Sometimes something happens in a television show which leaves you bemused or incredulous and asking, perhaps while laughing, “WTF!” Perhaps no show on television right now traffics in this territory more than the crazy-town bonkers Bates Motel.
*SPOILERS ABOUT BATES MOTEL BELOW*
This sort of Psycho prequel starring Freddy Highmore (Charlie & The Chocolate Factory) as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) as his mother Norma is infinitely watchable. However, we are now 6 episodes into the show’s 10-episode first season (with a second season already greenlit), and the WTF! moments are really mounting here. Granted, we are watching the young adulthood of an iconic film character we know will grow up to make even Oedipus blush. As such, with its one-too many long-lasting mother and son hugs the show is the most incest-y thing to happen to television since Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter) suddenly decide her brother Dexter (Michael C. Hall) was looking really, really good in his button-down shirts lately on Dexter.
But who could have predicted there’d also be pot farms protected by gun-wielding thugs more than willing to gun down innocent teenagers, a man somehow burned alive from inside his own car with the car’s interior and exterior showing no fire damage, a police sheriff this close to smacking Norma’s face with the back of his hand every time he speaks to her, and human trafficking of Chinese women as sex slaves? Moreover, judging by the performances each actor seems to have very different ideas about the kind of show they are in (Vera Farmiga all Mommy Dearest camp on one end and Emma Decody as Norman’s kind-of girlfriend all teen-angst drama on the other end).
The result is not exactly train wreck television, ala Smash, but more like pre-train wreck in that it could go completely off the rails at any given moment. Before it does, let’s pause to celebrate the most notable WTF! moments for each of the primary characters on the show to this point:
WTF Was Up With Norma Throwing Norman Out of Her Car?
More so than anyone else in the cast, Farmiga is in constant risk of crossing over from admirable performance to embarrassing. Her character has to be caring enough for us to believe the closeness of her relationship with Norman but unhinged and smothering to a fault for us to see how she contributed to the development of an individual we know will grow to become a serial killer. On top of that, she has to say things like “I killed the shit out of him” and seemingly always pick the most stupid solution among her options in response to all of her problems. I think Farmiga is mostly pulling it off, but her character does some seriously bonkers things. My favorite? Throwing her son out of her car.
In “Ocean View” (EP. 4), mother and son are driving home from a meeting with a lawyer who has informed Norma how thoroughly screwed she is in her defense case against the cops, who have charged with first-degree murder. She is guilty because we saw her do it in the pilot. However, she is steadfast in her denial (to anyone other than Norman), and on the drive home her chief concern is to shame Norman for having been out with a girl the night his mother was arrested. What really pushes her over the edge, though? Norman admits to sometimes being scared of her. Farmiga plays the “I scare you, Norman?” moment for all of its “so, this is rock bottom” black humor, and her rage in throwing Norman out of the car so that he’ll have to walk the next 10 miles home on foot is believable. It is a startling first foray into potential physical abuse between the two. It left Norman just as stunned as me, as his “WTF was that about?” reaction mirrored my own.
WTF Was Up With That Majestic Bike Ride Shared Between Norman and His Brother Dylan Massett?
Fret not, loyal viewers. Literally within less than 20 seconds (of screen time, a cut indicates more time is supposed to have passed) of being thrown out of his mom’s car Norman’s half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) shows up on his motorcycle. So, we get 40+ seconds of the two driving along the highway, with Norman grinning cheek to cheek and looking over his brother’s shoulder and out at the passing surroundings like a dog eagerly attempting to catch a scent in the air.
It’s a perfectly lovely scene, in concept. The idea is to further establish the gradual bond the brothers are forming in opposition to their mother, and to show just how happy Norman could be if removed from his mother’s insanity and smothering. This idea is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the show to date. However, the musical score, with its hopeful piano and strings, is 100% wrong for the scene, making far too blunt a statement of intent. It comes and goes so suddenly with no resemblance to any other sequence from the show to date.
WTF Was Up With Dylan Getting a Little Too Rape-y With Norma?
For a while, all I saw in Dylan was his immense physical resemblance to Norma’s lover Shelby, which I imagine was intentional considering the incestuous elements of the original Psycho story.
Turns out, Dylan is this show’s Derek Reese, i.e., an entirely new brother character added into a TV show continuation of a film franchise and emerges as the best part of the show. The Sarah Connor Chronicles did it with Brian Austin Green appearing as Derek, brother to Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese from the first Terminator film. Like Derek, Dylan does not factor into the long-term continuity and will likely die at some point, his death serving as a tragic catalyst to Norman’s psychosis. However, Dylan and Norman are so good together as brothers you find yourself dreading the eventual failure of his efforts to save his little brother from their mother.
However, even though he is arguably the show’s greatest creative success Dylan does have one incredibly creepy WTF! moment to his name. At the end of “Trust Me” (EP. 4), Norma begins to completely freak out when she learns Norman has snuck out of the house to be with a girl, an action enabled by Dylan. Rather than give in, Dylan instead throws a match on this bubbling gas fire by confronting Norma and threatening to take Norman away from her. To neutralize Norma’s ensuing flailing, Dylan grabs her by the wrists and pins her against the wall as if he was a Tennessee Williams protagonist. This motion and Farmiga’s corresponding histrionic crying gives the impression Dylan is about to rape his mother. He wasn’t, but there is sexual tension where before there hadn’t been. Similar to the bike ride, it is an example of the show overplaying its hand…or was the logical blocking for the scene on the day of filming and no one from the show realized how creepy it looked.
WTF Is Up With Emma Not Seeing the Signs?
Poor oxygen tank girl (which she needs because she has cystic fybrosis) and her incredibly poor choice in men (what does she see in Norman?). She is incredibly adorable and possibly the most sensible person on the show with a rather strongly defined moral center. Plus, the most recent episode (“The Truth”, EP. 6) hinted her non-existent relationship with her own mother has left such scars that even Norma Bates is a welcome maternal presence for her. How could you not at least pity such a girl? She and Dylan are the two characters whose deaths might end my stay in the world of Bates Motel, especially if her death is in any way related to her oxygen tank. However, she probably should have known something was up when Norman got crazy angry at her in “What’s Wrong With Norman?”, EP. 3.
By the third episode, Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Norman have uncovered the town’s underground Chinese sex slave trade, which seriously shakes Emma who never actually believed such a thing was occurring in her town. She is resolute in her conviction that they must do the right thing and turn to the police. She has no way of knowing Norman is helping his mother cover up a murder at the time and going to the cops is not an option for him. However, the anger in his voice when he explodes at her, basically telling her to back off, is startling. He is almost menacing in that moment. He later apologizes, but she goes along with it far too easily.
WTF Was Up With Bradley Martin’s Love Scene With Norman?
When chasing after cute girls out of your league and already spoken for it helps to have something in common. Luckily for Norman, his behind-Emma’s-back pursuit of Bradley Martin (Nicola Pletz) has come at a time when he has recently lost his father and she watched her dad go all extra crispy inside his own car.
At Dylan’s urging Norman responds to a late-night text from Bradley and goes over to her house where they have sex because she “tired of being sad.” However, the actual sex scene in which the two appear to co-exist together under light blue bed sheets with white leak peaking through as romantic score plays feels like a love scene from a Lifetime movie fell into the middle of our Psycho prequel. It is bizarre. This one might get a pass, though. The WTF! nature of the scene is likely a clue to us that all is not as it seems here. Bradley has not been on the show since the offending scene, and the show has now established that Norman does sometimes see things that aren’t really there. Did he imagine the whole thing? Did he possibly kill her thus explaining why we haven’t see her? We don’t know yet. [5/22 Update: Yeah, that was adorable of me to believe that. But, no, that sex scene was legit as was Bradley’s subsequent, “I like you, Norman, just not in that way” arc.]
When I squint hard enough, I can convince myself this show actually works, an opinion genuinely shared by others. The Vampire Diaries-esque rapid-fire pace of storytelling is compelling, and the big reveal about Norman in the most recent episode was predictable but handled well. However, no amount of squinting can blind me to the steadily increasing number of WTF! moments, which lurk around the corner and consistently undercut what the show is attempting to accomplish. I know from viewing Twitter feeds that others have already turned this into Smash-type viewing experience, i.e., live-tweeting as many jokes as they can muster while watching new episodes. Maybe if I were so inclined I’d join in because the show offers up a lot of mockable material. However, I think there is a good show struggling to break out here. If it never does, may it forever remain an enjoyable show, even if for the wrong reasons.
As of this writing, the most recent 4 episodes of the show are available for free streaming on aetv.com. What do you think? Let us know in the comments?