

 

Bates Motel – Season Two – “Gone But Not Forgotten”

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 Gone But Not Forgotten – Season Two, Episode 1 – original airdate 3/3/2014

My oh my, the time sure passes quickly.  It seems like it was just a few weeks ago that we  were watching the conclusion to season one of Bates Motel, which ended with Norman experiencing one of the most messed-up days in his messed-up life.

Remember that day?  Remember how his mom  told him that she had been raped by her brother when she was younger?  Remember Norman going to the dance with Emma, but staring at Bradley?  Remember Emma leaving, Norman getting punched in the face, walking home in the rain, being picked up by Miss Watson?  Oh yeah, Miss Watson…

Season Two picks up right where the first season left off, with the death of Miss Watson.  Norman is very distraught by her death, maybe a little too distraught?  And whose pearls are those he is toying with?

Meanwhile, Bradley is driving drunk, takes a dive off a bridge (if she wanted to kill herself, why did she swerve out of the way of the truck in the scene just before she jumped off the bridge?)  She survives the attempt, but spends a few months in a mental facility.  When she gets out, she is obsessed with finding out who killed her father.  And of course Norman is still obsessed with her, even though Emma is right there in front of him, wanting only to be loved.

Meanwhile, business is booming at the Bates Motel.  We see lots of happy customers, while a Haim song plays on the soundtrack (nice choice!)   But there is a big problem looming:  the highway bypass, which will divert all the traffic away from the motel.  Yes, this is the bypass, the one referenced in Hitchcock’s Psycho movie.  The bypass that will be the undoing of the Bates Motel.  Norma goes to a city council meeting, in an attempt to thwart the planned start of construction on the bypass, but she is treated rather rudely, and out comes her crazy.    We get these glimpses of the strong, successful woman Norma could have been, if life had treated her a little better.  She brings up the fact that the massive pot fields drive the towns’ economy, something that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about.  Bravo!  But the deck is stacked against her in this battle.  Vera Farmiga sure is owning this role, at this point.

Every time we see Norma and Norman in a scene together now, there is a cringe-worthy element.  A simple driving lesson becomes very tense, and mother and son both explode.  Are they arguing about driving, or something more?  And in the tender moments, such as when Norma drapes her arm lovingly over Norman’s chest as she stands behind him, how can we not be creeped out by that?

Also,  Dylan reconnects with Bradley, and gives her some information that may help her find out what happened to Daddy, and it involves Gil, the head honcho of all the illegal goings on.  And the body count goes up.

Meanwhile Sheriff Romero and Norma both begin to suspect that Norman may have had something to do with Miss Watson’s death.  Finally Norman tells his mom that he was in her house, and that he blacked out.  Am I the only one who thinks its just a little too obvious that Norman killed Miss Watson?  We all know where Norman is headed;  he certainly is a killer.  And he has Miss Watson’s pearls.  Is there a slight possibility that someone else was involved in her death, or is it really that simple?

Bates Motel Season One recap: best, worst, unanswered questions

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Bates Motel debuted in mid March with a lot of hype and a lot of anticipation.  Now that season one is wrapped up, let’s take a look back at some of the best and worst moments.

Best overall performance:    Freddie Highmore does a spectacular job as the young Norman Bates.  In many ways he follows in the footsteps of Anthony Perkins.  There is no deliberate attempt to mimic Perkins’ performance, but Highmore manages to create a very real character who generates a lot of sympathy from the viewers of the show.   Vera Farmiga probably has the most difficult role, because Norma Bates is certainly a contributing factor to Norman’s mental state, and it would have been easy to make her a villain.  But she is not.  It is very hard to vilify her, because we see her own struggles, and her genuine concern for her children, as misguided as it might be at times.

Best supporting character:   Olivia Cooke does a wonderful job as Emma.   When she first appeared on screen with her oxygen tank in tow I groaned and thought “Oh great!  The token character battling a serious illness.”  What a pleasant surprise to see that Emma is much more.  Her character is very endearing, and often provokes a much needed smile from the viewer, something this show needs from time to time.

Worst supporting character:   This is a minor quibble, because all of the supporting characters are good.  But Keith Summers, played by W. Earl Brown, is a shallow caricature at best.  Granted, his character is killed off in the first episode, so there is really no time for character development.  He almost has to step on screen portraying menace from the first second.  Still, it did not need to be so painfully obvious that he was going to do something bad, and be killed in the process.

Best episode:  Episode 6, titled “The Truth”, was a real standout.  It featured the Bates family members all uniting together to take down Deputy Shelby.   The family dynamic was believable;  it was nice to be rooting for the family unit as a whole.  And the tension level was very high.  I have seen season finales of other dramatic shows that could not compare to this mid-season episode.

Worst episode:    There is no really bad episode, but episode nine (“Underwater”), felt like the series was just treading water; there was no real ratcheting of the tension leading into the series finale.  And the ending “surprise”, with Jere Burns character Abernathy hiding in the back of Norma’s car with a gun, was predictably boring and cliched.

Best reference to the original Psycho movie:  There are several moments in this series that recall the original movie.  My personal favorite is the origin of Norman Bates interest in taxidermy.  Recalling the scene in Psycho when Norman Bates talks about how he likes “stuffing things”, one can almost imagine him recalling a dead dog from his childhood.  The shows’ writers managed to take what many would consider to be a creepy hobby and add an endearing touch.  Bravo!

Creepiest/most shocking moment:  There are plenty of choices here.  My favorite would be Deputy Shelby’s decomposing, post-autopsy corpse lying in Norma’s bed.  Truly shocking, and completely unexpected.  The runner-up moment would have to be Norman and his mother snuggled up together in Norman’s small bed.

Unanswered questions:   For starters, Sheriff Romero’s character is one giant enigma.  He was written and played very mysteriously all season, and even though viewers might have a little better understanding of him now, there is a lot we don’t know about him.   We have to assume he knows about and probably condones the pot-growing operation.  But what about all the deaths?  For a very small town, a lot of people die, many in gruesome fashion.  Does Romero have any real authority, or does Dylan’s boss run the town?  How could someone being hung upside-down and set on fire in the middle of town be such a ho-hum affair?  A similar event in a major metropolitan city would create a media frenzy.

Body count:  Keith Summers, Bradley’s father, the unnamed person hanging upside-down and on fire, Ethan (the Asian dude that is Dylan’s partner watching the pot fields), Jiao (the poor Chinese girl), Deputy Shelby, Jake Abernathy, Miss Watson.  Eight murders in one small town in a few short months.  That would almost certainly make the fictitious White Pines Bay the murder capital of America, yeah?

Overall rating:  Season one of Bates Motel gets a solid A rating.  It can appeal to fans of Hitchcock’s original film, and a younger generation of viewers that have never seen it.  It is both contemporary and classic.  It has good writing, great performances, and likable characters.  It channels its influences well (Psycho, Twin Peaks, Lost), while still being original.  We can only hope season two lives up to the high standards established here.

Bates Motel – Episode 10 (Season finale): “Midnight”

batesmotelepisode10one Midnight – Episode 10 – original airdate 5/20/2013 For the last three episodes, this show has been building up for a Norma/Abernathy showdown.  After the somewhat formulaic ending of last week’s episode (how many times have we seen the bad guy suddenly pop up in the back seat of the car and place a gun to the driver’s head?) it was natural to assume that this season would end with the Bates family facing off with the sinister sleazebag Abernathy.   Or would it?  There have also been plenty of surprises, so maybe the season would end with another didn’t-see-that-coming moment.   How about a little of both?

First off, hats off to writers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, who also wrote the excellent episode 6, and the underwhelming episode 9.  This is a very well-written conclusion to the first season, and it  does just what a good season finale should do:  it answers some questions, provides some clues to others, and piques the viewers’ interest for next season.  Last week I questioned the relevance of the Norman/Miss Watson storyline,  saying that it was wasted screen time if it didn’t build to something.   Well the writers knew exactly what they were doing, because it builds to something pretty big, and completely unexpected.  batesmotelepisode10two

Nestor Carbonell continues to impress as Sheriff Romero.  His character has been hard to peg;  he has been written and played as a guy who may go either way.  Is he the good sheriff who cares about his town, or is he just another Shelby, or worse?  I found myself cheering for his actions in this episode, although I think there are still questions about him and his choices.

So lets review Norman’s last day of season one.  He asks Emma to the dance (or Emma tricks him into asking her); he overhears Miss Watson having a violent conversation on her cell phone, after which she gives him another of those awkward embraces; he sees Bradley and Dylan together and realizes that they are clearly attracted to each other;  his mother Norma confesses to him that her brother forced her to have sex with him while she was a teenager (really Norma?  while you are waiting with your son for his date to arrive, his date to his first ever school dance, that’s when you decide to spring that?  Granted, you are worried about your showdown with Abernathy, but still, how could you?); Norman stares at Bradley at the dance, prompting Emma to leave (way to be a jerk Norman, she is clearly the girl for you);  Bradley’s bf punches Norman in the face; Norman is walking home from the dance in the rain, when a car pulls up… (Pretty messed up day, huh?  Any wonder he has problems?)

The expected showdown is kind of a bait and switch by the writers, giving us what we wanted, and something else we didn’t expect, which left me pleased overall, and hungry for more.

Stay tuned next week for a season one summary, including some questions that didn’t get answered this season.

Bates Motel – Episode 9: “Underwater”

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Underwater – Episode 9 – original airdate 5/13/2013

So last week’s episode ended with what has to be the creepiest, most shocking, what-the-hell moment yet in this series.  It was quite a present that Jake Abernathy left for Norma.   Deputy Shelby is such a cad,  he just can’t keep out of Norma’s bed, even post-autopsy.  That seemed to set this week’s episode up for some incredible tension, right?  The season finale is only one week away.  Instead, this episode kind of fizzled.

Norman has some further interaction with his English teacher, Miss Watson, played by Keegan Connor Tracy.   Miss Watson has popped up in a couple of previous episodes,  and she’s always trying to nurture Norman, to encourage him to step out.  There is something a bit awkward and off-putting in the way she looks and speaks to Norman.  It’s unclear whether the show’s writers are setting up something with this student/teacher relationship; if they are not, then it is really wasted screen time.

Dylan befriends Bradley, and even risks his job to help her out.  It’s pretty clear that there is mutual attraction between the two, and the implications of a Dylan/Bradley hook-up could not be good for anyone’s sake.    Emma eats a pot-laced cupcake, which was a cute moment, but a moment that seemed to exist only to provide a little comic relief.

batesepisode9twoBest line in this episode:  Norma asking the question “Why do crazy people keep gravitating towards me?”

Creepy mother/son moment:  Norma asks Norman if she can sleep in his room.  He offers to sleep on the floor, but mother is having none of that…she climbs right in bed with Norman.  Right into his small twin bed, the two of them snuggled up close.   It could almost be a sweet moment, were it any other mother and son.

Jere Burns’ evil character Jake Abernathy makes an appearance at the end that seems almost obligatory.  Really, as surprising as the last episode’s ending was, this one was equally predictable.   In a show that has been consistently strong, this is one of the weaker episodes to appear up to this point.    Fans will expect much more than this for the season finale, and I’m confident the show will deliver.

Bates Motel – Episode 8: “A Boy and His Dog”

 A Boy and His Dog – Episode 8 – original airdate 5/6/2013

batesepisode8oneNorman Bates and his mother are sitting in a psychotherapists office.  The therapist says to Mrs. Bates “you seem to be a little controlling.”  It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a deliciously juicy scene in this episode.   After the brief respite we received in the last episode, the tension begins to creep upwards again tonight, as momentum builds towards the season finale in just two short weeks.

The writers on this show have done a fantastic job with the pacing on this show, and maintaining suspense.   Even though we know that this show cannot have a happy ending for all the characters involved, all the main players are well developed, and generate sympathy.

Fans of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” who enjoy connections between the TV series and the movie will enjoy many moments in this episode.   Remember the scene in the movie when Norman sits with Marion, surrounded by birds mounted on the wall?   He says “My hobby is stuffing things.  You know, taxidermy.”  We see the birth of that hobby in this episode, inspired by the death of the dog.  Norman’s loving stare at the stuffed dog is not so much creepy as sad, in light of all he has been through.  Fans of the movie will also appreciate the reference to the highway bypass, and the line “twelve rooms, twelve vacancies.”

Meanwhile, Dylan goes on a road trip for the bossman, with his new partner.  And Mr. Abernathy is beginning to look like he will be more of a pest than Deputy Shelby ever was.

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Jere Burns plays Abernathy perfectly, with a subtle, insidious undertone of evil.  Sheriff Romero puts Norma in her place, in Nestor Carbonell’s best scene yet in the series.  And dear sweet Emma continues to be dear sweet Emma.

And the final scene?  I thought I was prepared for anything, after all the shocking and bizarre images this series has shown us.  I could only utter three words:  holy freaking shit!