This Bates Motel review contains spoilers.
Bates Motel: Season 4 Episode 1.
“I’m so happy to be home, mother. I’m so happy to be with you.”
Let me just begin this by saying how satisfying it is to finally be at this point in the show. Seeing Norman in full-on crazy mode is why we all tuned into this series in the first place, and the work that Freddie Highmore is doing here with Norman Bates at this mental crossroads is an immensely delightful, batshit insane performance. This is our Anakin finally becoming Darth Vader moment in the series, and it’s totally worth putting up with two and a half years of questionable seasons in order to arrive at this point. Highmore’s work here across the board is a tour de force to take in, and the promise of seeing him unravel each week adds a new tantalizing reason to tune in.
The final episodes of last season finally embraced Norman’s psychotic side and had him crossing a very deliberate line. His murderous actions from the finale are nearly immediately dealt with, as his continual raving antics lead to him getting sent to a psych ward (thank God for the quick reflexes of rubes). Norman in a psych ward is a fascinating situation due to what we, the audience, know about his future, and this quickly becomes all about how much these doctors can figure out about Norman before Norma can “save” him from all of this. It’s a beautiful ticking clock scenario that has this huge explosion liable to go off if things get pushed a certain way. Norman could get stuck here indefinitely (although we know that’s not going to be the case) if the right knowledge happens to be stumbled upon. I know we’ve seen Norman in a lot of bad situations before, but this one is huge considering what it represents. There’s even more weight to all of this when Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin have stated that the show will only have five seasons, meaning that the other shoe is going to have to drop awfully soon.
There are some moments in this episode that are genuinely scary, which is not something that this show has been able to pull off often. There’s fear coming from the intimidating violence that’s going down, but it’s even more frightening to watch Norman dressing up as Norma and becoming her after undergoing these catalysts. Highmore’s body language and gestures are sublimely perfect to the degree that it feels like he’s another person. He’s seriously crushing this stage of the role and we get to watch him go all over the spectrum here.
When Norma does reach Norman in his temporary prison it’s kind of fantastic to see her get completely dressed down over what a negligent parent she’s been. This much-needed reality check, paired with the news that she maybe could have helped him before but it’s too late now, is as beautiful as it is tragic. She’s presented with an ultimatum where she needs to prove that Norman is getting some sort of treatment and seeing a doctor, otherwise he’s back at Hyperbole Hospital. These are solid stakes, and while this family’s sick delusion has skirted away from responsibility in the past, this is a situation where they’re forced to confront it. It’s nice to see that this season might be all about reality setting in and the gauntlet being dropped. Things are about to become very real for Norman.
All of this is just as much of a reality check for Norma as it is her son. We see more classic scenes of her just expecting to get what she wants, thinking that the rules don’t apply to her. She seeks Sheriff Romero thinking that he’ll just be able to get Norman out of his 48-hour hold, but later her flippant insistence that Romero marry her so she can have insurance for Norman is even more ridiculous. While Norman is clearly the craziest one in the family, seeing Norma at her most lucid and detached is a whole other sort of deranged. Romero seems to see something in her though — perhaps the scared woman lost inside — and continues to involve himself with this family which is surely going to catch up with him.
The “In Norman’s Head” montage is truly terrifying, an impressive tool for the series to turn out, as well as even managing to recontextualize the confusing/maddening “Norma and Norman join a musical!” plotline from last season. I really can’t stress that enough here. I’d even say that all of that weird singing and dancing that filled up episodes in the past was worth it, knowing it would eventually become the backing track to Norman’s psychosis. Realizing that these images are glimpses of what he’s seeing as he loses his mind is all sorts of heartbreaking, too. We get to cut to Norma, Romero, or Dylan, but Norman doesn’t get such a reprieve.
While on the topic of Dylan and other characters, a large chunk of this episode is also interested in Emma’s lung transplant, and it’s really pleasant that this material is no longer the dead weight that it used to be. Sure, it’s still problematic and turns into a weird parent vs. parent situation over Emma’s family, with Dylan getting stuck in the middle of all of it, but Bates Motel has certainly dipped into worse wells to fill time before. Surprisingly, this reliable lover role suits Dylan quite well as he continues to play the peacekeeper in this situation. His “Hey, you look awesome,” made me smile as much as Emma did, which I guess means that they’ve won me over. Besides, Dylan being away with Emma forces Norman and Norma to be alone together, which is pivotal right now.
By the way, the music swells that occur and the way that Norman and Norma’s reunion is shot is the perfect kind of creepy, with the show comfortably living in that zone now. These two are not good for each other. The hair cutting scene is another great example of how twisted things have become between the two of them. He even needs to sleep in the same bed as her in order to fall asleep. It’s impossible for them to wean off of each other at this point.
While there’s more than enough to get excited about in this season premiere, it’s also a little fun to see the show embracing murder a little more after holding off on it for so long in a certain sense. There’s a very bloody opening to the episode with Romero that starts the season off on a strong visual note that’s bookended beautifully with an incredibly strong conclusion. Highmore is legit terrifying now, and it’s even better that his actions here make his dynamic with Emma become even more perverse. This is exactly the premiere that I wanted to get from this show. If you’ve never watched the series before, you could seriously just jump in at this point and be fine, too. This material is finally being so well handled and is so, so bonkers that you should really check it out if you’re a fan of the film or insanity in general.