One of the things Bates Motel has always excelled in doing is teasing the ultimate fate of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) without the show feeling completely beholden to its source material, Psycho. While this is largely due to Vera Farmiga‘s hypnotic performance as Norma, Bates Motel has found ways to create its own uniquely creepy, gothic atmosphere.
In its third season, though, the show is ready to let Norman begin his full transformation into the psychotic killer he is destined to become. The first episode (the only one available for review) is riddled with Psycho references, though it never feels excessive. There are plenty of other things happening around and to Norman that aren’t related to his killer instinct, because as has forever been true with Bates Motel, the story always comes back to family.
Last year, Dylan (Max Thieriot) repaired his relationship with Norma after the revelation that his uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson) is actually his father. It’s the clearest manifestation of an incest that is otherwise only intimated on the series. To wit: Season 3 opens with Norma and Norman in bed together, which Dylan tells Norma isn’t normal for an 18-year-old boy. Indeed not.
The rest of the episode makes allusions back to this — through Caleb trying to establish a relationship with Dylan, and Norma discussing some details of her troubled childhood — but the arc of the episode revolves around mother and son sharing a bed. Norma kicks him out, but later invites him back in, after Norman had made dating overtures to Emma (Olivia Cooke), seemingly as a way to cope with Norma’s rejection.
In fact, the entire first episode goes all-in with deepening the closeness of Norma and Norman’s relationship, as Norma suggests Norman try homeschooling, so she can keep him with her more (it’s incredible that it took her this long to consider that as an option). The tragedy of Norma’s upbringing, and her need to have Norman near her, is also mirrored in Caleb’s attempts to know Dylan more. Though Dylan wants nothing to do with him, Caleb makes excuses to stay around, before breaking down and admitting, “you’re my son; I just want to be with you for a little while.”
Though the new season Bates Motel has seemingly really picked up steam when it comes to Norman’s psychotic impulses and transformation (which I won’t spoil), what remains the same is the show’s dark, dreamy world. The rain, cold, and gloomy skies never clear up, while the sound mixing takes great pains to be sure we hear every wet gravel crunch and squish of soggy ground. It’s deeply atmospheric, and almost constantly gives a sense that something dark and demonic is lurking. The difference with this show is, we know exactly who and what that looks like.
Bates Motel‘s less successful side-stories also continue, though, regarding the town’s drug empire (which recently crumbled, thanks to Dylan and Nestor Carbonell‘s Sheriff Alex Romero). Because it has nothing to do with Norma or Norman, though (except through Dylan), that storyline has never felt essential. But things there may be going in a new, more interesting direction, as Dylan no longer wants to be a kingpin, and Romero has seemingly lost his power to protect, with he himself being the target of many unemployed drug workers.
Ultimately, Bates Motel fans should be pleased not only that the show is back, with all of its quirky, strange humor among the dark portends, but also that it is kicking off with such a strong episode. The series is not waiting around to develop Norman any further — he’s ready, and so are we. As Norman says to Emma, “it’s just time.”
Bates Motel Season 3 will premiere March 9th at 9 p.m. ET.