Interview: Showrunner Kerry Ehrin teases ‘Bates Motel’ Season 3

A&E's “Bates Motel” begins what should be a pivotal third season on Monday (March 9) night.

Series creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin have always approached the “Psycho” prequel as a finite piece of storytelling and Ehrin tells me that the plan is still for “Bates Motel” to be a five-season arc. 

Presumably — but not necessarily, since Ehrin and Cuse retain a cone of spoiler silence — that's a five-season arc from Norma and Norman Bates' arrival in White Pine Bay through  to the events that are implied took place before Marion Crane hit the road with $40,000 of somebody else's money and sought refuge from the rain in Bates Motel.

“Bates Motel” started off in a dark place, ended the first season with a murder and the second season only added torque to the twisty dynamic between Norman and Norma. In Season 2, we had unearthed secrets of incest, an all-out drug war and increased realizations from both Norman and Norma that Norman goes a little mad sometimes and bad things happen.

So where does that leave us in Season 3?

Don't expect too many future-centric details from Ehrin, but when I chatted with the “Moonlighting” and “Friday Night Lights” veteran, she was more than happy to talk about where we left things in Season 2 and how the dynamics have changed as we look forward. We chatted a lot about Norma's split desire to protect her son and maybe also to protect herself given what she now knows about Norman. We discussed Norman's rather eerie success with the ladies. And we talked about Dylan's importance to the storytelling and how actual marijuana laws in the state of Oregon have impacted “Bates Motel” storytelling.

The interview should whet your appetite for Monday's premiere without spoiling anything. 

So check out the full Q&A and also check out my gallery of snapshots from the Vancouver set of “Bates Motel” at the bottom of the story…

HitFix: Looking back at where the second season ended up with the interrogation and the polygraph and all that, when you guys were sort of charting the arc of the series, what was sort of important about the point that you got Norman to in the finale of Season 2?

Kerry Ehrin: The important thing about it was it was the first time that Norman looked it in the face, this issue that he has. And he'd always felt that he was different; he'd always felt different from other people. And it was important to get him to a point where he could look at it and we could see how he dealt with it, because one of the challenges of the show is keeping Norman relatable. And I think that was an important thing to go through with him as a viewer.

HitFix: How do you think it changes what Norma knows? Because obviously she knew certain things — what happened with Norman's father, et cetera —  but what do you feel like she knows now that she didn't know before?

Kerry Ehrin: Norma knows deep, deep down that there is something not right with her son. And I think last year allowed her to, not allowed her it forced her, to have to look at that. And then because the polygraph came in okay, she could put it back into the denial vault and try to operate from where she had been operating before, but cumulatively the things that have happened with Norman are starting to be so much that it's starting to seep out of the vault.

HitFix: When you see that she knew “deep down,” why was it only “deep down,” what she knew? How much was she responsible for pushing it down and how, I wonder?

Kerry Ehrin: Yeah. I think it's sort of similar to someone who would stay in a relationship with a person who had a drug problem. When you love someone and you are so codependently tied to them for your own emotional security and survival, you forgive a lot; you look the other way; you keep telling yourself things will be different because you really, really need to believe that, because it's too terrifying to face separating from them. And this is very much the story of an uber-codependent relationship and that's why it's very hard for her to face these things. Norman is the only person who has ever been there with her in her life, ever; who has ever not abandoned her; not betrayed her; not left her; who loves her unconditionally. And those things are hard to give up when you come from a background that she had and you have that deep, deep-rooted fear inside of you.

HitFix: Presumably she remains still driven by her love but how much is fear starting to drive her do you think?

Kerry Ehrin: Fear is starting to bubble up. She has more of an ability to face things this season. She's becoming actually stronger from having been through so much, from having had to interact with these people, from having had to survive through things that were terrifying and it's made her actually emotionally stronger, although she doesn't know that. And it's allowing her a little more of an ability to see things.

HitFix: Do you think she's afraid of Norman? Do you think she's afraid of what Norman might do?

Kerry Ehrin: I think she is primarily a mother and I think she is mostly afraid of what will happen to Norman. I think she mostly has that like deep, deep maternal instinct that you would jump in front of a truck to save your kid. But I think that is starting to become clouded with being afraid of what he is capable of doing, even though she does not want to believe it. She does not want to think it's possible, but it's present and she can't shove it away. And then lastly I think fear for herself, because she's a mother and it takes a lot to transform you being afraid of your kid.

HitFix: How much of an individual self-protection instinct do you think that Norma has or do you think at this point it's entirely been sublimated into protecting her son?

Kerry Ehrin: I think she's human and she has a survival instinct for herself. I think her concern about Norman has surpassed it but they've never come to a head, which is interesting. It's not as if survival for Norman has directly affected survival for her own life and that's an evolving situation. That's why this relationship is so fascinating.

HitFix: This is obviously a situation where, because of “Psycho,” we have a pretty clear sense of how some of that goes. So presumably that head-to-head aspect has to become important soon. Is that sort of one of the stories of the third season or is it something that's going to come later?

Kerry Ehrin: I would say it's more of an undercurrent. The storytelling we do is pretty nuanced and it's definitely present. This season, that split happening in her.

HitFix: Last season there was almost a period of normalizing for Norma. She got involved in local politics; she tried out for a musical, et cetera. Was that fun to play around with and can she do that again do you think or is she passed being able to do that?

Kerry Ehrin: It was incredibly fun to play around with, because it was really nice to be able to let her have some successes and some victories and to see how that worked for her. And it was also fun just from a storytelling aspect, because she's such an amazing character, to let her blow that stuff up because she just is who she is and she has a bit of a self-destructive bent. And it was fun. It was fun to see, “Okay she's going to get what she wants and then she's going to blow it up herself.” And I think she can't go back there because I think it's like anyone who has a dream of what they want and they sort of get it and then they realize, “Well this wasn't really the dream at all; the dream was kind of an illusion.” I don't think she can go back. I think she's grown from it though to a more interesting place and perhaps will be more open to something real happening that is good for her.

HitFix: When you're in the writer's room and you guys toss around ideas like “Norma Bates is going to now try out for a musical,” is there a sort of laughter and giggling process as you guys are throwing out ideas from what that would be like?

Kerry Ehrin: Yeah. I mean it's actually, it's pretty joyful. It's pretty great, I mean in part because of the actors inhabiting the roles. Vera Farmiga, there's no one more fun to write for. And Freddie, it's like they're just amazing. They can do whatever you throw at them. So yes there's a great joy in going outside of the box and taking left turns and making them funny when they should be scary and making them scary when they should be funny. It's incredibly fun.

HitFix: Does anything ever get tossed out where people just have to dismiss it as being too goofy that this would be something that we would have Norman Bates doing?

Kerry Ehrin: Well, in a writer's room, I don't even know how to describe this. Yes you toss out everything, you say anything. You say whatever you think would be good and then stuff is absurd, but there can be a germ of an idea in it that is right and has to be kind of tonally massaged. So we have a lot of fun in the writer's room. We actually do laugh quite a lot in the writer's room.

HitFix: Now, for a young man who's awfully scary and, as we know, pretty messed up, Norman Bates has done very well with the ladies in the first two seasons of the show. Why is he so irresistible do you think? And do you guys in the writer's room again fully buy the Norman Bates Sex Machine thing?

Kerry Ehrin: Well, to me it's never been a sex machine thing. I feel like damaged people can sort of psychically feel it in each other. And I feel like women who are troubled or broken or lost are drawn to him because there's something broken in him as well. And I feel that he's also incredibly sweet and compassionate in a way that most guys are not open to being. So I feel like it's less about, “Hey I want to jump Norman Bates; get him in bed.” I think it's more about a connection that they feel with him and ironically a safety, an emotional safety, that they feel with him and that's why they open up. And also he has such an incredibly sweet demeanor. He does not seem like a person who could be a predator. And I think when you're a woman you're wary of predators.

HitFix: Knowing at least to some degree that Norman and Norma have eventually predetermined arcs, has that caused you guys to become particularly attached to writing Dylan and to writing the evolution of that character because he's, I guess, an unknown?

Kerry Ehrin: Well, to some extent yes, although we have always felt that even if we're using certain tentpoles of the mythology that the storytelling we always wanted it to have left turns and for people to not know what was coming and to surprise people, that it would not be expected in any way. And that actually has been a really joyful part of working on this show. Dylan, we love Dylan because he is savable. Dylan has always served the function in the show of being the eyes and the voice of every man. He's not one of these incredibly bent people in this uber-codependent relationship that can't escape from it. He's so relatable because he's just this kid that has never had a real family and has had such a longing for it and basically has such good character. You really want Dylan to make it. You really want him to survive and that is a really wonderful thing in a show like this.

HitFix: It's spoiling absolutely nothing to say that in the first five or ten minutes of the premier you do have Dylan very clearly telling his mother how creepy things are with her and with Norman. How much fun was it to write that moment and how did you resist having it be like a 20-minute monologue about creepiness?

Kerry Ehrin: [She laughs.] I can't say “we” don't perceive it as creepy because I don't know, maybe some of the other writers do, but Carlton and I don't perceive it as creepy. We are so hooked into the psychology of Norma and Norman and why they do the things they do and that it comes from this place that isn't sexual, that to us isn't creepy, but to someone who's outside of it, like Dylan, yeah it's a little weird. But he has their best interest at heart and he had to tell her that and he probably knew he was going to get some blowback because he knows his mom pretty well at this point. But he's trying. He's trying to do the right thing and in many ways Dylan has become the de facto father of Norman and Norma this season, which is kind of an interesting dynamic in itself.

HitFix: And which is pretty messed up again.

Kerry Ehrin: It's always hard to make everything not a 20-minute scene, because they're fun to write.

HitFix: How strange is it that you seem to have found your B-stories impacted by evolving marijuana laws in the state of Oregon?

Kerry Ehrin: It's extremely funny. It's timely. And the whole pot universe is very different in White Pine Bay this year because so much has exploded at the end of last season. So there's a huge, huge change in the first episode that it affects the choice Dylan makes and how he tries to handle that in a way that's very Dylan-esque.

HitFix: Well, was there debate as to whether or not you guys were going to actually pay attention to Measure 91 and what it means in a legal sense in the state?

Kerry Ehrin: Not tremendously because the instincts about the storyline and where we wanted it to go didn't really weigh into that too much. But it is incredibly interesting that it happened right while we were writing this. I mean it is funny.

HitFix: I had to go and actually look things up while I was watching the premiere because I'm like “I knew something had changed,” but I had to go and actually research for a couple minutes to figure out how it would impact these people.

Kerry Ehrin: I know. And it's all changing very rapidly right now too, which is funny.

HitFix: The premier has one of the several fairly clear “Psycho” homages that you guys have done and they've been parsed out I would say very deliberately and wide-spaced. When do you guys decide that you want to do something direct or relatively direct as a nod to the source material?

Kerry Ehrin: You know, it's funny because there's certain iconic moments in “Psycho” that you definitely think about, “Well how can we work that in?” But it never works if you're leading with that. If you're breaking the story to get to that it just never works. It always feels forced. So we always just break the stories from the character and from what's happening to them from where we want their arc to go to.  And then if we have an opportunity to wrap in something into that that's organic and that is earned that's when it really works great. So, you know, we're careful about it, because it would take you out of the reality of the series.

HitFix: But does it feel like the kind of thing where as we get hypothetically closer to a certain point, those are going to become more frequent? Or not?

Kerry Ehrin: You know honestly I wouldn't say more frequent because there's not even a ton of them. When you really think about the things, the iconic moments from “Psycho,” but do you think of like the peep-hole or the taxidermy or things like that? And I think that we've scattered the flavor of that in the show without always necessarily using it in exactly the same way.

HitFix: I know you guys have always talked about the series as being more finite and not a ten or 15 season kind of journey, where do you guys feel like you are at this point in terms of an overall “Bates Motel” journey?

Kerry Ehrin: Carlton and I strongly feel that it's a five-season story.

HitFix: Okay. And has your thought process in terms of the points you want to hit at say the end of season three/end of season four has that changed at all as you've been telling the story?

Kerry Ehrin: No. I think that at the end of the first season we pretty much had the feeling of how to tentpole the events. But things aren't necessarily going to happen exactly where you think they are.

“Bates Motel” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E.