Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bates Motel: What's Wrong With Norman? Review


Bates Set To Go Off...

The growing mental break within Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), where a mixing of sexual desire and repression are blending with murder and emotional confusion are growing, which leads one to ask What's Wrong With Norman, our third episode of Bates MotelWhat's Wrong With Norman mixes the inner conflict within our main character with the odder goings-on in his new home of White Pine Bay.

Norman's half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has found himself with a new job: guarding the pot fields discovered by Norman and Emma (Olivia Cooke), where a shed nearby might hold the key to a white slavery ring.  Norman, however, along with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) have problems of their own.  First, Norman is having erotic fixations based on the bondage drawings in that journal he found, fixations that cause him to black out in class.  Second, after the obsessed Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) follows through on his threat to get a search warrant to search the Bates Motel and house, Norman confesses that he kept Keith Summer's tool belt, as a souvenir he says.  Finally, when Dylan returns to the house, he is shocked and/or confused that Norman tells him he has no memory of ever trying to kill his older half-brother.

While Norma uses her feminine wiles with Deputy Shelby (Max Vogel) to get information on that belt (which Shelby found but has not turned in to the department), Norman becomes obsessed with retrieving it (he also isn't too pleased with the idea of Shelby and Mother Bates, suggesting that they might become beholden to Shelby but the subtext suggesting something more insidious).  Eventually, Norman begins to crack completely: he imagines a conversation with his mother, where she now agrees with him that the belt must be retrieved.  Norman breaks into Shelby's home, where he makes a horrifying discovery: the Deputy is a sex slaver, holding that Chinese girl prisoner in his basement, and worse, at the end, Deputy Shelby has just arrived home...

Now with What's Wrong With Norman, we get the beginnings of the dark side of Norman and Norma Bates, two of the most twisting characters on television.  I say 'twisting' rather than 'twisted' because in Bates Motel, they are both slowly and surely evolving into horrifying creatures. 

Mrs. Bates is someone who loves her son but who is also committed to control him, either unaware or uninterested in what it does to him.  She is completely unsympathetic when he tearfully tells her he kept the belt, but not above attempting to seduce the deputy (which does result in some success) to protect them both.  Even stranger is Mrs. Bates' inability to see that someone holding on to a souvenir of a killing is a hallmark of serial killers. 

The strange undercurrent of an unhealthy relationship between is openly stated by Dylan, the most rational of the three (even if he is no pillar of the community).  In the opening scene, he addresses his mother and half-brother who are having breakfast together as "Mr. and Mrs. Bates".  It is technically correct but the underlying and unspoken suggestion that they are more like a married couple than a mother/son is there, obvious to Dylan but almost oblivious to both Norma and her namesake.

If anything, What's Wrong With Norman is Highmore's showcase where he mixes a certain innocence and naivete to something darker, uglier, even evil.  Highmore's Norman knows there is something wrong within him (at one point he plainly asks himself, "What's wrong with me?"), and now the sexual desires all seventeen-year-old boys have are becoming confused in his mind with a strong sense of impropriety.  In the opening, he imagines his teacher being bound like the drawings that he has become both fascinated and appalled by, and in a 'blink-and-you-miss-it' you see that Mother Bates is quickly seen as also blending into his erotic fantasies.  This confusion about his desires causes his fainting spell. 

The other aspects, such as casually insisting that he never attacked Dylan or his 'dream' of seeing Norma come to his room to talk about the Shelby situation is laying the groundwork for the darkness that is slowly taking over Norman.  Highmore continues to make this shy, soft-spoken individual both a growing menace to himself and others and yet almost sympathetic, someone who is slowly being taken over by impulses he does not understand and cannot control.

Farmiga for her part is still oddly compelling as Mother Bates: caring mother, shrewd and manipulative when she needs to.   Alluring yet dangerous when needed, determined to meet her goals but also to control things (and people), her performance makes for compelling viewing.  We watch as this woman continues to attempt to fix things for her favored son while also attempting to keep him within her grasps.  Farmiga does not make Norma evil, but she is clearly a woman who doesn't shrink from doing what she thinks needs doing to protect herself and her interests.

Oddly, it is Thieriot who is almost lost in the dynamics of the two other main characters.  I don't hold Thieriot in particular to blame: his character still strikes me as the clichéd 'bad boy', and just exactly what is the interest of seeing two people sit around the forest on what looks like a camping trip (even if it is to watch a marijuana field)?  I hope that Dylan will not become a distraction in Bates Motel (it would be deadly to focus the stories on him rather than on the actual Bateses).  However, the exchange between Norman and Dylan where the former sincerely denies ever coming close to trying to kill the latter is a fascinating exchange. 

It does come with the established idea from Psycho and its sequels that Norman suffers from black-outs.  By introducing this element (whether Norman genuinely believes he didn't come at Dylan with a meat cleaver or whether he is attempting to cover it up), I believe Bates Motel is laying the groundwork for how Norman Bates will turn out to be the madman he ends up becoming.

Another standout is Cooke, who with Emma makes her the voice of sanity in a town clearly bonkers.  The 'oddity' of her illness is all but forgotten because now we can see that her mind is the most powerful weapon, and Cooke is an excellent actress in her efforts to make us see beyond Emma's cystic fibrosis and into her genuine heart and mind.  In fact, she blows the other secondary characters out of the way (the gruff Romero, the duped deputy, and especially the hesitant but attractive Bradley, who comes across as pretty but flat...and with simply hideous pants that she should burn.  Seriously, those are some UGLY pants).

If anything in What's Wrong With Norman, the Jeff Wadlow script does two or three things.  First, it continues building shocking twists in the story (who could imagine that the slightly dippy deputy was part of a white slavery ring?).  Two, it starts building the characters along with the growing nature of the corruption of souls (theirs and the town's).  Three, it still has those Twin Peaks elements (weird town, weirder denizens).  It's a good thing I liked Twin Peaks (at least for a season and a half, until it got too silly even for me). 

Bates Motel is becoming a strong series, with excellent and gripping performances and a storyline that is both true to the original source material and its own creation.    

Master Bates is clearly more than a troubled young man: he is a man coming into a slow and deadly break from reality.        


Next Episode: Trust Me

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