Bates Motel season 3 episodes 1 & 2 review: A Death In The Family & The Arcanum Club

Season 3 of Bates Motel looks to be continuing season 2's legacy in making this Psycho prequel must-watch TV...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 A Death In The Family, 3.2 The Arcanum Club

Bates Motel is a difficult show for me to watch objectively, as Psycho is my all-time favourite movie and I’m going to like just about anything connected to it (apart from the remake; that was just offensive). Unlike Hannibal, another series based on a horror property I love very much, I’ve never quite been able to figure out if I like Bates Motel because of its Psycho connection or because it’s a great show in its own right. But the fact that I’m asking that question at all probably answers it; Hannibal, after all, is unquestionably brilliant with or without an intimate understanding of the source material.

A key difference, however, is that Bates Motel is far more obviously in conversation with Psycho than Hannibal is with Silence Of The Lambs. While the Lecter series clearly differentiates itself both in tone and plot developments, Bates Motel has no qualms in aping the set design, music and tone of the original. It wants us to know it is connected to Psycho and as such the endgame is spelled out. We know where this version of Norman Bates will end up, and Bates Motel uses this to its advantage in building what is arguably its most brilliant rejigging of the mythology; the relationship between Norman and his mother. In the original films, Norma was described and later portrayed as a ‘clinging, demanding woman’ and Norman’s alternate personality version of her told us nothing different. Norma drove him insane through her horrific parenting; this is canon. Bates Motel, however, dares to suggest something different and ultimately much more interesting. Because Vera Farmiga’s Norma Bates is not a monster; she is a fragile, slightly batty, deeply flawed but ultimately well-meaning woman and her tragedy is that her attempts to help her damaged son will ultimately doom both of them.

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Norman Bates’ psychosis has always been linked to his fear of sex, and sex preoccupies both opening episodes of the third season as Norman struggles with his attraction to Annika Johnson and Emma’s obvious advances. The thing is, Norma doesn’t seem too concerned about her son being sexually active; when she derides Annika as ‘slutty’ it’s more to keep Norman away from women for their own safety. The look on Freddie Highmore’s face, however, illustrates just how these poorly thought out words are informing the ‘mother’ persona that will ultimately consume him. While Bates Motel started shaky, it’s honestly quite brilliant how it has constructed their relationship as one of mutual harm through all the best intentions.

It’s hard not to cringe as Norman fumbles through his discussion of sex with Emma, but the scene runs deeper than awkward comedy. Norman is genuinely trying to express his fear and lack of understanding without giving too much of it away and it’s more sad than anything else. Watching it, you almost wish you could sit Norman down somewhere and have the kind of frank discussion on sex his mother has clearly always avoided. But at this point, Norman’s mental problems run so deep that just about any proximity to sexuality is going to do more harm than good. Is some awareness of this is what fuels his obvious discomfort at the thought of sleeping with Emma? If so, it’s hard to understand why he is dating her in the first place. Maybe he thinks his mother will let him keep sleeping in her bed if he appears more normal elsewhere in life.

The question of Annika Johnson hangs heavily over episode two, and while at first I doubted she was actually dead, that corpse at the end hardly bodes well, even if we can’t be sure it’s her. The series is playing coy with us on the issue, but it’s a bit of a strange thing to play with the more I think about it. We already know Norman is a murderer and we know what happens to the women who make advances on him. At this point in the series, the last thing Norman has to do to fully become Norman Bates is kill his mother. It’s a creative choice that runs the risk of ruining some suspense, as his journey to becoming a killer is essentially complete, but generally I think it works. A major Bates Motel success has been infusing this story with enough heart to make us care about these characters, and that keeps us watching through our fingers for just when the sword of Damocles is going to fall.

But, as in past years, the big weakness is the insistence the series has on clumsy world-building. Look, I don’t hate the drug ring stuff, but I’d be lying if I said I’d ever cared for one second about any of the developments in that subplot. The seedy underbelly of White Pine Bay has never really worked as anything other than an appropriately gothic backdrop for the real story, and it’s hard not to roll your eyes at new additions like the Arcanum Club. Just how much weird dark stuff is going on under the surface of this town anyway? Still, its early days for this particular subplot so I’ll reserve any particularly harsh judgement until I see just where the whole thing is going.

One storyline I am thoroughly intrigued by is Caleb. It always seemed to me like there was more to his relationship with Norma than she had let on, but seeing his flashes of violence and temper in episode two has once again left me totally in the dark on what his motivations are. Either he or Norma is lying about the nature of their shared past, and honestly, I kind of hope its Norma. Not because I care too much about Caleb being a good guy or anything, but because of what it would mean for her if we learned that she had a consensual incestuous relationship and has been running from it her whole life, going as far as to demonise her brother to try and come to terms with it. What that revelation would mean to Norman and Dylan in particular is very interesting territory to delve into. 

At this point Bates Motel still seems to be suffering from many of the problems it’s always had, but it’s bcome a lot better at telling the story it really wants to tell, and that to me is the important thing.  Season two elevated the show to something approaching must-watch TV and on the evidence of these two episodes, season three looks to continue the trend with aplomb. 

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Read our review of the Bates Motel season two finale, The Immutable Truth, here.

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