In Its Final Season, ‘Bates Motel’ Has Finally Found A Purpose

Senior Television Writer
02.20.17 6 Comments

“I wish that film had been a TV show.”

Once upon a time, back when television was the disreputable little brother of the movies, that sentiment would have been unthinkable. But as the ambition and reputation of TV have come to achieve parity with what movies can do, it’s a thought I’ve heard expressed often. Each medium still has inherent advantages. Movies are still better at spectacle, where TV simply has more time to serve character arcs and sprawling narratives. A Game of Thrones movie (or even a trilogy of them) would have to chop out so much of the story as to be incomprehensible, while a Breaking Bad film, even with the same caliber of writing, directing, and acting, wouldn’t come close to the emotional wrecking ball of spending 62 hours watching the tragedy of Walter White unfold.

Some concepts, though, are too finite to justify week after week, season after season, of examination, no matter how much talent is involved. Case in point: the story of Norman Bates, the title character from Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic horror movie Psycho, and for the last few years the centerpiece of A&E’s prequel series Bates Motel, which returns for its fifth and final season tonight at 10.

On the one hand, Bates Motel has featured superb lead performances from Freddie Highmore as the young, mentally ill Norman and Vera Farmiga as his damaged, manipulative mother Norma, and few recent shows on television have had as consistently unsettling a tone as this one. But producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin have had to spend too much of the show’s run simply filling time between Norma and Norman’s arrival at the eponymous motel and the moment when Norman achieves his cross-dressing, serial-killing destiny.

There was a human trafficking ring, and a drug war, and various romantic entanglements for both mother and son, not to mention Norman’s half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot). Some tied into the fragmenting state of Norman’s psyche, and to his twisted, co-dependent relationship with Norma, but many others just seemed to exist as things that could happen because something had to before Norman started making unauthorized use of the carving knife. When the show debuted, it didn’t seem to have enough structure to make sense as an ongoing narrative, and that proved to be the case for most of the run, despite strong work on individual moments or characters, like the delicate balance between menace and empathy of Nestor Carbonell’s local cop Alex Romero.

At times, I would lose patience altogether and drop out for a handful of episodes, then come back because Farmiga and Highmore were great enough to forgive the show’s inherent flaws. And my hope-watching was finally rewarded with a burst of episodes late last season that saw Norman reach a mental breaking point over Norma’s marriage to Sheriff Romero. He staged an attempted murder-suicide so that he and his mother could be alone together in eternity, but only Norma died, while Romero saved Norman’s life. And suddenly, Bates Motel had both the tragic grandeur and sense of narrative purpose it had been lacking for most of its run.

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