Bates Motel is an odd bird. It’s a prequel series to a movie that managed to both honor the atmosphere of that movie and create its own world, which is pretty astonishing. However, elongating the series into five seasons didn’t serve its best interests. Now that it’s coming into its final episodes, though, (with the focus returning to just Norma and Norman), it’s gotten to be consistently very, very good. And yet, though it is one of the only remaining scripted series on A&E after the original content boom came and went with the network, Bates Motel has rarely been mentioned in the canon of great TV over the last few years. It’s not a perfect show (with many a meandering and ultimately meaningless subplot), but it’s one that has always featured an exceptional cast and a very well-honed sense of atmosphere and mystery. And in this final season, it is bringing all of the characters it introduced us to over the years into Norman’s vortex.
But the first thing that has to be addressed, of course, is Norma (Vera Farmiga). Even though we knew her death was coming, since Bates Motel was always meant to finish with the events of Psycho, it was still a huge blow to lose Norma at the end of Season 4 even though we also knew that she would live on in Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) mind. Thankfully, Season 5 Head-Norma is more developed and less outrageous than Head-Norma of the past. She feels more like the real Norma, except in those moments where she cooly talks about disposing of a body, or fixates on Norman’s whereabouts in relation to a crush he has. Head-Norma has always been an exaggeration of the real thing, but it makes sense that now that real Norma is dead, Head-Norma has become more nuanced — she now has to completely take the role of the real person rather than just as an apparition Norman inhabits during his blackouts.
The show has also wisely leaned-in to the humor of Head-Norma’s existence — she learns French and listens to Edith Piaf, she smokes just to irritate Norman, and she complains constantly about how she faked her death and is having to stay in the house all of the time taking care of her (as she puts it) “mentally ill boy.” Bates Motel needs that interaction between Norma and Norman; it’s essential, and has always been the core of the show. Though it’s been great following the stories of Dylan (Max Thieriot) and Emma (Olivia Cooke) — who we catch up with in the first episode, the details of which I will not spoil — Bates Motel is Norma and Norman. Every time the show gets away from them, it’s never quite as good.
Throughout the show’s run, it has often played with perception and reality, leaving doubts from the very beginning about whether Norman (or Norma) had committed certain murders, and if so, how much the other one knew about it. But in the fifth season, the jig is up, and it’s laid out clearly (mostly visually, which is one thing this series has always done very, very well: showing rather than telling). Now that Norma is dead, Norman’s transformation is becoming more complete, and we see things as he does versus how they really are. This juxtaposition of this plus the reveal of Norma’s corpse makes this season of Bates Motel more of a straight horror series than any before it, and since Norman is still primarily triggered by sex and sexuality, and his conversations with Head-Norman are almost entirely focused on sexual jealously, anyone who becomes a talking point between the two of them could end up a victim. It not only instills a constant state of dread, but one of anticipation — who will Norman choose to kill, and what will be the consequences of that?
Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is the first person we see who is actively seeking vengeance against Norman for killing Norma, although since he’s incarcerated for perjury he’s mostly kept at bay for now. But as more and more people begin to uncover Norman’s secret, they realize what Norma did far too late — that Norman has snapped, and is so deranged that he has turned into a serial killer. And yet, like any good horror story, the first few to make that connection also end up on the wrong side of Norman’s wrath (often in particularly creative ways).
It is a luxury for a TV series to be able to complete its full story arc on its own terms, and Bates Motel has used this opportunity since Season 4 to really hone in on what has always made the show great. It’s moody, emotional, tense, and occasionally absolutely horrifying. Like Norman, it is not to be underestimated. And for fans who have wandered from White Pine Bay but are interested in booking another stay, watch the last few episodes of Season 4 first. This final arc should really be something to see.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Isn’t that right, Mother?
Bates Motel returns Monday, February 20th on A&E