Bates Motel episode 2 review: Nice Town You Picked Norma

An 18-certificate Scooby Doo? Michael checks out the second, improved episode of Psycho prequel, Bates Motel...

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 Nice Town You Picked Norma

When A&E commissioned Bates Motel, they did so without seeing a pilot first. The series we’re seeing is pretty much as created, without the usual mini-calibrations that come between episodes one and two. 

Which is odd. Not because of the practice of a network diving straight in to a new title (they’re not the first to do so), but because of the leap in performance from last week’s episode to this one. The storyline and setting have opened up immeasurably, and the show is far better for it. Last week, I suggested that the motel itself, as much as Norman’s personal background, that is to blame for his murderous future career. No, the truth is much weirder than that. It’s the whole damned town. 

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They’re in freakin’ Summerisle! No, Twin Peaks! White Pine Bay. Whatever, they’re certainly not in Kansas anymore. As apple-pie-and-baseball cop Shelby tells Norma, “People in this town deal with things in a different way. But they get dealt with.” 

Not half. We’ve got a severely burned man driving erratically before the credits even roll, and it appears that the opening episode’s apparent Victim of the Week, was a lot more than that. Expect this particular stiff to cause a lot more problems for Norma ‘n’ Norman before season’s end. Indeed, there’s a lot more gruesomeness before the episode was even over. 

It’s a welcome expansion. There’s only so much to be squeezed out of the Bates’ story, so the increased potential for plot, character and everyday, smalltown terror is what will give this series legs. 

We still have the central couple to deal with. The more that the setting opens out, the more limiting the original premise becomes. I’m pretty desperate for a moment that establishes that it’s not that Norman, it’s not that Norma and no, it’s not that motel. 

Still, it’s not a complete blind alley, and there is still scope for some great work in the personal sphere. Just as long as it’s done right. The addition of cuckoo son Dylan is a great touch, and aside from some clumsy expositional moments (his phone being the worst), an excellent window into Bates family values. 

Of course, the central relationship is key. The scene in which Norma dresses for her not-date with Deputy Shelby is the most instructive, but only in its more subtle moments. Changing her top in front of her son was clearly designed to sound the weirdness alarm, but it was a little too heavily done, especially when she turned around, claiming modesty, only to show him a much sexier view. It was far better as they sat side by side on the bed, looking at one another like lovers until she wet her thumb to wipe his mouth like an embarrassing mum at the school gates. Their relationship (and their respective and mutual futures) are so well-rehearsed that there is infinitely more mileage in creating a tapestry of these odd subtleties than in continuing to red flag a procession of unsubtle oddities. 

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There were some good lines, Norma’s asking “What’s your life expectancy?” early into meeting Emma was delicious and the two leads are clearly having a ball. Freddie Highmore continues to delight (if that is even the right word) in Norman’s creepiness and, in one scene in particular, in his rage. He’s barely keeping it together, and I expect that the explosions will become more frequent and the series progresses and tensions pile on. 

There are plenty of these tensions, and the multiple plot strands are being held well. They’re obviously pointing in the same direction but are working independently for now. Norma’s education about the town’s nature (both verbal and visual) is interweaving nicely with the discovery of the sex trafficking angle and the huge marijuana field by Emma and Norman. This particular thread has the touch of an 18-certificate Scooby Doo about it, (an association compounded by Emma’s wheels –a suitably 7os hippy-ish VW Beetle) but there is the potential for some very dark material yet to come. I admit to a certain anxiety about the hints of sexual violence suggested by the trafficking, and some of the imagery used so far. Yes, it’s a Psycho prequel-ish, which makes this material par for the course, but I hope that it’s treated properly. It’s not prudishness or squeamishness so much as a fear that it’s all too easy a fallback option to make the show gruesome. They can achieve much more with subtlety, even when the whole town is utterly wacko. 

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, First You Dream Then You Die, here.

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