If you’ve been keeping up with Bates Motel, the fact that I chose two TV Performers back to back from the show shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though it wobbled a little bit in early seasons, Bates Motel (in this, its penultimate season) has an incredibly strong sense of itself and the story it wants to tell, with “Forever” in particular proving why this is one of the most underrated series on television.
As I mentioned last week, my default praise for Bates Motel, and TV acting in general, usually goes directly to Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates. Her portrayal has always been central to the show’s charm and magnetism, grounding Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) shifting personalities and crimes and creep factor. It’s worth noting, of course, that Norman’s split personality is based on Norma, showing what a strong influence she is, even though she is (as Norman accurately describes her) as “fragile as a little bird on the inside.”
In “Forever,” Norman details to his therapist about his relationship with Norma in an insightful way, explaining how he feels responsible for her. Norma also describes their connection to Romero (Nestor Carbonell), in a way that alluded to the back and forth of their dependency on one another. Sometimes Norma is the rock, and sometimes Norman is. They are both strong yet fragile. They mirror each other, and also act as a balance.
In “Unfaithful,” Highmore stood out as having his emotions run the gamut throughout the episode, and in “Forever,” Farmiga did the same. Norma was strong in her resolve to protect Norman against accusations from Romero and Dylan (Max Thieriot), moving from panic and denial to icy calm. But later, she broke down twice — once at the dinner table, hardly able to hold herself up under the crushing weight of sadness that her relationship with Romero might be over, and again when she was in the bed, Farmiga just letting her head drop down in front of her, doubling over with emotional fatigue.
Both were such universal moments of depression, and yet, Norma bounced back later in the episode when Norman put her to bed and sang her to sleep. He brought up her old dream of moving to Oahu, and she was in that moment both happy and childlike. “Do you really mean it?” she asks him, as if Norman was the parent. He assures her, and even jokes about how they are “charming people,” which makes her laugh. There was a moment that even felt briefly like seduction. Farmiga went through ever shade of Norma and her personality that has made her so dynamic in the role, and if it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.
What happened next, in extremely tense and visually sumptuous fashion (with the perfect soundtrack of “Mr. Sandman” playing as Norman shut the grates in the house), may be the end of Norma. TV has brought plenty of high-profile characters back from the dead, or the brink of death recently, so the stakes are uncertain. But thinking of Bates Motel without Norma is inconceivable. And yet, we know the story is wrapping up, and that Norma has to die. If that was Norma’s true end, it was incredibly tragic in every way, not only for her but for Romero, Norman (who didn’t mean to survive), and everyone else.
But Norma also had goodbyes that led up to that that felt honest — she always chooses Norman. She and Dylan don’t part amicably, but then again, only a very small part of their relationship was ever good. She pushes Romero away before he can leave her (which isn’t his intention), because of his concerns. Both things are about Norman, and her choice very likely led to her death.
And yet, Norma’s final moments were happy. Norman made sure of it, and orchestrated it thusly. When he opened Emma’s mother’s suitcase and put on Norma’s robe, he knew. He knew what everyone was saying was true, he knew that another person was dead. Whether he blamed himself or Norma still, he knew it was the end for them.
Even if it’s not the end, it felt like one. Vera Farmiga’s legacy in her Bates Motel role, has been a game-changer, and one that has helped define the series and make it something truly special. Her portrayal has been layered, complicated, frustrating, empathetic, warm, and occasionally bitterly cold. It’s been incredible to watch.
Bates Motel’s Season 4 finale airs Monday, May 16th on A&E. You can read about previous TV Performers of the Week here.