Bates Motel – Episode 7: “The Man in Number 9”

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The Man in Number 9 – Episode 7 – original airdate 4/29/2013

  So how does this show follow up what was far and away the best episode to date?  By scaling back on the tension and giving viewers a much-needed breather.

The messy showdown in episode 6 is cleaned up very tidily in about two minutes.  When did Sheriff Romero become such a nice, understanding guy?  And what about that poor Asian girl?  Turns out she was just a MacGuffin, which  in Hitchcockian parlance means a plot device used to advance the story, without necessarily adding any intrinsic value to the story.   So much time was spent trying to find her, to protect her, without ever giving her a real identity, and in the end she is wasted offscreen, and casually referenced once in this episode.  How sad.

And suddenly its all laughs and smiles in the Bates household.  But not for long.

This episode focuses on Norman’s relationships with several females:  his mother, Bradley, Emma, and a dog named Juno.  Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of Norma is eerily good.  Norma is a woman whose mood can turn on a dime, and Farmiga shows these sudden changes without ever sinking to mere charicature.  Norma has become the master of the awkward embrace.  Bradley is as distant to the viewer as she is to Norman, hard to dislike, hard to understand.  Emma has rapidly become my favorite character on the show, and I can only hope her role will grow.   She describes Bradley as a “locomotive of sexual energy”, with a mix of distaste and envy in her voice that made me smile.

And we meet the first guest in the newly renovated Bates Motel, a strange guy who had a standing arrangement with the previous dirtbag owner Keith, to stay one week every other month.  Jake Abernathy is a guy who “likes his privacy”, pays cash in advance, and responds with nervous laughter when Norma asks if he’s up to anything illegal.   Jere Burns, the actor who plays Abernathy, should look to familiar to fans of “Breaking Bad”;  Burns played the guy who ran the twelve-step program that Jesse attended.

Chances are we haven’t seen the last of him.   Ultimately this was just a transitional episode,  demonstrating that the

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shows’ writers  have a good sense of pacing.  And what about that dog?  Thinking back to the original “Psycho” film, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of her.   What will next week bring?

 

Bates Motel – Episode 6: “The Truth”

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The Truth – Episode 6 – original airdate 4/22/2013

Over the first five episodes, this show has spun out a few different story lines, and several supporting characters around the core group of Norman, Norma and Dylan.  This episode, written by Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, pulls in to focus on the Bates family, their interactions, and response to crisis.   I wanted to acknowledge the writers because this is an excellent episode, thematically providing just what this show needed at this point.

TV’s most dysfunctional family deserves a little bonding time.  And what brings a family together like breaking and entering, and destroying evidence to protect a loved one from a murder charge, all while trying to stay one step ahead of a wacko cop who is involved in the sex trade, and probably a lot more besides?  No matter what issues may exist between the members of the Bates family, they recognize the immediate danger presented by Deputy Shelby, and work together to bring him down.

Highlights of this episode include a very awkward hug between Norma and Emma, some great brotherly bonding on a boat, and Norma actually saying the words “I am sorry I didn’t believe you” to Norman, words that needed to be said.

 

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This episode has the kind of tension that is usually reserved for season finales, building to a fantastic finish that has the viewer rooting, for the first time, for the entire Bates family.  But it turns out that the  showdown on the steps of the Bates Motel is not the end of this episode.  Because we finish with a jaw-dropping  flashback to how the series began:  the death of Norman’s father.  Only this time, we get a lot more information, which changes everything.  All of a sudden lots of things that seemed weird now make a little more sense. There is also now a real family dynamic, and three characters that we sympathize with, even more so than before.  Bravo to the show’s creators.  With four episodes left in this season, I don’t know how any single episode can top this,  but I can’t wait to see how they try.

Bates Motel – Episode 5: “Ocean View”

Ocean View – Episode 5 – Original airdate 4/15/2013

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Early in this episode we see Norman walking home from Bradley’s house in the morning, jacket casually slung over his shoulder.    He is walking like any 17-year old boy would walk after spending the night with a girl for the first time.  It could almost be called a strut.   You can practically imagine “Staying Alive” playing in the background.  Well, maybe a Keane cover version of “Staying Alive” played at half-tempo.  Go ahead and strut Norman.  You deserve it, because your already messed-up life is about to get even messier.

This episode focuses on Norma’s arrest for murder, and the actions that Deputy Shelby and Norman will take to help her.  It turns out that they with both do quite a bit.  Norman works hard to secure her bail, and succeeds in doing so, only to get the cold shoulder from his mom because she is angry that he slept with a girl.  Poor Norman.  Meanwhile Deputy Perv-hole is willing to risk not only his job, but a jail sentence as well, to see that Norma isn’t charged.    Did he really fall for Norma that quickly, that he would risk everything?    It is impossible to sympathize with this guy, considering his hobby of chaining women in his basement.  And yet Norma sides with him.  This episode ends with a major turning point, when Norma is confronted with irrefutable evidence that  Shelby is not the stand-up guy she thinks he is.  Will she finally believe in her son?

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And then there is Emma.  Sweet Emma.   She is really growing on me, and I wish she would grow on Norman too.  She is cute, empathetic and wise beyond her years.  Of course we know there is not going to be a happy ending to this series, right?  There will never be little Normans and Emmas running around the Bates Motel.

Also, that was a dirty trick to make Dylan’s work partner seem like such a cool guy, and then have him get shot in the neck for some yet-to-be-disclosed reason.   Really, how many of your friends would loan you $5,000 of their hard-earned illicit pot-field-guarding money?

We are halfway through the first season, and so far this show continues to entertain, and exceed expectations.  There are a lot of loose ends, though, a lot of unanswered questions.   Will we get all the answers we are craving, in the long term?  And in the short term, will Norma (hopefully) side with her son for once?  Stay tuned.

Bates Motel – Episode 4: “Trust Me”

batesmotel8Trust Me – Episode 4 – Original airdate 4/8/2013

When this episode began it seemed to be a recap of how the last episode ended, with Norman breaking into Deputy Shelby’s house to try and retrieve the utility belt.    It is in part a recap, but we get more information this time.  It turns out that brother Dylan trailed Norman to Deputy Creephole’s house and saw him enter.  When the deputy, (played by Mike Vogel), returned home a moment later, Dylan acually rang the doorbell to create a diversion so Norman could escape.

This episode focuses on shifting family alliances.   Norman fills Dylan in on everything that has gone down in this wacko town, such as mommy killing Keith, and the chained-up Asian girl.  The relationship between Norman and mommy is strained.  Norman doesn’t like that his mother is “spending time” with Shelby, and who can blame him, after all he keeps women chained up in his basement.  But Shelby also has the trump card, which is that damn utility belt.  And he wants to be buddies with Norman too, inviting him on one of the most awkward fishing trips of all time.

Meanwhile Sheriff Romero (played by Nestor Carbonell), who has clearly suspected Norma Bates of being involved with the disappearance of Keith from day one, begins to tighten the legal noose around her.  (That darned Keith just won’t go away;  even from the grave he gives the sheriff a hand in his investigation.  That would be his actual, decomposing hand, sporting an easily identifiable watch that only a perv like Keith would wear.)   And as the noose tightens, her crazy comes to the forefront.   The more crazy she is, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

Also of note in this episode:  Norman gets some!  At his brother’s urging he goes to Bradley’s house late at night and she takes him into her room.  Way to go Norman.

Cringe-worthy moment:  when Norma accuses her son of being jealous of Shelby, and Norman replies “I’m not jealous, you’re not my girlfriend, you’re my mom.”    Yeah.

 

Bates Motel – Episode 3: “What’s Wrong With Norman?”

batesmotel5What’s Wrong With Norman? – Episode 3 – Original Airdate 4/1/2013

Lost Syndrome:  A television show inspired by the success of ABC’s hit show Lost, that introduces several intriguing characters and mysterious plotlines very early on.  In most instances, one gets the sense that the shows’ creators are making it up as they go along.  Most of these shows, howsoever good the initial premise, do not get renewed for a second season, if they even get through the first.  (See Flash Forward, Alcatraz, several others.)

Is there a chance that Bates Motel could succumb to the same fate as the many Lost wannabees that have come and gone?  The Lost  comparison is certainly apt here in one respect;  many of Bates Motel‘s producers, directors, and writers worked on Lost.   This show is different from all those shows that have failed to recapture the success of Lost, namely in the connection to the Psycho storyline.  And there are no worries about a second season, because it has already been renewed for next year.  But the thing which I find the most exciting about this show is also the thing that most worries me:  it’s ambition.  So far it has exceeded expectations.  Let’s hope it can maintain its momentum.

So what’s new in White Pine Bay?  Without giving everything away, we have Norman passing out at school, and ending up in the hospital for several tests.    Norman is clearly attracted to Bradley, whose flambe’d father dies in this episode.  And Bradley likes Norman, although it’s a little unclear if her feelings run to the romantic.   There is no question that Emma is attracted to Norman, but he is uncomfortable with her because of the the secret they share, namely the kinky hand drawn journal which Norman found in the first episode, and which now appears to be reality, not fiction.

The sheriff, increasingly suspicious of Norma and her possible involvement in the disappearance of Keith (the asshole she stabbed to death), obtains a search warrant for the house and motel.   It turns out that Norman kept Keith’s utility belt, under his bed of all places.   Yes it is a little cliched, the blossoming killer keeping his first trophy item from a victim.  But it is made all the creepier in this instance by the simple fact that Norman is still an endearing character, and he can’t even explain himself why he kept the belt.  Needless to say Momma Bates is not happy that he kept it.  She stages an early release from the hospital for Norman, and freaks when Norman discovers the belt is gone from under his bed.  Why didn’t the police arrest Norma if they have the belt?

Because the deputy sheriff found it, and kept it himself.  Of course, he offers to “protect” Norma, and we all know that kind of protection comes with a price.  A price it would seem Norma is more than willing to pay!    It is a kind of twisted  mutual seduction,  each person using the other, recognizing that they are being used, and enjoying it all the same.

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Meanwhile Dylan has begun his new job, which consists of guarding the massive pot fields outside of town.  And somehow Dylan now seems to be the most normal, balanced member of the family.  He has a bonding moment with his half-brother Norman, even joking about the fight between them in episode two, a fight that Norman doesn’t seem to remember.

Norma has already exhibited a very clingy, protective attitude towards Norman, which certainly fits in with the psychological profile of Psycho.  She definitely does not like Norman spending time with his new female friends.    And the most cringe-worthy moment of the entire series to date (which actually occured in episode two) had Norma changing her shirt in front of her son, and when he appeared uncomfortable she said “I’m your mother.  It’s not like it’s weird.”   Ewwww! A great line for all the fans of Psycho, because we all know  this is the most messed-up mother-son relationship since Oedipus jumped on Jocasta.

The episode ends with Norman being told by his mom (or a hallucination of his mom) that he needs to retrieve the belt from deputy sleazeball’s house.  So Norman breaks into the house, and he doesn’t find a belt, but he does find out just what inspired the drawings in that journal of asian women in bondage.  This town gets creepier by the episode.

Bates Motel – Episode 2: “Nice Town You Picked, Norma”

Nice Town You Picked, Norma – Episode 2 – Original Airdate 3/25/2013

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Episode One ended with Bates mother and son bound together in the cover-up of a crime.  All-in-all the episode was quite good, but I was already asking the question, how will the mother/son dynamic sustain itself for an entire season, let alone multiple seasons?    To borrow a cliche, for this show to succeed it will have to be about the journey not the destination, because we more-or-less know the destination, and it ain’t pretty.

Welcome to episode two, where this show takes a sudden left turn into Twin Peaks territory, and now seems to have enough material to last quite awhile.   This episode introduces us to Dylan Massett, Norma Bates oldest son from a previous relationship.  Dylan, played by Max Thieriot, arrives on the doorstep of the Bates new home, unannounced and unwelcome.  He is introduced as the typical bitter, brooding young man desperately waiting for someone to notice how angry he is.

Meanwhile Norman has become friendly with not one, but two attractive girls from school.  There is Bradley (played by Nicola Peltz), who met Norman at the bus stop in the first episode.   In this episode, while waiting at the bus stop a car crashes nearby!  It is Bradley’s father’s car!   He was driving the car after being set on fire!  He is burned to a crisp!  (Sorry for the unnecessary exclamation points, I just couldn’t help it.)  If you’re saying WTF, don’t worry, it gets weirder.   Norman has also met Emma, played by Olivia Cooke.  Emma has cystic fybrosis,  and totes an oxygen tank in every scene to remind us of her condition, even though she never appears to be out of breath.   Remember that twisted notebook that Norman found in episode one?   Emma discovers it while studying with Norman, and suggests the images may be real, and they should investigate.

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Their investigation turns up more than they bargained for,  namely a gigantic pot field.  Could Bradley’s extra-crispy father have had something to do with this field, is that why he was burned?  This town gets stranger by the minute.  Meanwhile the sheriff is beginning to suspect Norma’s involvement in the disappearance of the dude she wasted in the first episode.  And Dylan finds a new job, through a contact he meets at a strip club.  Yup, a strip club.  All you job hunters out there,  I’ll bet you never even considered the employment networking possibilities at your local strip club.  Give it a try!   Dylan was only asked one question at his job interview:  “Do you know how to use a gun?”   OK, so it’s that kind of job, but the pay is good I’m sure.

Meanwhile, there is a body hanging upside down, in the middle of town!  On fire!  In broad daylight!  Surrounded by onlookers!  On second thought, this town is starting to make Twin Peaks look like Mayberry.  Stay tuned…

Bates Motel: The Psycho legacy lives on.

batesmotel1 A&E debuted the new TV series “Bates Motel” about 3 weeks ago.   In the weeks to come, I will recap the first  episodes, new episodes as they air, and take an in-depth look at Hitchcock’s original Psycho movie, as well as that movie’s long legacy on screens big and small.

First You Dream, Then You Die – Episode 1 – Original airdate 3/18/2013

This series begins with a dreamlike scene in which a young and seemingly disoriented Norman Bates finds his father in the garage, dead on the floor, while his emotionally vacant mother comforts him coldly.  Dissolve to mother and son in the car, heading to a new town and a fresh start.    This show is not a prequel to the 1960 Hitchcock movie;  the creators of the show refer to it as a reimagining.   We see a teenage Norman Bates, and his very-much-alive mother,  Norma, but we also see cell phones and ipods.    Yes, the show is set in contemporary times.   The setting has also been moved, from the fictional town of Fairvale, California, to the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon.  These changes serve the show very well, allowing the characters to act in ways that would not have been possible if they were tied to a setting that predated the movie.   The modern-day setting will certainly broaden the show’s appeal as well.  And yet, for all its modern touches, there is that house, that motel.  Norma has bought a run-down motel and adjoining house, and they are identical to the ones in the  movie, inside and out.  

As the Bates begin settling in to their new home, the previous owner of the property shows up, and he is a walking cliche, resentful that he lost the house, mentioning that his grandpa or some other relative built the motel, making vague threats.   A character written this poorly is clearly not going to last long;  he could have entered the scene wearing a t-shirt that read “I am an asshole, kill me now”, and it would have been no less subtle.    Another scene from the “only on TV” department:  Norman is waiting for the bus on his first day of school, and ends up getting a ride with a car full of attractive girls.  That never happened to me when I moved to a new town;  I was probably at the wrong bus stop.   Or maybe the girls just find Norman irresistible.

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Young Norman is played by Freddie Highmore,( best known for Finding Neverland and August Rush ), and much like Anthony Perkins, his Norman is cute in a quiet and self-effacing way.   Highmore was well cast, and does a great job with the role.  Vera Farmiga, in the role of his mother Norma, also does a superb job in a difficult role, walking a fine line between sexy and creepy.

Mr. previous-owner asshole rather predictably breaks in the house and begins to rape Norma, and she is able to fend him off, killing him rather violently in the process.    She convinces Norman that they should not go to the police, and together they dispose of the body.  During the cleanup, Norman finds a book inside one of the motel rooms, hidden under the carpet.  It is hand drawn, and looks like some twisted manga,  images of scantily clad girls in states of bondage.  After the Bates meet the local law enforcement, the episode ends with a brief scene that leads the viewer to believe the hand drawn images in the book  may not be fantasy, but reality.  A very promising beginning.