This review contains spoilers.
3.5 The Deal
Bates Motel often feels like two separate shows existing in tandem within the same hour. On the one hand we have the affecting, beautifully acted Psycho prequel that focuses on the relationships of the deeply fractured Bates family. On the other hand, we have the Twin Peaks-evoking horror/thriller centring on the hellhole that is White Pine Bay. One of those shows is great, the other not so much; and possibly one of the biggest problems with Bates Motel is that it has never convincingly made the two feel like they comfortably belong together.
Roughly at the point this week where sinister gang member #237 ran Norma off the road and started spouting crap about how Romero ‘Can’t save you; he can’t even save himself’ I was wistfully reminded of the original Psycho films. While the town Norman Bates lived near wasn’t a big part of the original Hitchcock movie, the sequels did actually introduce a supporting cast of Norman’s neighbours, and for the most part they were just standard, friendly, God-fearing small town folk who were willing to forgive Norman as long as he did his part as a member of the community. While they didn’t make for explosive drama, they did create a fitting universe for Norman to inhabit, and there was something effective about the suggestion that even in the most mundane corners of the world, twisted evil can lurk. The idea of the small town and its secrets is an endlessly rich one, and if you squint you can kind of see how Bates Motel wants to play with it.
The problem is that White Pine Bay is so over-the-top sinister that Norman just seems like a natural part of this world. Of course the nice kid from the motel murders women dressed as his mother; this is a town that is home to a booming drug trade, a cultlike society that actually has ‘Arcane’ as part of its name and a people-trafficking ring. Ed Gein-esque killer is the natural next step.
There are several reasons that the Arcanum Club subplot falls flat. Aside from the stupid name and total lack of subtlety in the danger of its members, it serves as a detriment to Norman’s story, and really, that’s all we’re here for. The show is called Bates Motel; the Bates family should come first, even if that means sacrificing the creepy town trappings the writers seem determined to cling to. Now, none of this is to suggest that Norman Bates can’t exist in a crazy world (even if he is more effective in a notably normal one). Just look at what Hannibal does every week; the universe of that show is arguably more ridiculous than that of Bates Motel, and yet it works because it reflects the minds and concerns of the main characters. Hannibal Lecter sees art in death, so of course every murder resembles an art form. By drawing a thematic link between its inherent insanity and the experience of its main characters, Hannibal has its cake and eats it too. Contrast that with the universe of Bates Motel; half the time the kooky going-ons in White Pine Bay have nothing to do with Norman, and when they do it seems like an afterthought, as though the writers are impatiently drawing a quick link and hoping everyone accepts that everything ties together in the end. It makes for extremely frustrating viewing because when Bates Motel locks focus on to its major characters and allows them to collide with each other, it sings.
Just look at the final scene of The Deal. Our three leads sit around the table and talk, and it is far more gut-wrenching and tense than anything linked to the bloody Arcanum Club. Watching Norma’s unreadable expression as Dylan admitted he was sheltering Caleb had me on the edge of my seat because she conceivably could have reacted in so many different ways and I had no idea what to expect. The slow build to her explosion was masterful and such a powerful climax to the internal conflict Dylan has been wrestling with all season. His situation is impossible and, as I’ve addressed in recent reviews, beautifully written. I just wish that kind of quality could extend to the rest of the show.
In fact, Caleb is a great example of how subplots on Bates Motel really should look. In five episodes, his burgeoning relationship with Dylan has been mostly separate from the bulk of the drama, yet it’s always been readily apparent just what an impact he could have on Norman and Norma, and it seems like we’re seeing the beginning of that eruption. Kenny Johnson has done excellent work making Caleb almost sympathetic, and the character is so compelling because unlike every other conflict in White Pine Bay, this isn’t black and white, at least not for the characters, and that’s what’s important.
The Deal managed to exhibit the kind of character-driven, emotional storytelling that Bates Motel is so good at. The performances, as per usual, are magnificent, but when the good stuff is this good it ultimately just highlights how weak the garbage that surrounds it is. If Bates Motel forgets the Arcanum Club next week and gives us five more episodes of family psychodrama, I’ll be extremely happy. Sadly, I know I’m going to be disappointed.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Unbreak-Able, here.
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