Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bates Motel: Underwater Review


Bates Up In Smoke...

Underwater is Bates Motel's weakest episode.  While there are some good turns into terror which the show excels in, too much time is taken up with what essentially amounts to a stoner comedy where even the more sensible characters go a bit off.  However, we do get some strong moments in terms of overall plot, even if a lot of Underwater (which in one of the better aspects, has multiple meanings) tends to get lost in a haze.

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is furious.  She is about to go underwater financially now that the highway will bypass the Bates Motel.  She is convinced her real estate agent knew about this and now is determined to dump the business, take what she can (which is everything she put into it) and skip out of town once again, toting her youngest son Norman (Freddie Highmore) with her.  In a rare display of courage, Norman tells her he will NOT leave White Pine Bay. 

Why would he?  His brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has constantly offered to take him in.  His English teacher, the extremely hot Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) thinks he has incredible his writing (get your mind out of the gutter!).  He has made a female friend in Emma (Olivia Cooke) and has even managed to get laid with the most popular girl in town, Bradley (Nicola Peltz), even if she saw it as something other than how Norman saw their encounter.  So what if Norman dreams of drowning Bradley underwater in the bathtub?

Who wouldn't be hot for teacher?
In fairness to Norma and Norman, both have been having a hard time of it, what with her finding the corpse of her late lover Deputy Shelby in her bed and Norman having potentially murdered his own father and all. 

Making things worse for both is the issue of Dylan.  Norman senses that Dylan and Bradley find each other sexually attracted, inspiring his jealousy.  Bradley sweet-talks her way to get Dylan to go into her late father's old office, which is where some drug empire is headquartered (though Bradley knows nothing of this).  Meanwhile, Abernathy (Jere Burns) continues to torment Norma surreptitiously.

In order for her to get some rest, Norma does the most natural thing in the world...she crawls into bed with her seventeen year old son.  Again, what can possibly be so odd in all that?

Things however, seem to only keep getting worse for the Bateses.  First, Norma discovers that people use marijuana!  She is genuinely shocked, SHOCKED to find Dylan's guests are using pot all over the place.  One of them offers Emma some pot, oblivious to her oxygen tank.  Well, in such situations, a cupcake will do, and to both Emma and Norma's surprise, Emma ends up both high and completely disoriented.  Finally, Abernathy makes his move.  Surprising Norma in the back of her car, the mystery man (since it's discovered Abernathy is one of many aliases) tells Norma that her late lover owes him $150,000 for a batch of sex slaves he had not paid for, and he's come to collect.

Despite having nothing close to that, or not having been aware prior to his death that Shelby was involved in something as sordid as white slavery, or being on the verge of financial ruin herself, Abernathy demands that she come up with the money by tomorrow, midnight, or Abernathy will kill some people...named Dylan Massett, Norman Bates, and then one Norma Louise Bates.  She says she will pay him, though exactly how this is to be done no one knows.

As I said, what pushed Underwater down (no pun intended) was that for most of the episode, there is an odd focus on the comical aspects of getting high.  There is Norma's apparent unfamiliarity with cannabis, down to her almost shockingly prudish view on the subject.  "Just tell them not to smoke pot," she tells Emma, adding that to emphasis this Emma should use an authoritative voice.  I for one took that as almost something inspired from Reefer Madness.  Then there was Emma's taking of the marijuana-laced cupcake.  Although she knew perfectly well what the cupcake was made of, she somehow appears genuinely surprised that eating a whole cupcake containing marijuana would make her a little bit loopy.

Even the road crew working on the marijuana that Dylan brought in look more like deleted scenes from Pineapple Express than anything more realistic (which is what Bates Motel is going for).  I can't say that the show lost its way, but I do wonder if perhaps they were trying in Underwater to give the viewer a bit of breathing room after so much chaos and horror in the preceding episodes. 

We've had corpses in beds.  We've had rapes.  We've had sex slaves.  We've had murders galore.
Why not lighten things up (pun intended)?

Still, we do have some strong indicators buried within Underwater.  Thieriot and Highmore continue to work well together, particularly when Dylan becomes alarmed that Norman truly does not remember ever threatening him (which he has).  Farmiga now owns the part of Norma Bates in the same way Robert Downey, Jr. owns the role of Tony Stark/Iron-Man.  She manages to make lines like, "Why do crazy people keep gravitating towards me?" sound perfectly logical and rational.  Her getting into bed with her son is an example of great subtext, where things are suggested without being overtly spoken.  From her point of view, there really is nothing weird or creepy about the whole thing: Norman has a bed, she'd like to sleep on a bed, and it's the son she's extremely close to. 

What's so wrong with that?  Whether NORMAN thinks it's odd or uncomfortable is irrelevant to Norma, a woman so unaware that her actions might be wrong she never thinks her acts through.  When she is attacked by Abernathy, this again is another great last-minute surprise that pushes the episode high (no pun intended).  The fear she has both for her own safety and that of her sons is played so well.  Farmiga is so good that even when something appears comical (such as when she starts whacking the real estate agent with her purse because he will probably not be able to get her money back) Farmiga makes it more the act of a woman thoroughly enraged at her powerlessness than of a crazy woman.

Burns makes Abernathy into now the cold, calculating killer, one who might finally be Norma's match. 

Again, the focus on the lighter side of pot makes Underwater and Bates Motel come close to farce.  Fortunately, Farmiga and Burns' performances and the underlying tones of danger, especially one not of either Norma or Norman's making (a rare moment for either) lifts it up a bit.  Still, a little less pot highjinks would have lifted the story higher.   


Next Episode: Midnight

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