This review contains spoilers.
At roughly the halfway point of Bates Motel’s third season finale, it struck me that not a lot was actually happening. Norman and Norma were arguing about his mental health, Dylan and Emma were being cute, Bob Paris was doing his usual thing and Romero was conflicted. It’s a peculiar sluggishness that has characterised this season at large and was still very much in effect in the finale. Over the last ten weeks there has never really been any sense of urgency or rising stakes to any of what has been happening. Aside from some great character moments and occasionally effective creepiness (both of which remained on form this week) Bates Motel Season Three has been a low key affair, and the finale did very little to change that.
It’s lucky that Bates Motel has such a strong and likable cast. It has struck me week after week this season just how valuable supporting players like Dylan and Emma are; their plots may have very little to do with anything else, but seeing them finally kiss after a season of waiting was enough to put a giant grin on my face. Olivia Cooke is such an effortlessly charming and likable actress that even though it’s been a long time since she felt central to anything on the show it’s a pleasure just to have her turn up, and the fact that she actually managed to get a couple of smiles out of Dylan this year was cause for celebration in and of itself. And while there was not quite as much movement on the Norma/Romero front, the two characters still have so much chemistry that just getting to spend time with them makes much of the show worthwhile.
But, appreciating this is far from the first time I’ve said it, there has been a theme this year of the things that work casting harsh light on the things that don’t and tonight was no exception. Surprising approximately no-one, The Arcanum Club turned out to be lots of fuss over nothing. Bob Paris was swiftly dispatched by Romero and any feeble attempts to sell this as a hard choice were undercut by the total lack of any warmth between these supposed old friends. Is this meant to mark a turning point for Romero? The writers certainly want us to think this, but it’s not a huge leap to go from killing scumbags to killing scumbags he’s known for a while. In the end, the sole purpose of Paris seemed to be to put a little bit of pressure on Norma in the flabby middle of the season and give Romero someone to kill at the end of it. Even the drug dealers last year felt like more of a threat than this completely bland character. The crime subplots on Bates Motel have never been well utilized or developed, but this is a whole new level of pointlessness. It’s like the show has given up trying to convince us that any of the shady going-ons in White Pine Bay are of any import. That said, I would be a lot angrier if I had thought for a second any of this would go anywhere throughout the year, so I guess the transparency of the show’s plotting has done it something of a service here.
Speaking of transparent, was anybody in the least bit shocked when Norman put poor Bradley out of her misery? The show had created a bit of a conundrum for itself; killing Bradley would be predictable, not killing her would be a cop-out. That said, the sheer brutality of the murder and having Norman actually become Norma during the attack was well executed. Furthermore, the show has done a great job of making Norman a true antagonist at this point, and the moment he turned on Bradley in the car I felt that thrill you get from watching a dumb character head down a dark alley in a horror movie; you’ve made a big mistake, Bradley. The ending might have been entirely predictable but between the excellent shadowing of the original in Norman’s disposal of the body and the creepy use of Be My Baby at the end it was way more successful than it had any right to be.
That said though, it’s a minor victory. The third season of Bates Motel wasn’t a step down in quality as such; many of the issues that characterised the first two seasons improved exponentially this year, but there was a gonzo insanity and pace to what went before that was sorely missing this year. A more muted tone and slower pace are not bad things at all, but they are not what we come to Bates Motel for, and as a whole the third season just left a bit of an unsatisfied feeling. I wish there was more to say about it, but that lack of impact is exactly the problem.
Bates Motel, by virtue of going crazy nice and early, has written itself into a corner. With a major characteristic of Norman Bates (he kills people) essentially present from the very first episode, all the show can do at this point is bit by bit introduce the more superficial elements of his madness. With visions of his mother and his choice of murder clothing now in place, really we’re just waiting for him to take a butcher knife to his next victim. Beyond that, the last threshold he needs to cross is killing his mother, which begs the question of just what we’re going to see in the mooted next two seasons. It just doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere of real interest left for this show to go, and I’m worried that the abundant filler that characterised season three is a grim omen of things to come. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Crazy, here.
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