This review contains spoilers.
2.7 Presumed Innocent
One of the aspects of Bates Motel that I enjoy the most is the (relatively) low bodycount. For a show that centres on a serial killer, albeit one who is still very much serving his apprenticeship, there is an admirable restraint in the way it portrays Norman’s steady descent into infamy. It’s testament to the smartness of the show’s writers that they focus on the character’s situation and changing emotional circumstances rather than attempting to shock the viewer with ever more gruesomely inventive (and grimly implausible) murder scenes. This is shown both narratively, such as in the presentation of Norman’s fugue states (and his loved ones’ failure to understand them) and structurally, such as in this week’s extensive examination of the immediate aftermath of Mr Brennan’s death.
That examination, which appeared almost as a bottle episode set in the police station, was the ideal opportunity to develop these themes in a closed environment. Once again, the focus was on the characters, rather than on the specific details of Brennan’s fall. Freddie Highmore once again offered a performance as sensitively restrained as the script, brilliantly essaying Norman as a young man suffering from a trauma that he cannot even describe, let alone understand. It’s rather bold to present him so consistently as the victim of his circumstances, but it pays off well and the audience’s sympathies are well-earned. This is not simply good drama in the present moment, but it bodes very well for the future of the show. As Norman falls further and further into his murderous condition, these hard-won sympathies will provide incredible tension and suggest a conflict between protagonist and audience that will enrich the current vogue for placing anti-heroes in lead roles.
Before we get there, we still have to face Norman as he currently is, which is a well-meaning kid subjected to forces beyond his control. His emotions this week were dynamic, moving from catatonic shock to tearful despair to outright anger at the hand he’s been dealt and at the way his mother attempts to help him. His moment with the Sheriff was performed with tender concern, reminding us that we’re dealing with a frightened minor and that Romero, for all his hidden activities, is pretty much a good guy at heart. Whether that will continue in the light of this episode’s final revelation about the discovery of Norman’s DNA at Blair Watson’s murder scene remains to be seen. That any doubt remains is testimony to the deep texture of the character, something that contrasts with, say, Zane, of whom more later.
Seeing Norma purposefully excluded from the conversation was a neat metaphor for her failing grasp on her son. There’s an increasing tone of terrified anxiety to Norma, evident in the plaintive looks she gives her son and in the desperation with which she attempts to corral Cody and Emma to her cause. Vera Farmiga is consistently excellent as a woman who knows some of the things of which her son is capable but who suspects that he could be even worse. She’s walking a fine line between comforting denial and knowing control and is ever wary of losing her way with him. Her natural instinct is to pull Norman closer, but the more she does this, the further away he becomes. The assertion of control through personality appears to be Norma’s standard M.O. It’s there in her odd flirtation with the council, in which her aggressive response to the bypass proposal now sees her being dragged further into a situation in which she finds herself at the whim of unknown forces. It’s an odd reversal of a standard dramatic trope, using politics as a metaphor for family relations, but it works, and it offers a great premise for drama, suggesting that, by seeking the best for her son, Norma risks accelerating his decline. It’s a tragedy in slow motion and wonderfully done.
Less wonderful, I’m afraid to say, is the drug plotline which now feels entirely absent of character motivation and pales in comparison to the central arc. Zane is, and was, a villain by numbers, the sort of character that, whoever his blood relations are, would be kept very distant from such a careful operation. I understand that Dylan needs a means to express his estrangement from Norma and Norman (and Emma’s failed attempt to bring him round was the best element of his story this week), but it would help if it felt that this secondary plot was doing something more. It will doubtless collide with the main thread by the end of the season, but for now it feels tacked on in an effort to bring a little spice to the show. I have said before that expanding the show’s interest into White Pine Bay as a whole is a good thing, and it is, but it needs a little bit more than the escalating revenge cycle of an unhinged walking liability. The treatment of Norman shows that Bates Motel can deliver a careful portrayal of the path through difficult times, and it doesn’t need pyrotechnics to do it.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episdode, Plunge, here.
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