In its fourth season, A&E’s Bates Motel has reached cruising altitude, where there is occasionally some turbulence (mostly with its side-stories about the ever-increasing metro area of White Pine Bay), but for the most part, entrenched fans should be happy with where it’s going. I’ve mentioned in the past that one of Bates Motel’s greatest successes is how it’s guided by its Psycho roots, but it’s not beholden to that story. Yet increasingly (though slowly), the show has angled itself towards that inevitable fate. Mainly, in Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) descent in to true madness.
While Vera Farmiga’s Norma continues to be the shining star of the series, Norman’s increasingly erratic behavior is starting to steal the show. Though his bursts of violence and fixation on the wrong parts of the murders that are committed (believing Norma to be responsible) are certainly creepy, nothing resonates as much as his uncanny valley portrayal of his mother. There are layers of things happening here, as Highmore is portraying Norman portraying Farmiga’s take on Norma. It’s gloriously twisted, especially when he nails her exact motions and physical habits, like shoving her hands into her pockets as a sign of defensiveness, and scoffing as she lowers her head and thinks of her next move.
The show has also has plausibly given a reason why Norman hasn’t been locked up. Up until now, Norma has been in denial, but she can’t be any longer. Now, Norman is 18, and won’t sign the consent forms to be voluntarily committed, which creates a new predicament — as soon as Norma acknowledges there’s a problem, there’s nothing she can do about it. And in a topical turn, Norma laments how she can’t afford to send Norman to a plush facility (rather than the 1950s B-movie horror of the state-run facility) because she doesn’t have any health insurance.
Norma and Norman’s relationship remains at the core of Bates Motel, and the show has had varying success in building up other subplots around them. It’s often had trouble finding things for Dylan (Max Thieriot) to do, but establishing a connection between him and Emma (Olivia Cooke) has given them both an emotional storyline with her lung transplant and beyond. That’s especially helpful since Emma’s long-lost mother returns in the season’s first two episodes, and is a potential catalyst for some major confrontations among the core cast.
In fact, those first two episodes (the only ones available for review) play out like a movie, building to a haunting final act that resolves in an uncertain place for Norman, and where the show might go next. But if it pivots into more of a psychological exploration of Norman and tendencies to want to become Norma (and commit murders as her), that could certainly be intriguing, especially as a stop-gap. (Speaking of, the incestuous tendencies have been played down more than Season 3, but they’re still lurking). We can’t have Norman going full Psycho yet, especially since A&E has already renewed Bates through another season after this. But bodies are already piling up, and Norman’s belief that the real Norma is responsible is a scary twist (especially for Norma, who now bares the brunt of his rage, confusion, and suspicion).
Bates Motel, more than anything, remains moody and atmospheric, and walks the line between the interplay of delusion and reality very well (especially for a show that’s been doing it for this long). Farmiga is as beguiling as ever, too, as she cycles through Norma’s modes of getting what she wants: lying, seduction, pleading, force. The Norma-Norman duo also continues to pull those around them into their web of secrets, with Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) getting the brunt of it, and starring in his own coverup to kick off the new season.
In the best way possible, Bates Motel is how it’s always been. It’s strange and off-kilter, it plays with truth and hints at extremely dark acts without usually showing the violence all the way through. Like Norman, we only get glimpses, and we aren’t always sure the difference between fantasy and reality. Bates Motel is in many ways its own fantasy world, curated by Norma and Norman, yet it’s often best when it grounds itself in emotional truths, like Norman’s escape to Portland last year. In fact, though Norman’s decent is the one we’re most anticipating and fearing, it’s Norma who is the one to watch, because she now has to come to grips with some damning truths about her son, their relationship, and what that means for her. And for viewers, it means more weirdness, mystery, and everything we’ve come to expect from Bates before.
Rating: ★★★★ Very Good — As ever
Bates Motel Season 4 premieres Monday, March 7th on A&E.