With Rihanna As ‘Marion,’ ‘Bates Motel’ Gets A Chance To Go ‘Psycho’

A review of tonight’s Bates Motel — by far the series’ most Psycho-ish episode to date, given Rihanna’s presence as Marion Crane — coming up just as soon as I choose wheat over sourdough…

“Just get out of here while you can, okay?” –Norman

With the arrival of Marion to the motel, Bates Motel itself arrived at an interesting fork in the road. It could choose to more or less tell the familiar Psycho story and hope that our knowledge of Norman, and the show’s ability to show far more of what’s going on when he’s not around Marion, would be enough to avoid unfair comparisons to the Hitchcock classic — or, worse, unflattering comparisons to the shot-for-shot Gus Van Sant remake. Or it could use our expectations against us and try to take the story in a different direction from this:

Watching the first half of “Marion,” which leans heavily on Norman’s dawning understanding of his relationship with “Mother,” I assumed Bates was going down the first path. By far the greatest advantage the show has over the movie is the amount of time we’ve spent getting to know Norman, getting to see how circumstance and tragedy and mental illness turned him into the person who could stab a woman to death in the shower like that — and, for that matter, the amount of time we’ve spent getting to know both Norman’s real mother and the version he turns into when he gets homicidal. That part of the story has been told so well, and the specific argument in the house where Norman tries to defy the phantom Norma by laying out the true nature of their relationship was so strong, that the show could have very easily gotten away with a more straightforward retelling of Psycho, even if director Phil Abraham would have been hard-pressed to shoot it in a way that didn’t invite cruel comparisons to either movie version.

Instead, Norman never gets out from behind his peephole (and Abraham’s direction leaves it at least somewhat ambiguous as to whether Norman is gratifying himself or just peeping), and Marion cuts her shower short in order to confront Sam Loomis — and, after a few twists and turns of the story, it’s Sam, not Marion, who ends up being on the receiving end of Norman’s carving knife when he showers in the same bathroom at episode’s end.

That misdirection turns out to be about more than just the show having its cake (Rihanna-as-Marion gets headlines, and draws extra attention to the final season) and eating it, too (the audience gets surprised, and the show avoids both direct Psycho comparisons as well as being lumped in with the larger TV epidemic of screaming women being butchered by serial killers). It makes the victim someone who’s anchored to the town rather than a stranger like Marion, and even if we only met Sam and Madeleine a few episodes ago, the Bates family mixing it up with the citizenry of White Pine Bay has been a core part of the show from the start. And, for this closing sprint of episodes, it takes the shackles off of Ehrin, Cuse, and company.

For years, they tried to duck questions about whether the series would conclude with Marion Crane’s arrival at the motel, but most everyone assumed this was where they were going. Now that Marion has made it out alive — with a lot of encouragement from a panic-stricken Norman, struggling to maintain control of his own body — anything can happen. They’re no longer bound to the movie, the book, or any expectations we might have for the life of Norman Bates. The story could end in the familiar way or something wildly different. Heck, Marion could wind up back at the motel at some point — she did foolishly toss aside her tire iron after using it to trash Sam’s car; what happens if she has a flat? — and maybe get to play heroine rather than victim. I’m sure there will be some business involving White Pine Bay sheriffs past and present, and probably Dylan and/or Emma will return to town to confront Norman over the deaths of their respective moms, but the series is free to finish off its story however it wants now, in a way that reflects these five seasons versus our memories of an old movie, even if it’s one of the greatest ever made.

That’s smart, and “Marion” was a strong episode of Bates Motel both before and after the shower fakeout.

What did everybody else think? Are you disappointed or excited that this version of Marion Crane lived to bathe another day?