This review contains spoilers.
1.6 The Truth
In last week’s review, I noted some of the heavy symbolism and visual metaphor at play in Bates Motel. This week’s episode started with a corker. Norma circling round and round in her car while Norman held on for dear life, and neither one of them fully in control. It was an apt way to open an episode that finally addressed the Bates’ oddities head on. The viewer, like poor confused Emma, could only look on at Norm ‘n’ Norma in helpless horror. I think we could all do with some water. Some water would help, right?
First though, Dylan. His dispatching of Ethan’s killer has given his bad boy reputation a real boost and his association with the criminal organisation appears to be going places. He’d be advised to proceed with a little more caution – Gil seemed very easily impressed that he’d killed the chap, with little concern about witnesses or other lose ends. When Remo (the ‘Seasoned Professional’) showed up, there’s no effort to confirm identities before they start naming names and citing crimes. With this level of professionalism, seasoned or otherwise, it’s hardly surprising that Ethan bought a bullet.
Still, it doesn’t do to pick holes too much. The brief scene with Gil was handled well. As Dylan, Max Thieriot did a great job of conveying how upsetting the whole thing was. Given the empty coldness of his mum and brother, it was refreshing to see that some characters do feel the emotional burden of violence.
The segue into the truck disposal was great fun and Gil’s sinister voiceover, although clichéd, had a narrative purpose. Dylan’s method was obvious, it doesn’t take a pyromaniac to know how to stuff a fuel tank with a petrol-soaked rag, but it was a nice reminder of the way that he’s being manipulated from afar.
Speaking of the manipulative, Zack Shelby. Shudder. He’s spent the past few episodes getting progressively nastier and was truly horrible in this one. The sex scene with Norma made my skin crawl, but that was largely Vera Farmiga’s work. Her look of numb resignation and the switch to false enthusiasm was startling, especially as the camera lingered on her rather than her assailant.
Not that it will have much more opportunity to linger on him. The episode’s most frantic sequence, from Zack’s suspicion of the water pipes to his bloody demise, was handled with verve, particularly the tense moment in the kitchen (what is it about their kitchen? First Summers, now Shelby. You won’t catch me accepting a dinner invitation, that’s for sure.)
The killing of Shelby felt like a settling of an arc. He had been building into some kind of Big Bad, or at the very least, an end-of-season Boss but he’s gone with four episodes still in the pipeline. The sex trafficking storyline has further to run, but the biggest clue to where the show will go now was Norma’s confession and the flashback to the death of Norman’s father.
That the flashback, and the information it provided, was the episode’s best bit barely needs stating, but it does remind us that, at its heart, Bates Motel is a reboot. Even with the room for improvisation provided by the show’s expansion into White Pine Bay, it is something of a handicap. Back at episode two, I commented that the use of existing characters was limiting. It’s possibly worse than that. As with fellow TV reboot Hannibal, it’s easy to suspect that name recognition helped to get the show green lit, and now it’s something that the writers have to live with.
Bates Motel is a drama based on murder, rape, mental illness and, in all likelihood, child abuse. However, our familiarity with the characters robs it of the horror. We’re not watching an abused and confused young man, we’re watching Norman Bates. It’s the same mechanism by which Freddie Kreuger went from murderous stalker of nightmares to flogger of Halloween ‘Freddie gloves’ for kids.
The scene in which Norman kills his father is a case in point. Norman, in one of his fugue states, silently approaches his father from behind and swiftly, almost expertly, smashes his skull with a single swing. As the old man lies dead on the floor, a pool of blood expands elegantly around him. It is, apart from the blood, all very clean and efficient. Norman’s later grief is that of a different person – he simply isn’t the same guy who swung the blow and the viewer can carry on rooting for Norman.
This is where the show becomes trapped by the lead character’s condition. The death of Mr Bates, like those of Summers, Shelby and the guy who killed Ethan, was reactive. The central three only kill people from whom the viewer has suspended sympathy. Despite this, at some point, Norman will have to switch from being a dead-eyed defender of his mum’s safety to become a rather less discriminate killer. It will be a tricky path for the writers to negotiate. I have a theory of how it might be achieved, but I guess it depends on whether it’s Norman or Norma who actually has their hands on the wheel.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Ocean View, here.
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