Bates Motel: Did Moving Past Psycho Make It A Classic?

Bates Motel evolved past its early missteps into a series that earned classic status all on its own...

This article contains major spoilers for Bates Motel. It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

When Bates Motel first premiered in 2013 it was hard to tell what to make of it. Pitched as a contemporary prequel to Psycho, it borrowed the iconography, set, and visual style of the original film while updating it to the present day. Unlike Hannibal, which premiered around the same time and from the start drew a clear divide between itself and the earlier Anthony Hopkins films, Bates Motel seemed conflicted about its relationship to its source material. Hannibal, while certainly including moments of tribute to the films, was very much a fresh adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novels, while Bates Motel owed far more to the Hitchcock film than the book that inspired it. And sure, visually it wore its influences on its sleeve, but plot wise it seemed to be diverting from the film from the very start. A heavy focus on weak crime subplots and Norma Bates going from the “clinging, demanding” woman of the original films to a likeable and loving, if flawed, mother, made it feel a little uncertain about its own identity or how exactly it related to the original.

In its first three seasons, this was the strange space Bates Motel lived in. It had no qualms referencing the original film whenever it could, but with its strangely fluctuating tone that veered from painful drama to high camp at the drop of a hat and expanding cast of often ludicrous supporting characters it often felt more like a pale Twin Peaks imitation than the Hitchcock tribute it had been positioned as. At the time it was evident that Hannibal was the classic horror re-interpretation that was doing something fresh and interesting with the source material while it was hard to argue that Bates Motel was really doing much at all.

Then, in season four, something shifted. Nearing its endgame, the time had come for the series to dovetail with the events depicted and discussed in Psycho, and it was here that the vision of Bates Motel finally started to come into focus. As Norman Bates’ world fractured and he found himself uncertain of whether it was himself or his mother who was killing people, he made the only choice he deemed right; attempting to kill his mother and himself, only to be saved at the last minute by the stepfather he despised.

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This was a far cry from what we are told happened in the original Hitchcock film, where Norman killed his mother and stepfather in a jealous rage, before adopting her persona to deny his own guilt. Suddenly Norman’s origin story became the Greek tragedy Bates Motel seemed to be trying to establish from the start, one where the central killer wasn’t some bogeyman, but instead a terribly broken young man whose mother was too protective of him to get him the help he needed, dooming them both. In that fourth season Bates Motel finally clicked into focus, in the process bringing itself more or less up to the events of the original film.

Now in theory this is where the show could have stopped, if it really was a “contemporary prequel.” It had told us the story it set out to and while changes had been made from the original mythology it could be argued that the characters in the film were relaying a second-hand, incorrect account of events. Aside from the obvious difference in eras, the show and film met up reasonably neatly.

Except Bates Motel had more business to resolve. Sherriff Romero, Norman’s stepfather turned nemesis, was out for blood, and his brother Dylan was still out there. So it was announced at the end of season four that the fifth and final season would cover the events of Psycho while wrapping up the plotlines that were exclusive to the TV show.

This was a deceptively big moment for the show. While it was essentially only doing what Hannibal did a couple of years earlier with its new take on the Red Dragon story, Hannibal was never meant to be related to the films. Bates Motel literally used the set of the Hitchcock movie, and as such season five was really the first moment where it came down firmly on the side of “new interpretation.” In committing to its own exploration of the film’s events it drew a clear divide between the two continuities. Add to this the surprising casting of Rhianna as Marion Crane and it was easy to approach the final season with a little trepidation. Was the casting of a pop star just a cheap stunt? Could this show ever really live up to Hitchcock?

Comparing Bates Motel and Hannibal is in some ways unfair, but considering the two shows premiered within weeks of each other as new takes on cinema’s two most famous serial killers, it’s hard not to. There was always a link between the two and for a while it was pretty much accepted that Hannibal was the superior show, providing fresh and interesting angles on well-trodden source material while Bates Motel had mostly floundered in dumb crime subplots. But in its fifth year, Bates Motel beat Hannibal at its own game.

The big question hanging over the final season was how Bates Motel would tackle the film and in particular, the shower scene. All the trailers seemed to imply we’d more or less be getting a step for step tribute to the original with Marion Crane stealing the money as before and arriving at the motel in the rain to be met by Norman Bates. And the first episode of Rhianna’s guest arc appeared to confirm this. We got the secret motel tryst with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (already established in the early episodes of the season as a scumbag), we got her stealing the money, we got her encounter on the road with the suspicious highway patrolman and the episode ended in her arrival at the motel. The stage was set for the remounting of one of cinema’s most iconic moments.

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Except the show had one thing the film didn’t. Free of the need to hide that Norman was an insane murderer, the show was able to unveil to us what was going on in the life of horror’s most infamous mummy’s boy at the same time as Marion was making her fateful trek to the motel, and it managed to dwarf any respectful Hitchcock tributes. While the Norman of the film remained oblivious to the fractured state of his mind, the Norman of the show had figured out that “mother” was not real and that she had been taking over his body for a while now. It’s with this knowledge in his head that Norman goes to meet Marion and when she learns the truth about her cheating boyfriend and comes to Norman for comfort, he realises exactly what will happen if he lets this situation take its natural course. And so, in a moment to warm the heart of any Hitchcock fan who was ever moved by the sweet relationship between Norman and Marion, the 2017 versions of the characters part without bloodshed, with Norman telling Marion to pack her bags, take the money and disappear into the night. They part with a hug, and the shower in room one remains unbloodied.

Already it was a fun and surprisingly tender twist on how we thought the episode would play out, but it wasn’t over yet. And it was in the way the show depicted the aftermath of this moment that Bates Motel consolidated its legacy as a series that managed to pay tribute to a classic while both re-imagining and deepening it.

Because as anyone who has seen the show (and if you haven’t, leave now) knows, it was not Marion who met her demise at Norman’s hands in the shower, but her cheating boyfriend Sam, who had come to find her after being thrown out by his wife. And crucially, it was not ‘mother’ who killed him, but Norman.

It’s hard to think of a recent TV scene that managed to be as exhilarating, chilling, and powerful all at once. Replacing Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings with the mournful tones of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” the shower scene took on a whole new significance as the first time Norman Bates killed someone in full awareness of what he was doing. It was no longer a twist designed to blow the minds of the audience, but rather the denouement of the tragic tale the show had been telling from day one, the moment Norman could no longer go back. And what’s more, it made perfect sense in the context of everything that had come before it.

From day one Bates Motel presented a succession of disgusting and abusive men, men like Norman’s father, men who were the reason Norman and Norma were the way they were. Sam Loomis was representative of all of them, and while he may have been innocent in comparison to some of the truly awful people we met over the course of the show, he became the target of Norman’s violent revenge against the forces that turned him into a monster. It was, fittingly, the true climax of the show, and everything that came after was just winding down. Bates Motel all along was showing us the forces that would lead to this moment, a moment that could have been little more than a wink to a classic but instead became something far more significant than the shock value of the original shower scene ever could be.

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From this moment on, Psycho was in the rear-view mirror. With Sam Loomis dead and Marion Crane vanished, Bates Motel returned its focus to its own characters, using this reimagining as a springboard to launch into an endgame that was no longer constrained by emulating anything else. And so Bates Motel reached its inevitable conclusion: this Norman Bates could never go to an asylum, could never face up to what he had done and be cured like the Norman of the films eventually was. This Norman, so broken and confused and lost, only ever wanted to be with his mother, and so it fell to poor Dylan to kill Norman in self defence and cradle his brother’s body in sight of the mummified corpse of their mother, bringing the tragedy of Norman and Norma Bates to a conclusion that the original films never could have reached.

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In the final moments of any story we learn what that story was about all along. Psycho, ultimately, was an engine designed to thrill and terrify, and while it is one of my favourite films it never could have explored in two hours the depths of painful tragedy that Bates Motel spent five seasons depicting. Bates Motel knew it could never match the visceral, elemental power of the original tale of murder and madness, so instead it used the framework of the iconic, of the house and the knife and the figure of Norman Bates himself to tell a story of abuse, pain, loss, yearning and above all, love. It was rich, messy, complex, flawed but ultimately brilliant; proving in re-imagining just why Norman Bates and Psycho have lasted this long.

In the final moments of Robert Bloch’s not-great novel Psycho II he leaves us with the line “Norman Bates will live forever.” Bates Motel stands as proof that that is truer than ever, giving us a new take on the legend that can stand head and shoulders next to the original, overcoming its early missteps to forge a classic status all of its own.