Bates Motel is a new show on A&E, telling the story of a mother and son trying to start a new life in a new town. The father of the family has just died in an unfortunate accident and the mother decides it’s best to try to get a fresh start in a new setting where they can be free from the memories that may haunt their former home. Though her son is resistant at first, he does try to get involved in his mother’s new endeavor of running a motel and getting themselves back on their feet after their loss.
Oh yeah, the name of this boy is Norman Bates. You know, of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and this is the story of how he and his mother became the notorious icons of derangement in that classic horror movie.
There have been six episodes so far and I’ve gotten kinda hooked. Freddie Highmore plays Norman and I kind of can’t handle it. First off, when did he grow up? I swear he was August Rush just like, three or four years ago max. IMDb disagrees. Second, I’m really reluctant to see that quirky, idealistic little boy who lead The Spiderwick Chronicles and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory become a mentally unstable killer. My inability to handle the passage of time aside, he does a very good job with the role. Norman wants to be normal but he can’t understand his motivations and impulses and Freddie does a good job portraying the stress of the character while still making him likable as well as unnerving and pitiable.
Vera Farmiga plays Norma, Norman’s mother, and just in case the names didn’t tip you off, let me tell you, they have an unusually close relationship. Like, the kind of relationship Sigmund Freud would go absolutely gaga for. At the start, her character seemed to just be controlling and selfish but in the most recent episode something was revealed which made her a bit more sympathetic, which I was glad to see. I won’t say what because it was kind of supposed to be a twist, but suffice it to say her motivations go beyond her own interests.
The show has been pretty interesting thus far and had some really suspenseful and tense moments, but I think its greatest strength is the sense of unease it builds. This is achieved primarily through the relationship between Norma and Norman, which hasn’t gone full Oedipus (yet), but has those hints. Even if it never goes to that level (and I wouldn’t really say that I want it to, exactly) it has made a disturbingly codependent relationship already and this leads into the other most uneasy aspect of the show: Norman’s psyche. Not much has been explained about it yet and I kind of hope it remains that way.
I’m not someone who thinks that explaining why a killer becomes a killer is necessary or even beneficial to a story. Honestly, I think doing so kills the intrigue. I find villains much more frightening when either we don’t know why they do the things they do, or if there simply isn’t a why. Someone who can do horrifying things without justification or cause is much more unnerving to me than someone who was bullied or had some other stereotypical “bad childhood” which led to their becoming violent.
I also love that, similar to Norma not being as awful as she first seemed, none of the main characters are as good as they seem either. It looks like no one in this show escapes without at least a little stain on their conscience and it’s interesting to see these multifaceted characters come together. It’s a bit different since TV shows are usually so afraid of making their characters “unlikable” that they avoid these kinds of situations with characters doing distasteful if not downright wrong things.
My favorite example of this is Dylan, Norman’s half-brother. He’s introduced as gruff and ungrateful to Norma, but eventually we see his concern for his younger brother come to the forefront. While he is probably the most well-adjusted and supportive person in the family (not exactly saying much, since this is the Bates family), he is also someone most of us would expect to be the bad guy of a story since he works for a drug ring. This story is really about Norma and Norman, so I don’t know that Dylan will be a main player in the long run but I hope he sticks around.
It’s this muddying of the distinction between good and bad that makes these characters so interesting and keeps me tuned in to the show. If you’re interested, there are some fun ways to get involved with the show, including blogs for Norman and his friend Emma which are definitely worth a look. Also, on iTunes you can download a digital copy of a sketchbook that plays a big part in the show; just search “Bates Motel” in the books section—and if you haven’t yet, check out the show on A&E’s website.