This review contains spoilers.
3.6 Norma Louise
Bates Motel has always been a tricky show to judge. Is it meant to be campy horror in the vein of the original films or twisted family psychodrama? Sometimes it succeeds at both, other times it fails miserably and that hit-and-miss nature makes it hard to tell which of the show’s split personalities is the important one. This week’s episode, however, was a huge success on both fronts and reminded me that on this show, for every Arcanum Club there’s a moment like the one that ended Norma Louise.
Caleb has always been fascinating because of Bates Motel’s history of clumsy, one-note villains (still very much in effect with Bob Paris). I really hoped there would be some deeper complexity to Caleb, that he wouldn’t turn out to just be another evil man in Norma’s life. And to a degree he always will be that; there is no forgiving what he did to her. But, as tonight’s flashback showed, theirs was a complicated relationship and seeing them come together in a moment of connection that was not quite reconciliation but an acknowledgement that once there was love between them was immensely powerful. Vera Farmiga and Kenny Johnson sold all the pain, betrayal and history between the two characters and somehow it managed to be hugely cathartic.
Does Caleb deserve to be a part of her life? No, and I would feel very uncomfortable with him joining the Bates family for breakfast on a regular basis. But his contrition is genuine and even if it isn’t fully accepted, at least it was heard. Bates Motel has handled sexual violence extremely poorly before but I believe, against all odds, that the complexity of Caleb and Norma’s relationship works, or at least is made believable by impeccable performances.But even if Norma herself can come to peace with her past, it seems the doppelganger she isn’t even aware of may not be so forgiving, judging by the look on Norman’s face at the end. While Bates Motel made the dramatic stuff sing this week, it also took a big new step in the campy horror direction, with Freddie Highmore’s excellent Vera Farmiga impersonation making me both laugh and shiver as he swanned around the kitchen in her dress, looking just like Anthony Perkins at the end of the original film. In fact, the ghost of Psycho felt very present in Norma Louise, with the music evoking Bernard Herrmann so closely that at times I thought they were actually using the original score. Plus, between her impulsively running away and trading in her car because she was ‘sick of the old one’, Norma very much seemed like Marion Crane this week.
Look, to be honest, even the Arcanum Club stuff wasn’t awful. This might be due to them hardly appearing, but Romero’s brief visit to hospital and the both shocking and awesome moment where he ensured his mooted replacement would not be getting the job managed to actually be kind of exciting. It’s not enough to make me care about the subplot, but I’m mildly curious about what the fallout from this will be, and that’s more than I can say for anything else involving the Club this season.
Norma Louise was both frustrating and fantastic. It was the best episode of the season so far, but I couldn’t help but wish that this level of excellence was consistent. Bates Motel has always flirted with being a better show than it is, and after the leap in quality between the first two seasons I was hoping the upward trend would continue into the third. That has not entirely been the case so far, but the momentum of this instalment might just be enough to push into a killer last four episodes.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, The Deal, here.
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