Oh, “Bates Motel.”
You came so close to me being really excited with how strongly you concluded your first season on Monday (May 20) night.
Yes, I’ve had reservations about “Bates Motel” from the very beginning.
After four episodes, I was convinced I didn’t like the show very much at all. I was fatigued by the human trafficking and the vast pot farms and the not-quite-“Twin Peaks” “This Is A Town With SECRETS” clumsiness and the “If this isn’t leading up to ‘Psycho’ why are you ripping off ‘Psycho’?” iconoclasm.
But as the weeks progressed, I found myself more easily able to concentrate on the elements that were working effectively and either the show started de-emphasizing the things I wasn’t liking, or maybe I just started de-emphasizing them in my mind.
The finale, titled “Midnight,” was full of things to recommend it, so I was feeling generous.
And then, “Bates Motel” built what I was completely certain was going to be the season’s last shot. I smiled and typed, “Excellent,” as things faded to black.
And then the show had to go and spoil my happiness by tacking on a stupid bonus that left me concentrating on how frequently the storytellers have struggled to get out of their own way this season, gilding the lily of a great character study with superfluous details and filler plotlines.
More thoughts on the “Bates Motel” finale after the break. Spoilers, obviously.
I really loved that penultimate shot.
Norma has returned to the Bates Motel after watching Sheriff Romero take out Jere Burns, or whatever Jere Burns’ character wanted to be called. Forget all of that stuff about scary human traffickers and threats and demands of money and the various bodies that have piled up over the season. All of her problems are solved! O frabjous day! Calooh! Callay! As she drives up, she nearly runs over Norman, who recounts a story of awkwardness at the Winter Formal. Though she senses that probably something worse happened, she hugs him and says, “Everything is good, Norman. Finally. Everything is good.” The two of them head up to the house overlooking the motel and happy, pastoral music plays. It’s a new day at the Bates Motel, even if we know that just minutes earlier, Norman was watching emotionally vulnerable Miss Watson getting changed in her bedroom and Not-Norma was telling him that she was trying to seduce him and that he knew what he had to do and Norman got that scary look in his eye. That didn’t matter. Because “Everything is good, Norman. Finally. Everything is good.”
We pull back and we fade to black.
Great last scene. Perfect last shot. Right?
Nope! Fade back up. Puddles of blood in Miss Watson’s bedroom. Miss Watson is dead! Her throat is cut! The camera lingers on her wound and her bosom.
The last shot fails for one of three reasons, neither one complimentary to the show and its process.
1) It destroys narrative ambiguity. Look, there wasn’t any ambiguity. He’s Norman Freaking Bates. You knew what he did to poor Miss Watson. But let’s say you didn’t. Some people have never seen “Psycho” and legitimately don’t know this character. Those people might think that Norma was lying to Dylan earlier in the season when she told the truth about how Norman’s dad died. Those people might think that Norman’s occasional fugue states were just endearing shyness, rather than a sign of building dementia and that his delusional visions of his mom were just Jiminy Cricket-style bouts of conscience, more positive than negative. And if you’re silly enough to have believed those things, you might also have thought that when Fantasy Norma told Norman, “You know what you have to do,” that that was her way of telling him to flee temptation and leave Miss Watson’s house, ex post haste. Even if you’re so innocent to have believed those things, you had to have at least some question, right? So why, in a season finale, would the producers want to destroy that ambiguity? Why not leave the question open for viewers for whom the question was open? Isn’t a more tantalizing finale question, “Did he do what we think he might have done?” rather than “Oh. Look. Her throat is slit. Norman isn’t a good boy.”? Or are there still really, really, really dumb viewers who are going to think somebody else killed Miss Watson after Norman’s conscience got the best of him and he left? Are there people who think that ending opens up a new “Who Killed Miss Watson?” season-long “Bates Motel” mystery? Oy.
2) It destroys emotional ambiguity. The episode’s penultimate shot was lovely. The combination of the dialogue — Norma telling Norman that everything was good, Norman suggesting they get in out of the cold and Norma suggesting a fire — and the corny, old-fashioned music were meant to set a tone of profound unease. It was reassuring and domestic and at odds with everything else in the episode and at odds with the flickering neon sign for the motel. It screamed, “Everything is good” when nobody in their right mind was believing it was good. Why would you toss aside a conflicted, challenging emotional note just for a by-the-numbers exploitative shot of a scantily clad woman in a pool of her own blood? Why not trust viewers to marinate in their sense of unease?
3) It insults the audience’s intelligence. Norman killed Miss Watson. I knew it. You knew it. That’s kinda what Norman Bates does. If you’re putting together the finale, you can either be confident that viewers who understand the show know what happened and, going back to No. 2, you can end the season on a much more complex note, knowing that our response to the happiness in that last scene is governed completely by what we’re certain we know about happened to Miss Watson. Or you can show it, in all of its garish detail, underlining the entire event and screaming, “JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T GET IT.”
[See “Update” below for Possibility No. 4, which I failed to consider, exposing the plight of writing about the finale of a show in which you’re only 2/3rds mentally engaged.]
And, like I said, I enjoyed so much of the finale.
I continue to adore Vera Farmiga’s performance, that bounces back and forth between psychological realism and amused, “I’m playing Norman Bates’ mother!” campiness. I’m pretty sure it’s intentional, so watching Farmiga often leaves me feeling worn out and harried and, just as often, it leaves me giggling. It’s a performance can can include comical moments like her fumbling with her nearly acquired gun when her son shrieks about his failure to find black socks, but then it’s also a performance that allows her to recount the horrifying tale of her childhood sexual victimization at the hands of her brother in a way that’s dispassionate and chilling and real. I’m not sure if Farmiga would go in my Emmy Top 5 list for Best Actress in a Drama, but she’d definitely make my Top 10 for the category.
The scenes between Norman and Norma have been exactly as creepy as one might have hoped for, occasionally just the normal awkwardness between a mother and her teenage son, but much more often the Oedipal nightmare that leads our story somewhere in the vicinity of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” There have been a slew of terrific Norman/Norma scenes, with my favorites being Norma’s discover that Norman had sex with Bradley, as well as tonight’s pre-dance conversation.
These moments work because Farmiga is great and because, when I’m able to ignore his accent problems, Freddie Highmore is also really good. I think he may have shifted Norman a bit too far in the “irredeemably freaky” direction too fast. I know that “Bates Motel” creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin like to pretend “Psycho” doesn’t exist except for when they can capitalize on it, but part of why Anthony Perkins works so well when we first meet Norman is that he’s completely endearing. He’s a shy boy, but we like him and we understand why Marion Crane is willing to eat with him. She just figures he’s lonely. We see moments like that from Highmore’s Norman, but I think I want more. It makes Norman more interesting.
And you know what else makes Norman more interesting? Emma. All hail Olivia Cooke’s eerily large and expressive eyes, which convey joy and hurt so effortlessly that she almost doesn’t need to do anything else. I didn’t like the Harriet the Spy version of Emma who we met at the beginning of the season. I didn’t buy her for a second. But the Emma who has started working at Bates Motel in recent weeks and almost found a mother figure in Norma? I love that Emma. I loved giddily high Emma last week when she ate the pot-laced baked goods. I loved Emma staring at the Winter Formal sign as this episode began, seemingly determined not to move until Norman came and took pity on her. And my heart broke a bit for Emma as she saw that Norman couldn’t stop staring at Bradley, who’s just an awful, awful person. Highmore and Farmiga have characters who are larger-than-life either because of previous interpretation or because of our curiosity. Cooke, who I’d never seen before this show, has made the most of a character that even the writers haven’t figured out yet. The writers seem not to have realized that Cooke is beautiful, but Cooke is able to retreat inside herself in a way that at least makes you believe that Emma believes she’s a wallflower.
Several of the other performances are winners. I’m really going to miss Keegan Connor Tracy as Miss Watson, whose relationship with Norman was nurturing with just a [large] hint of ickiness, exactly like his relationship with his mother, exactly the kind of relationship that would threaten the Norma-in-his-Head. I’m also going to miss Jere Burns, who has reached that unlikely point in his career where he absolutely makes any show better just by appearing on-screen. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a hero or heroine on TV who couldn’t benefit by being menaced by Jere Burns’ Eyebrows. And I also appreciate the shading Nestor Carbonell has given his character in the past couple episodes and I guess it’s good he’ll stick around.
I’m not going to miss Mike Vogel, even if this was the most interesting he’s ever been. The human trafficking subplot was pure exploitation with no substance, just an excuse to get drama from sexualized women in peril. If “Bates Motel” wasn’t going to find substance in that storyline, then it was just filler and if you think about the ethics of doing a human trafficking storyline of that sort as filler? Ick.
I could stand to lose Max Thieriot. When he’s with Norman and Norma, I like him. But what I like is that he’s the sensible person who sees how messed up his brother and mother are. However, when we’re reminded that he’s a petty hoodlum and that his job is guarding vast tracts of weed? Meh. No real interest. The professional side of Dylan’s character is lame and undermines the rest of the character.
And as for Nicola Peltz as Bradley? I hate Bradley, but I think you’re supposed to, so Peltz is probably OK. There are still lingering mysteries about her father, right? Yeah. I don’t care about them at all. So Bradley ties in with the pot fields and none of that is worth the trouble.
[UPDATE – Several people in comments have noted that the last shot was meant to reveal not merely that Miss Watson was dead, but that she was “B,” the person who had been sending Bradley’s dad love notes. There was apparently a necklace, in addition to the cut throat. That sets up the really annoying possibility that there actually *is* going to be a “Who Killed Miss Watson?” mystery this season. If that’s the case, I really will be done with “Bates Motel” and immediately, because… I don’t care. My failure to notice the “B” necklace reflects poorly on me as a viewer, but at least somewhat poorly on the show for deciding to end the season a reveal of a badly developed mystery. But I’ll take the burden on myself. I didn’t care, so I didn’t notice. But seriously, why would you displace the conclusion of the finale from the story’s core — Norman and Norma — to a mystery involving a tangential character and a dead character? No, I may have missed the point of that last shot, but I don’t like it any more for having it “explained” to me. I maybe even like it less.]
A few other quick thoughts from the finale/season before I leave it to y’all to chatter:
*** Norman’s stuffed dog should be in every episode now. I’d also love to get more of Ian Hart as Emma’s father. He’s only been in a couple episodes, but his scenes with Norman have been among my favorites. In fact, we needed one more scene tonight with Emme and her dad, just so we knew she got home alright after the dance.
*** I loved the beats of the couch confessional with Norman and Norma, how it started off as just regular pre-date tension and then she made the big confession and started it with admitting she came from Akron, which disarmed us. And then she unloaded with the incest/rape story, which made it hit home even harder.
*** My notes contain the phrase “Poor Emma!” at least six times between when she walks into the living room and Norman is too worked up to even look at her and when she ditches him at the dance.
*** Jere Burns’ eyebrows versus Nestor Carbonell’s guyliner in a dockside showdown? That’s too much ocular awesomeness.
*** Remember that funny time Norma was working on the Bates Motel website? Good times…
What’d you think of the finale? And what’d you think of the season as a whole?