Bates Motel: The Arcanum Club Review

Norma becomes obsessed with a missing woman who Norman may or may not have something to do with!

“I’m not a little boy, mother.” 

Do you want to be Peter Pan?

The question is posed to Norman in the episode, and in spite of the above quote, he honestly doesn’t know how to answer. He tries to diffuse the question by making a joke, but it doesn’t change the fact that at his core, Norman doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to stay a boy, because boys have loving mothers that can keep them safe and guide them through life. It’s a safety net that Norman has always relied upon, whether he realized it or not, and as Emma begins to start poking holes in this net, you can almost see Norman panicking under that languid expression of his. 

But let’s talk about what’s really important in this episode first: the epic throwdown between Norma Bates and a street sign. A fight that will forever be remembered and spoken about in White Pines’ storied history. 

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I said last week that this season of Bates Motel has a real energy to it as they’re finally just going for it and no longer wasting any time pussyfooting around. Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin recently revealed that the show has a very clear five-year plan, and so with us already past the midway point, you better get ready for things to start to get real.

I just want to take a moment though to point out the brilliant camerawork in this episode (courtesy of the always consistent Tucker Gates’ direction), particularly in the cold open as a swooping crane shot adeptly starts on the figuratively haunted Bates house before settling on Norma doing her rounds of the motel. It’s a very smart way of visually contrasting how Norman’s twisted future hangs over the house in the same way that his past—specifically, last night with Annica–currently hangs over Norma.

I love so much that when Norma gets suspicious that something might have happened to Annica, she almost immediately questions Norman over it. It’s even smarter for this show to have Norman and Norma have this conversation while Norman is performing some taxidermy. It’s almost like a Norman Bates greatest hits playing out before you, as the show tries to mash up all these pieces of the Psycho Norman Bates together before you.

It’s not just Norma here though. 

Highmore has always done exceptional work as Norman, but he’s especially killing it here. He seamlessly rushes in the request to his mother for a “very large freezer” that he’s going to need in the basement for his “taxidermy” and she acquiesces. This moment isn’t dwelled on at all and you wouldn’t even take note of it if you didn’t know where Norman was heading. It’s a fantastic example of the series trying to show you the level at which Norman is operating at now. While a previous season might have shown him taking episodes to figure out how to ask Norma for a freezer, or try lugging one in himself, but his behavior is becoming so naturalized now that this duplicitousness just oozes out of him. 

On the other side of this poisonous relationship, Norma is also becoming more of the eccentric voice in Norman’s head that we’ll later come to know so well. She chastises Norman for going out with slutty and loose women, almost blanketing the entire gender (“I don’t know why but unhinged women seem drawn to you,” in the understatement of the century). Honestly, she’s not exactly wrong with Norman’s poor decision making over getting in cars with strangers (and the infamous Blair Watson is even drudged back up), but her argument loses strength as you see how unhinged Norma is becoming. You can see the strain of their relationship eating away at both of them in silent ways. He’s in her head at this point, and you can see her dissecting every little thing that he says and does (her questioning his referring to Annica in the past tense is a great little moment), terrified of his behavior. Norma’s glare when she finds out that Norman lied to her about Annica is simply sublime though, as is the heartbreaking crack in her voice and gulp in her throat when Norman tells her he’s dating Emma.

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I’m always into more Norma and Emma scenes, so when the two of them investigate Annica’s room, it’s a pleasant little moment, especially when you consider the subtext that Norma might be trying to mine any relationship information out of her. This leads to Norma heading to the Arcanum Club on her own, hoping to get more information about Annica (and by proxy, Norman), but the whole thing plays like a watered down Eyes Wide Shut and an excuse for Norma to spy on some strangers having sex as a counterpoint to Norman’s own voyeurism. The thing is, the show knows that it feels derivative, so hopefully this place will prove to be more interesting in the coming weeks.

I could also get into the whole idea that it seems kind of ridiculous that if a mega sex club like this was around in White Pines Bay, it’s a little weird that nobody thought about talking to them when prostitute bodies began showing up in the first season, but I can get past this. I just hope that it proves to be a worthwhile detour. The show is already juggling a lot, that to add another head to this Hydra, it better not be just to fill out some time.

On the more wholesome side of sex, we also finally get to see Norma and Emma on a date and it’s exactly as awkward as you might expect it to be. Pretty quickly the two cut to the topic of sex, which would already be a little weird, but is even more so after what we’ve seen going on with Norman and his blackouts lately. And, you know, the fact that he might have had sex and murdered Annica under everyone’s noses, too. Everything he says is steeped in darkness, and it almost feels like he’s winking at us specifically, now that we “know” the sort of person he is. The fact that his mother and their relationship comes up shortly after also isn’t typical date fodder.

Their date isn’t the most awkward thing in this episode though, no, goodness gracious, that hug! That hug that Norma and Sheriff Romero share is such a beautiful, awkward, glorious moment and a reminder of how funny this show can be when it wants to be. 

And speaking of the binaries of this program, Bates Motel has always clearly been two shows within one: the Psycho prequel, and the ongoing crime sage of White Pines Bay, and unsurprisingly, the latter has always struggled to find its place in this show and establish a balance. Like any other episode, the Dylan material here starts out with a big sigh and feels like business as usual until a rabid dog goes a little too far and gets shot by Dylan’s father. This in itself isn’t a big deal, but what it leads to feels quite revelatory. 

Caleb’s “neighbor on the other side of the hill,” Chick Hogan, approaches the two of them, searching for his missing dog, and immediately the weight of this character is felt. It feels like this guy is about to explode at any moment and suddenly there might at last be an antagonist on the other side of the show to make it interesting. Chick is sparsely seen, but every single word he says has impact, and even him waxing on about rules, respect, and tomato crops is borderline terrifying. It’s genuinely tense when Dylan and Caleb confront him later and tell him that they killed his dog. You’re really worried about the consequences in a way that you haven’t been in a long time in this show.

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Bates Motel is starting off the season strong and seems to have learned from their mistakes so far (we’ll see how this Arcanum Club pans out…). Already a lot of effective seeds of danger have been planted, but you know what the real threat to watch out for is. 

Keep watching the street signs, you guys. Only you can keep Norma safe from them.

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3.5 out of 5