This Bates Motel review contains spoilers.
Bates Motel Season 5 Episode 1
“And we’re doing it. We’re actually doing it. A mentally ill boy and a dead woman…”
This season is why Bates Motel was made.
Bates Motel’s fifth and final season is the show’s Revenge of the Sith moment where all of the prequel material finally comes together. The rotten fruit from this poisoned tree is finally ready to be tasted. This is what you’ve been waiting for.
It’s a little shocking that Bates Motel has pulled off the magic act that it’s slowly been playing for the past four seasons. This once awkward—albeit always committed—series is finally emerging from its cocoon as important television in its final year. It’s remarkable to look back at the young, ambivalent performance that Freddie Highmore was turning out when the show began versus the flat-out frightening, contemplative work he’s currently doing as Norman Bates. After all of the pointless trips to opium dens, irrelevant prostitution ring busts, and Bradley constantly sticking her breasts where they don’t belong, we’re actually at the finish line here and it’s so damn good.
The end of Bates Motel’s last season was already pushing the series in the right direction with Norman’s fragile mental state becoming much of the year’s focus. The events that end the season mark the culmination of everything that’s gone on with Norman and his mother and after he takes her life, this final season is poised to see Norman giving into his demons like never before. He no longer has the tether that’s kept him (somewhat) grounded in the past. This season wastes no time, as Norman already finds himself firmly in Crazy Land, and there are many subtle touches to indicate just how deep in the rabbit hole he is. Tiny details reveal information like how Norman’s been wearing his mother’s clothes for a while now and that it’s in fact two years since the events of Norma’s death in last year’s finale.
This year sees Norman running Bates Motel on his own, an act that gets him intothe new hardware store where he meets the Loomises. Madeleine Loomis particularly stands out to Norman due to how much she reminds him of Norma, something that also wreaks havoc with Norman’s subconscious. It’s also uncanny how much Isabelle McNally looks like Vera Farmiga here. The show absolutely killed it with the casting. If I’m freaking out over how much Madeleine looks like Norma, imagine what’s going on in Norman’s head.
Highmore has consistently shown growth in this role through the seasons, but this year is obviously meant to be the showcase of Highmore’s ability and Norman’s deterioration. Highmore excels by utilizing a bit of an Anthony Perkins impression with a few select line readings. It’s a welcome touch that doesn’t go too far in the campy direction. While Norma might be dead, Vera Farmiga is far from being absent in these final episodes. If anything, Norma serves an even stronger presence than before as she’s allowed to run amok through Norman’s mind.
This premiere is full of scenes where Norman and Norma are simply arguing over their current situation, as Norma reiterates that Norman got them into this mess so he might as well embrace it. This season is about accepting that normalcy is gone now. The episode spends a lot of time painting the Bates house as a purgatory paradise for Norman and his mother. It’s the one place they’re allowed to be open and honest.
The premiere’s creepiest material comes in the form of Norman going into the basement to actually visit his mother each night. Not some psychotic hallucination in his head, but her actual taxidermied corpse which Norman has been holding onto. This acts as a great revision to what happens to Norma’s corpse in Psycho. This will hopefully be only one of many subversions to Hitchcock’s original source material this year. It’s endlessly fascinating to essentially be watching the events of Psycho playing out with a much younger Norman.
It’s great that Norman is also just fully murdering people now, with the show and character not struggling with the action nearly as much as they have in the past. Norman contextualizes all of this as his mother “helping him out,” and resigns to the fact that they’re messed up, broken people that are doing what they need to in order to survive. Last season Norman had a doctor and a hospital to try and set him on the right track, but now he’s just in the poisonous echo chamber of his mind, and that place is starting to go rank.
Bates Motel’s final season also offers up plenty of iconography from the classic horror film, like the visual of Norman pulling off the ol’ “peephole and masturbate” move or telling allusions to how he wants to update the shower curtains in the motel (wink wink). On top of all of this, the series is still beautifully shot. There’s a real haunted lullaby quality going on this year that feels especially perfect. Plus, moments like Norman and Norma disposing of a body “together” while Etta James’ “At Last” plays is kind of goddamn amazing. It’s exactly the sort of surreal, bittersweet visual that is unique to this series.
While Norman and Norma have always been the focus of this show, this premiere still sets some time aside for the rest of its cast and it’s almost comical just how cheery and perfect things are for the rest of the Bates family. Dylan and Emma now find themselves not only married, but also celebrating the birth of their first child. The two are beyond happy in a way that makes me deeply nervous that one of them is going to end up murdered. Dylan and Emma are also struggling with whether Caleb should be trusted and let back into their lives, especially after how much he helped out with Emma’s operation. This is hardly as riveting as Norman’s material, but it’s a necessary pressure release valve and the show has at least put the necessary time in where you do care about these characters by now, including Caleb.
Meanwhile, Romero is also in jail where he is getting his brood on as well as trying to avenge Norma from the inside. Merely a taste of Romero is given in this premiere, but it looks like he’s largely being set up as Norman’s primary antagonist this season, which feels like a logical dovetailing of events. He’s a character that we’ve gotten to know considerably well over the course of the show and someone that’s suffered greatly due to Norman. He’s going to make for a much more satisfying obstacle than some new threat mysteriously coming out of White Pine Bay’s shadows.
“Dark Paradise” effectively sets the tone for Bates Motel’s dark farewell tour. The premiere wastes no time digging into the twisted murkiness of Norman’s mind as well as bringing the Psycho easter eggs. I’m looking forward to this show in a way that I never have before, with these final episodes holding the potential to be some of the best horror-based television that’s come along in a while. Thank God we’ve been allowed to get to this very satisfying conclusion, rather than the show being canceled mid-narrative and being added to the heap of other failed movie-turned-television projects. It’s still early into the season, but this year is going to burn the house down and take everything with it. We’re all going to see that Norma got off easy by being murdered last year.