This review contains spoilers.
There’s a great moment in Mad Men when Pete Campbell describes his extramarital affair as a ‘temporary bandage over a permanent wound’. This line always resonated as such a perfect description of feeling like you’re faced with an impossible problem and the ways in which we can clutch at any potential solution to escape. At the end of season two, Norman passed his polygraph test and this seemed like a brief victory for the fractured family at the heart of this series; yet the deeper problem remained. Norman is still irreparably damaged and as much as she might try to deny it, Norma knows this. The problem is that she can’t truly hide the fact from Norman, and her barely veiled suspicions are taking a toll on Norman’s already fraying mental state.
The great tragedy of Bates Motel has always been watching flawed people with the best intentions make a nightmare situation worse with every action, and this week we saw yet another nail driven into the eventual coffin of the Bates family. Norman is overcome with rage at the judgement that surrounds him and it seems only a matter of time before that rage destroys another life. He may not have killed Annika Johnson, but the next girl probably won’t be as lucky.
Although ‘lucky’ is really the wrong word to use in regard to poor Annika. The immediate assumption is that she ran afoul of the Arcanum Club, and her dying return to the Bates Motel may bring the central characters colliding into this new, mysterious world. I honestly don’t know how to feel about that idea; sure, the Arcanum Club is vaguely interesting and I like Kevin Rahm turning up in anything, but Bates Motel doesn’t have the best track record in subplots that aren’t directly related to Norman’s growing psychosis. Still, I’ll reserve judgement until I know more.
One subplot that remains engaging is the relationship between Caleb and Dylan, although this week I got the first sense of water being trod. I’m not sure how many more variations the show can sustain of Caleb trying to connect with Dylan, Dylan being reluctant, and then a final moment of accord. Only three episodes into the season and the shifts between distrust and grudging affection are already feeling played out. That said, there’s a tremendous amount of potential in Caleb’s character and I’m excited to see what comes of it. I’m loving how hard it is to get a read on his true intentions, and I’m really hoping the writers don’t give us any easy answers regarding his character. At this point he could comfortably be a misunderstood good guy or an outright villain, but I’m hoping for something more in the middle. Bates Motel, with varying degrees of success, has never shied away from moral ambiguity and Caleb’s character looks to continue the trend in the best possible way.
Elsewhere, Persuasion was kind of a slow episode. We got Emma dressing up to catch Norman’s eye, we got a glimpse of the conflict over the sheriff’s office yet to come and we got the promise of Norma seeking some much needed therapy. But, while there was not a lot of forward momentum, it was the Norma/Norman stuff that kept the show nice and compelling this week, with brilliant performances on both parts. Freddie Highmore managed to depict Norman’s explosive anger without veering into overacting and Vera Farmiga’s ability to perfectly play both the batty, damaged real Norma and the cold, smirking Mother of Norman’s imagination is astounding. Norman is turning more and more to the dangerous split personality that we know will eventually consume him; the only question is when ‘Mother’ will start to become apparent to those around him, and who, if anyone, will survive the introduction.
So far Bates Motel isn’t really breaking new ground in season three, but with more consistent writing and performances it has become a lot easier to trust in the story and go along with the ride. Even in quieter instalments the sense of creeping dread and stellar acting keeps things interesting and promises some brilliant stuff to come.
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