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 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.