Bates Motel episode 1 review: First You Dream, Then You Die

Michael checks out Psycho prequel Bates Motel, feat. Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, both of whose performances outclass the script...

This review contains mild spoilers.

1.1 First you dream, then you die

I hope somebody’s been keeping score because I’ve lost track. Do the sequels and alternative versions of Psycho outnumber Norman Bates’ victims, or is it the other way round? Whichever is in the lead, both tallies are set to increase with Bates Motel, a kind of ‘reboot prequel sequel’, covering the grim events at the titular motel after Psycho IV: The Beginning but before Psycho while shifting them to the present day. 

Still with me? Good. Bates Motel introduces us to a seventeen year-old Norman Bates as he and his mother start a new life in California after the death of Mr. Bates Senior. It may be a reboot, but young Norman’s destiny is inescapable. It needs to be an interesting journey. 

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Freddie Highmore is great in the lead. It’s fortunate that he bears a passing resemblance to Anthony Perkins, but the real work is all his own. He captures the awkwardness of the unsettled teen perfectly. He wants to involve himself in the life of the town and his school. He’s certainly handsome enough to come to the attention of the girls at his high school while his shyness is easily attributable to his recent arrival. It’s a nice place, he could be very happy there. 

It’s tempting to roll your eyes at another one of those suspiciously clean teenage parties, with carefully choreographed polite debauchery and every brewski decanted into a red SOLO cup. Here though, it actually works, showing just how close Norman gets to ordinary life even as it remains tantalisingly out of reach. We see the cool kids knock back the beers and roll fat joints while weirdo Norman loiters in the kitchen. As Radiohead kick in on the soundtrack, Norman slips quietly out of step with everyone else. 

He exudes vulnerability, a neat trick, given that he’s portraying a regular member of the roll call of Hollywood’s worst villains. As protagonist, he has our sympathies and, for now, fully deserves them. He’s still in his victim phase, his criminality yet to emerge. 

The real villain is, of course, the fabled Mother. Vera Farmiga is brilliant as Norma Bates, walking a very thin line between passive-aggressive and plain old murderous-aggressive. Her best scenes are with her son, switching between overbearing maternal concern and sweetly whispered emotional abuse. 

Both leads exceed their script. On one level, the problem lies in the show’s treatment of psychology. It’s far too heavy-handed and at times facile. From the repeated stress on the word ‘mother’ to Norma’s clumsy interventions into her son’s stifled social life, it’s all a bit too easy. Norman’s relationships are generally crudely drawn with women are presented as an oppressive menace or a barely-understood temptation. 

The violence arrives late, but seems rather too keen to make up for lost time when it does. A sexual assault is portrayed with a little too much mordant glee, and the scene lingers far too long. If there was one thing that I would actually like to see this show steal from its celebrated predecessor it is in the suggestion, rather than the graphic depiction, of violence. As Hitchcock knew only too well, the horror in the mind’s eye is many times more effective than anything that the screen can show you. 

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A better touch is the rather spooky suggestion that the motel itself is partly to blame for the evil that it hosts. Deadwood’s W. Earl Brown shows up as an embittered former owner whose deranged insistence that it belongs to his family throws a suggestion that staying there too long would be enough to send anyone loopy. 

The biggest problem is the huge weight it bears as the youngest member of a well-known Hollywood family. References to the original appear at every turn, and become tiresome very quickly. Worse, they serve only to remind the viewer of just how worn this path is. 

The story of a troubled mother-son relationship and the destruction that it wreaks is a compelling one, but if Bates Motel is to succeed as a TV show it has to stand on its own terms. In cultural terms, as in life, Hitchcock cast a very large shadow. Psycho, his most famous work, also carries with it huge pop-cultural baggage. Norman Bates, and his life and crimes are far too familiar. Spoilers are less of a concern than simple boredom. Bates Motel can succeed, but only if it is prepared to exorcise its own ghosts. It’s a big ask. Maybe too big.

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