TV Performer of the Week is our new recurring series that focuses on one particular example of great acting in an episode from the previous week. New picks will post on Fridays.
Fans of A&E’s Psycho prequel series Bates Motel know that what has always made the show (now in its third season) a standout is Vera Farmiga. Her portrayal of Norma Bates is both dynamic and hypnotic, as she swings from moments of controlled determination to childlike helplessness.
“Norma Louise” was a rare episode where Norma and Norman (Freddie Highmore) were separated, as Norma took off to Portland to gather her wits after both Dylan (Max Theiriot) and Norman encouraged her to speak to her estranged brother Caleb (Kenny Johnson). Feeling betrayed by Norman taking Dylan’s side, Norma (given this and other pressures in her life) grabs up her things and leaves, with Norman screaming after her.
But that separation led to an incredible scene. Farmiga’s Norma has such distinctive quirks that when Highmore’s Norman embodies her (and her bathrobe) and serves Dylan breakfast, the smallest jerks of his head, gestures, and intonations immediately (and creepily) make him become Norma. That’s all thanks to how Farmiga has set the character up, and created such a unique voice for her.
As for Norma herself, though; her odyssey throughout “Norma Louise” was beautifully crafted by director Phil Abraham, but it was Farmiga who made every scene essential. Her despair as she drove through the night rain, sobbing, changed after she pulled over and shot up her cell phone to distance herself from the texts and calls she was getting from Dylan. There, her countenance turned to a steely determination to forget White Pine Bay. Norma likes to run and reinvent herself, and through Farmiga’s portrayal you can feel her changing — if just temporarily.
These emotional swings are typical for Norma, but it’s rare that she goes through so many, so rapidly, in the course of one episode. Her instability is a hallmark of her character, with her uneasy smile and bizarre personality, and it has clearly had a major effect on Norman. But in “Norma Louise,” Norma was off course like we’ve almost never seen her before.
The scene in the Portland boutique may be one of Bates Motel‘s finest moments. In the harsh fluorescent light of the store, the usually put-together Norma has never looked more haggard or more vulnerable. She was like a raccoon that had been cornered in a basement, as she stared down the sales girl who dared to tell her she could not try on more than three things at a time. “Seriously?” she said, with such intensity that the girl backed away, and let her do as she liked. Emerging soon after, Norma was wearing the new clothes, and ripped the tags off them, slapping them down on the counter. “I’m buying these,” she said, matter-of-factly and with some annoyance, the same way she later addresses the car salesman when she demands a trade-in. This Norma is the one who can buck up and hide a body, lie to the police, and kick ass as necessary. You don’t mess with her.
But, then things begin to shift once Norma — now in her new clothes and in a new car — starts drinking and flirting at a nearby bar. She’s in cat mode here, coy at first and then nearly purring at a man paying her compliments and asking her to dance. Totally at ease (a rare moment), she sways in his arms lies to him, saying it was her wedding day, and she skipped out on it. She laughingly sffd that she killed her first husband. All of this is her part of her particular brand of fantasy and reality, and here, Norma lets a smile linger on her face as she relaxes into escapism. Again, she’s almost child-like in the way she drowsily considers and finally says says “mmm…ok!” to leaving the bar. But when she’s nearly forced into a sex act, she snaps awake — her reaction is, rightfully, violent. She screams at her attacker and tears off into the night, wound up again that her reverie was broken.
Norma finally gets what she wants when she goes to see James (Joshua Leonard), who provides her with both physical and emotional comfort that gives her a necessary release. She’s so weak and broken down here, though, that at first James actually picks her up and carries her inside. In the morning, she gets up with sudden resolve, determined to return home, with new-found purpose. Dismissing her own needs, she lectures, “have you ever read The Giving Tree? The kid takes, and takes, and takes, until there is nothing left but a stump. And then he sits on the stump. That’s what being a parent is like.” She’s back to shoot-the-cell-phone, don’t tell me what I can’t do, trade-my-car-today-or-get-lost Norma, fully in control.
And yet, it never lasts long. There’s always a point where Norma crumbles again. At home, Norma demands to a bewildered Dylan and Norman that they get in the car with her to see Caleb. She explains nothing, and refuses to hear any objections. But when Caleb emerges, she falters again and becomes afraid. Farmiga’s eyes well up and seem enormous, as her mouth hangs open slightly, like she’s on the verge of speaking, shouting, or crying out. Then in another instant, Caleb begs her for forgiveness, and embracing him, she melts down.
This transformation all happens within minutes, and it’s exhausting in the best of ways. “Norma Louise” was a showcase of Norma’s range of emotions, but there’s a recurring structure to it: Norma gets things done as necessary, but she dreams for more, and her sometimes tough exterior is built on emotional quicksand. She’s reduced to a quivering mess after bursts of anger, bravery, or violence, like when she smashed her car purposefully into the sign for the new highway. But after every setback, and after every attempt to be someone different, she always returns to her baseline of being strong as Norman’s mother. In the end, that’s what grounds her and gives her a cause. On Bates Motel, though, Farmiga is our cause, and she is wonderful.