The short of it is that “The Cord” was a fitting and operatic end for Bates Motel, which never allowed itself to be pinned down as just a Psycho prequel. Of course, there’s much more to unpack from it. The show always operated on its own terms, taking what it wanted from the Psycho source material (of both filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and author Robert Bloch), but ultimately creating a world that was its alone. Bates fully embraced the atmosphere of its rain-logged Pacific northwest setting, leaning in to both its naturally-spooky dark and stormy nights, as well as the coziness of its overcast days. But more than anything, the show was always anchored fully by two exceptional performances from Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, whose dedication to the material made the show compelling even when its other plots meandered too far away from that core.
In fact, it was the show returning its focus to Norman and Norma almost exclusively in Season 4 that made Bates take a turn from being a good series to a surprisingly great one. And as Season 5 came to a close, its macabre Weekend at Norma’s on full display, it became clear that this final season was more of a coda than anything. The story always belonged to the mother and son, and after Mother died, Norman (as we knew him, and as he knew himself) died as well. He was consumed by the Mother persona, living fully in a fantasy world of his own creation, with a taxidermy Norma by his side. When Dylan (Max Theriot) killed Norman — and let’s be honest, that was the only satisfactory conclusion — it was a release. He wanted to be with Mother. He wasn’t meant to stay here anymore.
“The Cord” played with a few possible endings before settling on what is I think, inarguably, the best one. Romero (Nestor Carbonell) had found Norman and said he would kill him after Norma’s body was revealed, but of course he fell prey to the TV trope of not checking to make sure the psycho killer is dead before turning one’s back and let your guard down. In prior episodes, we saw Norman actually go to jail and be on his way, most likely, to a life in a state-run mental institution. It wasn’t a particularly satisfying thought, and it also would have meant the story was far from over. But one of the biggest questions Bates Motel raised when it began was “What will become of Dylan?” Would, over the course of the seasons, Norman kill his brother? Lord knows he tried, and nearly succeeded a number of times.
But because Bates introduced Dylan as a main character, the show also had to keep him relevant until the end (which wasn’t always a successful endeavor, especially in some of those middle season episodes). What sealed his fate as Norman’s killer, though, was his relationship with Emma (Olivia Cooke), and Norman’s murder of Emma’s mother. Emma had made it clear to Dylan that she didn’t think they could proceed in a relationship as long as he was still protecting Norman. And yet, who could blame him at first? It’s his brother, and his only living family left. There was some really difficult truth to Dylan wanting to help Norman while getting pulled back towards the family he made for himself, which was all goodness and light versus the Bates darkness. Yes it was Norman who was corded still to his mother, but it was Dylan who had to cut the cord — from himself to Norman, and everything related to what happened before. That moment for him only really became clear when he saw the corpse of Norma at the table, which was one of the most ghoulish things I may have ever seen on TV.
“The Cord” wasn’t perfect, and even if you buy into the rest of Bates Motel, it was a little distracting that the police weren’t sitting surveillance on the house and the motel 24/7. On the other hand, it played into “The Cord’s” examination of different endings. We had already seen the police haul Norman off, so it tried something else, something where the motel is populated by tired families on a road trip, and Norman is a nice, normal innkeeper who invites his brother over for a lavish dinner. Or a version where he wakes up in bed with Norma and it’s all been a dream. Bates Motel gave us a glimpses of a number of a different outcomes both in the real world and in its fantasy realm, and in a way, that spoke to the themes of the show as a whole. Bates played with a variety of changes and outcomes regarding the Psycho source material (adding characters, gender swapping them, remaking iconic scenes in new ways), so it made sense to follow that same kind of structure for its series finale.
But whatever quibbles one might have had with the show over the years, Bates Motel wrapped up its final two seasons as one of TV’s most overlooked gems, not only because of its location on the dial (A&E rather than, say, AMC or FX) but also perhaps because of its horror flare, which rarely gets much attention. It consistently provided not only great entertainment and character-driven storytelling, but also two of the best and most striking performances on TV. No, not every season was great and not every storyline essential, but how many shows that go for 5 seasons can say otherwise? The strange, twisted relationship between Norma and her son Norman was infused with new life and complexity (and thankfully omitted the necrophilia from the book), and left us all with a unique and haunting show that may be the standard bearer for Pacific Northwestern Gothic. Isn’t that nice, Mother?