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 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.