This review contains spoilers.
3.8 The Pit
Sometimes I wonder if Bates Motel cheats when it references Psycho. On the one hand it is a quasi-prequel and it’s certainly allowed to hint at things to come, but I feel like I love the show more when it’s in direct conversation with its source material, and that is something of a problem. Obviously the relationship to the original informs the tragedy of the show, as it tells us what this is all building toward, but I look at how successfully Hannibal has differentiated itself from more famous predecessors and I can’t help but wonder if Bates Motel should be doing the same. Granted they’re different shows, but it’s a little bit troubling that moments like Norma saying ‘we all go a little mad sometimes’ last week or her appearance in the window mirroring the film serve as highlights of every episode. The thrill of recognition is ultimately a bit superficial, but it is a thrill and the closer the series gets to the movie the more reflections we’re seeing. Honestly, I think it works, but it’s telling that Bates Motel has never really carved a strong identity of its own.
It’s that lack of clear vision that causes the show to veer between sickening violence and campy melodrama within one episode, or weave from unsettling depictions of very real mental illnesses to dumb crime plots. Tonight we got some series-best work from Freddie Highmore, who is becoming more riveting to watch and downright terrifying with each episode, but we also had to deal with the narrative cul-de-sac of Caleb and Dylan’s gun running adventures. Oh sure, they were fairly tense and I even wondered if Caleb would die now having completed his redemptive arc, but it seems the only real consequence will be some stern words with Chick next week. At least the Arcanum Club plot seems like it’s going somewhere at this point, even if that destination hardly promises to be especially interesting.
Half the problem is that there’s not a ton of conflict left between Caleb and Dylan at this point. With his semi-reconciliation with Norma complete, I kind of think Caleb is just waiting around for the inevitable moment when Norman plunges a knife in him and drives the Bates family apart all over again. The rifts are ready to happen, but we’re treading water now and after a couple of really top-notch episodes it’s hard for one like this not to feel like a bit of a disappointment. The character beats were great; I’m loving Emma and Dylan’s fledgling romance and the Norman/Norma stuff was typically terrific, but unlike last episode, they weren’t enough to elevate what was ultimately a lot of table setting.
In some ways the episode even set certain things back. The suggestion last week that Norman wanted to have sex with his mother was effective in that it had never outright been said, but it seems like it’s not something the writers want to deal with head-on yet. After some creepy suggestion in the first half of the episode, an otherwise nicely written and acted conversation between mother and son seemed to put the idea on the backburner. I don’t for a second think the show is going to drop it, but Norma’s words had enough impact on Norman to make it seem like he is at peace with those desires for now, or at least willing to pretend that they’re totally normal. It’s basically skipping over some great dramatic territory, and if it’s doing that in favour of more Arcanum Club garbage (which it seems it is) I’m going to be livid.
That said, it’s hard to judge a story that is still very much in progress. After last week I was excited for the storm to come; now the wait for the next instalment seems a whole lot less painful. I don’t particularly care about Bradley or the inevitable questioning over whether or not she is real. Aside from the central Norma/Norman stuff my main concerns right now are with the last things anybody should be fixated on in a Psycho prequel; who is gonna end up with who. The chemistry between Dylan and Emma is matched only by that of Norma and Romero, and just about any time either of those pairings are on screen I’m yelling ‘kiss!’ over and over again. That level of investment is great and it will make the eventual carnage so much more painful to watch, but it just seems like, this close to the end of a season these shouldn’t be the predominant concerns of a viewer. Not in a show like this.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, The Last Supper, here.
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