This review contains spoilers.
2.4 Check Out
For the most part, Bates Motel plays out like high drama in a minor key. Emotions run high but, despite the ongoing effort to establish a plotline about major drug production, the stakes remain relatively low. People may die (and we can be certain that some of the living, breathing characters will not last the season) but the central motivational drive is personal and familial. The show is, for want of a better word, a potboiler. It just happens to be a rather smart one.
It’s smart because it takes a thin central premise (America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer: The High School Years) and does something tender, almost loving with it. It’s evident in the fleshing out of the main characters and, more cleverly still, in the little thematic tricks that it plays.
Of those tricks, the use of twisted pairs is perhaps the most insistent. It’s most obviously present in the duality of Norman and his mother (of which, more later) but this week’s episode extended it further and presented us with a kaleidoscope of little binaries that added texture to a set of storylines that strayed into territory that was among the show’s darkest.
These pairs ran the length of the episode’s narrative from beginning to end and from light to dark. Some, like the shot of Norma in the mirror, were inversions. Others were perfect matches. The obvious one that began the episode was Emma and Dylan both facing the morning after the night before, both emptied of vomit (nice shot of Dylan’s car door by the way), and both needing to come to terms with the events of a few cold hours earlier. Here they diverge, with Emma’s near-paramour turning out to have been quite sweet about the whole thing; himself a neat reflection of Emma’s own sugary awkwardness, while Dylan was thrown, hungover into a far worse day.
The Dylan Paternity Question was the episode’s strongest line and not simply because it provided Max Thieriot with a welcome chance to demonstrate his skills in the tense and emotional showdown with his mother. Incestual rape and childhood abuse are difficult subjects to navigate but Bates Motel did it well by focusing on the aftermath and the lifelong damage that it does. ‘you need to put this behind you’ says Norma, but Dylan, right in a wrong situation replies ‘It’s me. How can I put me behind me?’ Facing his father, he’s told ‘your mom got married to some guy in high school. He knocked her up. That’s your dad’. Just look at that verb, the casual brutality of that impersonal pronoun. The whole thing comes across like a terrible perversion of a custody battle, father and mother arguing over who loves their unwanted offspring the least. Hardly surprising really, in the first moments of his being, they genuinely didn’t want him. Now? They’ve got a story each, one a lie, another possibly truth. Another crippling duality.
This sense of queasy rejection meant that Dylan entered the emotional terrain normally occupied by his brother.
There was the symmetry of Norman and Norma’s latest pals and their insistence on what we might call Aggressive Befriending. At least Cody was justified in her annoyance by Norman’s being ‘a total no-show’ (and what are the odds that some end-of-season shenanigans will be going down at opening night?). Christine’s burst into the Bates place was just weird. Yes, Christine is keen to push Norma’s relationship with George, but there’s keen and there’s keen. Even if this wasn’t Bates Motel, I’d be getting worried about the direction (and speed) that this relationship is taking. For now at least, George is a perfect gentleman. And that is what makes him suspicious.
Christine’s imposition gave us another unlikely view of duality. Norma’s fake mood switch will be familiar to anyone who has taken a well-intentioned phone call at a bad time, but it was the framing that made it special. Watch her, squeezed on the right hand side while lying to Christine then switching to the left after wearily hanging up while Norman sits innocently between her the whole time. The very next shot is of Norma in the mirror (one of several in this episode). Symmetry and duality over and over again.
Of course, it’s an internal duality that is the most disturbing and, in the episode’s climax, we get to see Norman’s most intense channelling of his mother that Bates Motel has yet offered. Punctuated with those nightmarish flashback blips, his attack on his uncle was brutal enough even without the additional oddness of hearing him speaking his mother’s words. It’s telling that the event took place at another motel (and note the contrast of this place’s red sign with the blue of the titular one), as though the sequence itself was an inversion of sorts, a strange and woozy switching of positions between Norman and Norma, the two in one.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Caleb, here.
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