“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.
The new season (I’ve seen the first two episodes) picks up a few years later. Norman is running the motel on his own, but keeping a journal of his many blackouts, and still carrying on as if “Mother” is alive and well, with dinner waiting for him at the end of each long day at the office. It’s a smart way to both literalize the battle for control of Norman’s mind and keep Farmiga part of the show, and the way that this version of Norma now actually knows everything her son does and thinks only makes the relationship tenser and scarier. In the process, we lose some of the nuance of the real Norma, who was as much victim as victimizer, but the trade-off is worth it because the new status quo gives Bates a forward momentum it’s never really had before.
Of course, that momentum comes because the show is so close to the end, which will eventually involve Rihanna turning up as Marion Crane, the Janet Leigh character from Psycho. For years, Cuse and Ehrin insisted that Bates didn’t have to conclude with a direct adaptation of the movie (or the Robert Bloch novel that inspired it), but either they were protesting to cover their true plans, or finally accepted that their show needed a destination to start heading towards, and that destination involved a knife and a shower curtain.
This final incarnation of Bates Motel still has all the strengths of the earlier years, but now with a real sense of shape and purpose. It definitely benefits from the amount of time we’ve spent with these characters — Romero in particular was a satisfying peel of the onion that now makes him a worthy antagonist for Norman — even as they make the rambling quality of the prior seasons feel even more frustrating in hindsight.
Even doing abbreviated cable seasons, Bates Motel will have produced 50 episodes of TV. That’s a lot, even for the origin story of the villain of one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m glad I got to watch these actors for most of it, but too often it felt like a show in search of a reason to exist in between story points A and B.
There are plenty of films that I wish had been TV shows — and shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer that proved far better than their big-screen versions — but when all is said and done, Bates Motel might have been better off as a miniseries, or at least an ongoing show with much shorter run.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org