Bates Motel: how the Psycho prequel went from good to great

After a weak third run, Psycho prequel Bates Motel returned for a dizzyingly bold, satisfying and gripping fourth season. Spoilers...

Contains spoilers for Bates Motel seasons 1-4.

Over the past few years a quirky, violent, blackly comedic and very clever television series has challenged the notions of exactly what a reboot can be. Adapting an iconic horror property invited cynicism from the first announcement and while early episodes didn’t exactly blow people away, the show gradually came into its own, subverting everything that was expected from it in terms of both quality and its approach to the original work it was reinventing. In the process it gained critical and cult adoration, and continued the legacy of a beloved classic of the macabre with impressive aplomb.

I’m talking, of course, about Hannibal.

Hannibal, while dearly departed, carved a niche into the hearts of its many fans, crafting a new and equally powerful take on a famous character to rival his previous best outing, The Silence Of The Lambs. But while Hannibal created a fervent fan base that ultimately couldn’t save it from its ill-suited placement on network television, Bates Motel prospered. And coming into this fourth season at a time of the year when Hannibal should have been debuting its own, I was quite vocal in my disgust that a largely mediocre series like Bates Motel had continued while the altogether better Hannibal died.

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It’s not that Bates Motel is bad television. Over the course of its run it has been intermittently great, offering compelling moments, brilliant performances and a very clever twist on the Norman Bates mythos. It has also been full of meandering and laughable subplots, weird dialogue and an inconsistent focus on the elements that made it good. As reboots of classic horror properties that debuted within weeks of each other, Hannibal and Bates Motel invite comparisons, and while Hannibal only grew in ambition and originality, Bates Motel just seemed to potter along, quite content to spin its wheels until the time came to join up with Psycho. Season after season we saw Norman Bates kill people and get away with it partially due to the wilful blindness of his mother, and last year in particular was a dull slog that just seemed to exist to fill time. As such, coming into this year’s run, with the still lingering pain of Hannibal’s loss, my expectations were not high.

But here’s the thing; Bates Motel always had one major trump card working in its favour, and that was its take on the central relationship between mother and son. In the original films, Norma Bates was described initially as a ‘clinging, demanding woman’ and depicted only through Norman’s warped version of her, then eventually in flashbacks that showed her to be just as violently insane as the murderous alter ego her son eventually created in her honour. It was a forgone conclusion that the relationship between Norma and Norman was an Oedipal nightmare of mingled hate and obsession that could only end one way. But Bates Motel’s greatest innovation was to throw all of this out in favour of a far more interesting take; what if Norma Bates was actually just a flawed but good hearted person whose deep love for her son blinded her to his growing insanity until it was too late? What if their relationship was not the nightmare backstory of a horror movie, but in fact the stuff of tragedy, where pain and death comes about due to the ways in which all the best intentions only serve to light the fuse that will lead to disaster?

Coming into Bates Motel, we knew where it would go. Anybody watching the series had probably seen the movie at some point and knew that therefore Norma Bates would not be seeing out the series finale. But the brilliance of Bates Motel, for all its flaws, was how it got to that point.

Season Four was a show reinvigorated, marching with determination toward this forgone conclusion, as Norman’s growing insanity led his mother to marry Sheriff Alex Romero for his health insurance to get her son the help he needed, which in turn pushed him over the edge and led him to the act of matricide that has loomed over the series since day one. Ten weeks flew by, never once feeling like water was being trod or like the show was searching for new and increasingly ridiculous subplots to fill airtime. Even favourite characters like Dylan and Emma took a backseat in favour of the growing tensions between Norman, Norma and Romero, which came to a head over the superlative stretch of the final three episodes, a climax in three acts that managed to simultaneously delve into the tragically divergent psyches of the different characters, ignite conflicts that had been bubbling under the surface since the finale and ultimately pull the trigger on a moment that a lesser version of this story would save for a series finale.

Of course Norma would be just unlucky enough to accidently find happiness for herself while trying to help her son, and of course that happiness would just be too much for Norman to handle. Watching this unfold it was near impossible not to scream at the TV as Norma once again opted to shelter Norman and sacrifice her relationship with Romero rather than force her son to deal with it, in the process driving away the one person who could have saved her from herself and in doing so saved her life. Inevitability, built from the start of the series, became tragedy as these characters acted in exactly the ways we had come to expect of them and that very inability to change doomed them. It was dizzying, intoxicating, bold and gripping television, with none of the arbitrary crime story silliness that weakened the impact of earlier seasons.

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This burst of new-found confidence and quality, especially in the wake of a third season that was easily the show’s worst, came as a huge but very welcome surprise. When the second episode of the season brazenly threatened to have Norman kill Norma there and then, I sighed at what seemed to be a cheap tease that took the easy way out, never once guessing that the series would use that moment to kick-start the countdown to its endgame. The penultimate episode of the season, in which Norman attempts to kill both his mother and himself in response to his growing certainty that one of them has to be a murderer, was powerful, heart-in-mouth stuff only bolstered by the show’s refusal to blink when push came to shove. Vera Farmiga’s performance has been a rightly lauded part of this series from day one, so it was always easy to assume the writers would hold off on killing her until the last possible moment. Not so. There is still a season left to go, and Norma Bates is now a corpse in her son’s possession.

By all accounts next year we will be getting the Bates Motel version of Psycho, with characters from the movie such as Marion Crane making appearances. This is a somewhat surprising move, as while the series always walked a fine line between prequel and reboot, the iconography of the famous house always seemed to imply that the events of the film were the canon the show was building toward, not something we would ever see it tackle in its own original take. But now that I know that’s the case, I’m actually quite excited. Hannibal found huge creative success in a new version of the iconic Red Dragon story, and while a remake of Psycho is the last thing anyone wants (as evidenced by Gus Van Sant’s woeful attempt), a new take on the story weaving those events in with the original characters we have gotten to know over the course of this show is a pretty enticing prospect.

For all its flaws, it was always a beating human heart that kept Bates Motel compelling, and by honing right in on that this season and eschewing the filler and absurdities that weakened the show in the past, Bates Motel went from “good with caveats” to great, crafting that rarest of television beasts; a wholly satisfying season that leaves you desperate to see what happens next. Bates Motel’s masterstroke was making us care about these damaged, dangerous characters in a way that turned their inevitable fates from morbidly fascinating to something upsetting. Rather than creating an ending, Bates Motel’s tackling of the show’s presumed climax in this season has opened up all kinds of new storytelling potential for its final year. What will happen to Romero? How will Dylan react when he finds out about Norma, and will he suspect the truth? How long can Norman keep his fantasy world under wraps? How will the characters of Psycho influence all of this?

Ten weeks ago, I never could have anticipated that Bates Motel would become anything more than a show I watched to fill time. While Hannibal remains by far the greatest horror reboot, Bates Motel has managed to enrich its source material while carving its own path and forging an identity that is entirely unique. With only ten episodes left to enjoy of this little gem, let’s hope they hit the ground running for a final season that makes Hitchcock proud. On the evidence of this year’s run? I wouldn’t bet against it.