This review contains spoilers.
We’re now just one episode away from the almost certainly messy finale of this first season and things aren’t getting any easier for Norm ‘n’ Norma. This week’s edition is called Underwater, which, as ardent student Norman tells us, can have connotations of being ‘overwhelmed in your life’. The description could apply to either of them, but it’s the mother who is having the worst of it at the moment.
Her realisation that she has no control over her surroundings or destiny continued this week, and she became increasingly desperate to escape White Pine Bay and its horrors. Much of the central plot was given over to her attempt to find a safer place to set up home and her hilarious failure to do so. Performing an internet search to find the ‘safest cities in America’ is probably only a slightly more effective a method of choosing than, say, throwing a dart at a map but it did signal the episode’s intentions.
In what was most likely an attempt to lighten the mood before next week’s finale, we were treated to a handful of fairly broad comical moments. The stuffed dog, who we may now call Juno, made his post-taxidermy debut. Norma rather liked him. Dylan was more forthright. ‘What the hell is that?’ he asked, proving once again what an excellent audience surrogate he really is. It’s still rather unsettling to see Norman cheerfully carrying his dead dog into the house, but undoubtedly funny. The most darkly humorous moment was when Norman sat down cheerfully to research what it means to dream that you’re drowning someone while Juno stared at him through his dead glass eyes.
At least Norman is more comfortable around the newly dead than his mum is. She’s still, understandably upset after finding last week’s ‘present’ and urging the boys to clear up the mess. Dylan was more at ease with the remains than Norman was, which seems odd, given who Norman actually is. I’m sure he’ll get used to it.
Emma’s role was reduced to comic foil, whether trying to serve an increasingly unhinged Norma, adopting her authoritative voice to deal with the stoner in room 9 or getting, like, totally baked on his cupcake. She made an endearingly cute presence, and the rapid editing of the cake eating was consistent with the episode’s (mildly) lighter tone, but she seemed to have forgotten that, mere weeks ago, she was investigating the huge marijuana crop in her town’s backyard. Now, finally presented with another face of the organisation, she just cheerfully chows down on it without question. It was a mis-step that rankled even amid the lightness.
For all her growing instability, Norma’s shrill exasperation was played for laughs too, not least when she was dealing with the hapless real estate agent. His panicked expression and hurried attempt to clear his desk even as she stood angrily above him, was straight out of a sitcom. Norma has received strange reactions from the townsfolk ever since she arrived, but this was the most outright comical of them all. It was a little overdone, but nevertheless served as a mildly effective misdirection prior to her capture by Abernethy (or whatever his real name is).
The ending of that scene made more effective comedy, largely because it was done with greater subtlety. Norma’s snappy glance at the agent’s colleague was a brilliant aside (and appeared to have been improvised by Farmiga) and I genuinely laughed out loud at the sight of the parking ticket. It was a beautifully mundane moment that asked ‘could this day get any worse?’ just before it indisputably did.
Structurally, the episode was put together well. Time was spent touching all of the varied plot strands that have been woven over the past couple of months. The viewer was taken on a tour of the deaths of Summers and Shelby, the trafficked girls, the death of Bradley’s father, Gil’s marijuana farm, Norman’s oddness and his creepy relationship with his mother. It’s a reasonable assumption that several, if not all, of these elements will collide in some way next week, but for now they remain essentially distinct. There are clues –note Sheriff Romero’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Gil’s gap year narcoculturalists, and Norman’s vision of drowning Bradley. It’s only a small town and everything must fit together somehow.
Norman’s dream of drowning Bradley is rather troubling, suggesting an escalation in his condition from thoughts of sex to thoughts of violence, though the distinction between the two may not be as clear to him. I’ve also got a bad feeling about his teacher. Her growing concern for young Norman is rather touching, but utterly reckless. He’s dangerous. Just ask Juno.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, A Boy And His Dog, here.
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