Monday, March 16, 2015

Bates Motel: A Death In The Family Review


Curling Up With A Good Bates...

We are back to the happy hijinks of our favorite future serial killer.   A Death in the Family, Bates Motel's opening episode, ramps up the freak factor between Norma Bates and her little boy Norman, while giving us slow bits of the even stranger relationship between Norma's son/nephew Dylan and Dylan's father/uncle, Caleb.

There's something to be said about a family dynamic even weirder than Norma and Norman Bates.

Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot) has left the drug trade, and apparently wants a peaceful life raising legal marijuana.  He also wants his younger half-brother Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) to be on his own.  That includes not sleeping with their mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga).  Dylan is disturbed to find the two of them sharing a bed, especially since Norman is eighteen years old.   Norma has her own set of problems.  She's just learned that her mother, Francine Calhoun, has died.  For all she cares, Norma wants nothing to do with her late mother.

Norma also probably wouldn't want anything to do with her brother Caleb (Kenny Johnson), who is also Dylan's father.  Caleb appears to want a connection with Dylan, and he does finally admit that he knows he's Dylan's dad, but for some reason Dylan doesn't want anything to do with Caleb, constantly pushing him to leave. 

Norma's other son is also causing difficulties.  He doesn't want to go back to school (something to do with the much-missed and very luscious Miss Watson).  It gets to the point where Norma has to physically force Norman out of the car in front of the school.  Things don't get easier when Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) appears to him, still sweet, and still as luscious as ever...despite that gash in her throat that's bleeding all over Normie.  He flees, and Norma decides that the best thing for him is to stay home and be homeschooled.  She also promotes him to hotel manager and gives what I would call mixed signals.  One night, she tells him he should sleep in his own bed (which makes him mad).  The next night, after she tells both her sons about her mother, she asks Norman to make an exception and keep her company (which makes him happy).

Of Course, this doesn't make him as happy as when he spies on hotel guest Annika (Tracey Spiridakos) taking a shower.  It was all accidental, but it doesn't make it any less erotic for our local boy.  For once Norma is rational, telling him that kind of thing isn't normal...not like, sleeping with your mother is, but why split hairs?  His conflict between desire for this hooker (she all but says she is) and the eternally long-suffering Emma (Olivia Cooke) is very difficult.  Norman finally says he and Emma should date (Nemma Fans Rejoice).  However, as soon as some hot number walks his way, Norman is happy to go with the Happy Hooker, leaving Emma alone. 

Geez, Norman, you're such an idiot...apart from that whole serial killer thing.

Emma leaves sad...again, and Norman comes back, with an odd look on his face, driving Annika's car...without her in it.

If there is anything that keeps Bates Motel from going all bonkers, it's Farmiga.  Again and again I see why Bates Motel is a wonderful prequel to Psycho (and not just the nods to the film).  Farmiga's performance in A Death in the Family is exactly like all her other performances in all three seasons of Bates Motel.


How every episode she makes Norma both sympathetic and monstrous (sometimes simultaneously) is an acting feat that still leaves one breathless.  Farmiga shows the genuine frustration she has at her sometimes strong-willed son (truth be told, I would have done exactly as she did and dragged my son out of the car if he kept refusing to).  When she asks Norman to get out of bed, you can see she is almost reluctant to do so, but aware that perhaps Dylan is right.  Once she gets us on her side, she pulls it out from under us by basically manipulating her son to meet her needs of keeping her company. 

We see the conflicted, complex, contradictory figure of Mother Bates when she gets Norman to stay with her and when she talks to Dylan about her mother's blue ribbon, the only memory she has of her mother being happy.  There's a genuine sadness mixed with regret that makes Farmiga's Norma Bates not the image we had of her pre-Psycho, as this controlling harpy.  Instead, her Norma Bates is a woman who truly wants good but who also is unaware of how selfish she can be, how damaging she is in her deep, possessive love for her namesake son.  She understands that spying on beautiful naked girls is wrong, but she also genuinely doesn't get why anyone would think her sharing her bed with her nearly twenty-year-old son would be so odd.

She is, unwittingly, creating a world where they are the only ones in it, and this can only bring tragedy for everyone concerned.  It's almost heartbreaking to watch a good woman doing bad things without meaning to.  It's also why Farmiga should basically win the Best Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy (apologies to Claire Danes, but I think Farmiga plays crazy a lot better than you).

As Norman Bates, a good kid slipping into dual identities, Highmore still does wonderful and sadly, overlooked work.  He see him take stabs at normalcy (no pun intended) but also see that his compulsion and illusions are slowly taking over and that almost nothing can stop them now. 

For me, the real revelation is Thieriot.  I had always thought Dylan to be the weak link in the series, and while I don't see that now I also see that he too is a tragic figure.  Thieriot brings a quiet sadness, a genuine despair, into his role.  Dylan finally wants something good, something simple, only to find his parents/uncle and aunt (the same here) screwing it up time and again.  I for one feel for Dylan Massett, who is desperate to stay afloat when so many waves not of his making keep swallowing him up whole.

We also got a nice subplot with Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Romero (he of the still amazing and breathtaking eyelashes).  He wants to keep the peace, even if it means going against all White Pine Bay and the illicit drug trade he's been keeping a wary eye on.  He is no wimp though, as two toughs found out the very hard way.  Carbonell is the Quiet Man, reflective, but also tough when needed.

If I find any fault in A Death in the Family, it is how poor Emma keeps getting the short end of the stick.  Keenan Tracey is back as Gunner, the pot-runner who deflowered Emma and whom I think is a better fit for her than the pretty-but-bonkers Norman.  Is she aware (or going to be aware) that Gunner's back?  I hope so, because she deserves so much better. 

A Death in the Family is a strong way to start Bates Motel's third season.  It gives us a mystery that may be the running thread for the season.  It gives us strong performances from the whole cast.  It gives us nods to the original (who didn't think the shower scene was both naked foreshadowing and well-placed?).  In short, we get a dark entrance into a world of danger, death, and obsession.

Good Family Fun.  At least Bates Family-style.

"Sex is sex," Annika tells an aroused Norman.  "We all need it".  That's right, Annika.  We all need sex, just like we all need breathing...

I'm sorry, Miss Watson...


Next Episode: The Arcanum Club

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