Bates Motel: Season 3 Premiere Review

Bates Motel re-opens its doors for vacancy in what looks to be its creepiest, incest-iest season yet!

“Norman’s eighteen he shouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed as his mom.” 

Bates Motel is back and this weird little show has come a long way from the messy prostitute dens and drug trade storylines that have taken up time in the background of the past two seasons. But last year ended on such a solid, encouraging note with Norman’s breakthrough when he was trapped underground in the box, and his alter ego finally becoming Norma, more or less.

It feels like this season of the show will be what people finally wanted from a Psycho prequel series, with Norman being the craziest that he’s been yet. It’s the Revenge of the Sith of the prequel trilogy, and now that Norman and Norma have been pushed along far enough, and ready to face who they really are, there’s enough material on them alone to dominate this show instead of the other silly crime fodder. I’m not saying that that material shouldn’t or won’t be gone entirely, just that the balance between them should be at a better place now.

The episode opens with Norman sleeping in bed with Norma, embracing her even, and right from the start, the crazy factor is up full swing. Come morning, Norma is cooking breakfast for Dylan, as if all is well and this is one happy family. When Dylan starts trying to poke holes in this and saying how unusual Norman sleeping with Norma is, she becomes greatly defensive, saying he innocently just fell asleep and that this sort of thing happens all the time (which isn’t helping her case, any).

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Some extra stress is thrown in to fuel the fire as Norma finds out that her mother has died. She acts fairly callous and numb to the whole thing initially, but after some time has passed she’s bawling and needs Norman’s support to get her through the night. The reveal that Norma’s mother suffered from some form of mental problems or personality disorder is illuminating information though. The Bates are a long troubled line of crazies, and it seems like Norman and Norma’s fate might even be out of their hands at least in a genetic sense.

Getting away from the motel, this premiere also sees Norman going off to his senior year of high school, something he’s dreading because it means he can’t be at home with his mother all day. Oh and something about that teacher that he had sex with and might have killed. But it feels like his reticence is coming more from being away from Norma. It’s appreciated to finally see the show going so hard with the mother/son creepiness here, but it almost might be a little too much. It feels like it’s constantly being addressed and that nearly everything Norman says to his mother is steeped in some degree of ick. I understand that the break that he went through at the end of last season would have him embracing his mother in open arms, but hopefully a little more restraint will be shown here.

Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse have said in the past (and quite boldly) that they see this show existing in Twin Peaks’ universe, and that all of this is even going on in the same town, decades later. This time around, the scenes of Norman at high school finally have that same layer of tension to them. As death floats around the hallways of the school, it feels the closest it’s been to resembling David Lynch’s classic series.

While Norman roams these halls, it’s quickly seen that he isn’t doing that well after the traumatic events of last season. He hallucinates Miss Watson talking to him at school, and eventually bleeding out all over him. We’re beginning to see Norman’s victims living through him here and haunting what he does, behavior that is much more symptomatic of the Norman Bates we know from Hitchcock’s film. Kerry Ehrin has gone so far to say that Norman suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and there are shades of this all over the place in this episode as Norman seems to sleepwalk through his actions to some extent.

Perhaps one of my favorite developments in this episode–and it’s so simple but works beautifully–is when a comely young female named Attica rents a room in the Bates Motel. Norman becomes quite enamored with her and begins to spy on the lady and try and get closer to her. They trade stories about their unfortunate fathers and connect through dysfunction and loneliness. The fact that she’s a call girl or escort of some sort feels a little unnecessary, but it also probably vindicates Norman’s spying in his mind. The Norman from later years would shout blanket statements on all women being whores, echoing his mother, and him spending time with a lady like this also enforces that germ of an idea to a degree. It’s sort of perfect that Norma catches Norman spying too, scolding him for the action and the concepts of sexuality and his mother intermingling even further. 

We’ve seen shots and allusions to the original Psycho a number of times throughout the series, all done smartly, and it feels like from what we’ve seen in this premiere that we’ll be seeing Norman looking trough a peephole to get a better look at their tenant sooner rather than later. Again, it’s an extremely simple element, but it goes far and is a great bridge to show what version of Norman we’re seeing at the moment. If the first two seasons were exploring Norman figuring out who he is, these next two seasons seem like they could be about Norman embracing who he is, with Norman and Norma both falling down deeper rabbitholes of who they are.

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I almost laughed out loud when Norma tells Norman that she thinks maybe he shouldn’t go to school, “school hasn’t been good to you,” as she suggests pulling him out and instead making him motel manager. A conversation which they have in bed together. It’s also fantastic that this show is finally at the place where we’re getting scenes like Norma telling Norman he should go to his own bed to sleep, and him getting angry at her for it and lashing out. It’s an awkward scene as they both stumble through what they’re saying, both wanting the same thing, but Dylan’s words have put a wedge in between them.

It’s also beyond creepy but brilliant in a story sense for Norman to begin getting jealous of Dylan and the role and influence he might have on their mother. Seeing Norman get paranoid and defensive regarding him is great, and to speculate that Dylan might also see his end by Norman’s hand as a gesture for his mother could lead to some pretty thrilling television that might only be nine episodes away. 

While the Norma/Norman/Dylan love triangle works, the remnants of the Dylan drug trade storyline are still the weakest aspect of the show. They’re tolerable here though and don’t take up too much time. This also seems to be a stronger, more levelheaded Dylan than we’ve seen before, which also works well. We don’t need an idiot here, and him making the right choices as he works through the shadows is a better angle for him.

This episode sees him mostly burdened with investigating what their estranged Uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson) is doing in town. Honestly, the presence of another Bates on the show doesn’t feel like something this show needs to resort to again, but at least now, with the trauma that their family is going through, he could be the perfect wrench to throw into the mix. If anything, Dylan having another role model to rely on, other than Norma, could be a healthy thing for his character. 

Meanwhile, we don’t get much of Emma here, but we do learn that her lung capacity is diminishing and things don’t look good for her. Norman leaving school feels like the final nail in the coffin for her until he suggests that she get homeschooled with him, since they were the only things that they enjoyed about school anyway. Norman then throws out the bombshell “that I think we should date.” It’s an incredibly sweet moment for the two of them, and a nice win for Emma, but you can’t help but feel that it’s almost done to get Norma off his back a little bit. Maybe she’ll be less weirded out by him if he has the safety net of a girlfriend. Or at the least, he can use her as a bargaining chip against her. 

Bates Motel’s third season premiere isn’t its best episode, but it’s a strong, focused start to a season that has all the elements of being their strongest. Farmiga and Highmore continue to put out wonderful work here and are ever more comfortable in these roles. It’s going to be an exciting ride this year as we see their relationship get put through the wringer.

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Soon we’ll be longing for the simpler times of when Norman could say to his mother in bed, “Move over, you silly woman.”

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3.5 out of 5