Tweetable Takeaway: Norma finally pays for years of ignoring Norman’s worsening psychosis in this game-changing episode of #BatesMotel
On this week’s episode of BATES MOTEL, Norman took a decisive step towards becoming the character we recognize from the original Psycho when he orchestrated his mother’s death in a botched murder-suicide attempt. After years of build up, in which Norman became more violent and unhinged, it shouldn’t have been a surprise for this inevitability to finally occur, but it still came across as a surprising twist because of an effective fake-out by the writers, after they made the viewer believe that it was Alex, not his mother, who was on the verge of being the victim of Norman’s rage.
After last week ended with Alex declaring that he wouldn’t leave Norma alone with Norman because he was afraid of what he might do to her, most of this episode focused on the two men in Norma’s life playing a game of emotional tug of war over her. Alex tries in vain to convince Norma that Norman isn’t fit to live outside of Pineview, but she’s reluctant to hear anything about it, believing that Norman’s aggressive behavior only stems from how recently he’d learned about their marriage. When Norma later learns that Alex went behind her back to enlist Dylan’s help in recommitting Norman, with or without her consent, it severs Norma’s trust in Alex, which only serves to further burrow her into her hole of denial, refusing to believe what everyone is adamantly telling her about Norman. After years of fighting to regain agency from the men in her life who fought to maintain control over her, Norma’s unwilling to let Alex or Dylan dictate how she raises her son, regardless of how convincing their arguments about his dangerousness may be.
Because so much of the episode was structured as a conflict between the two men, the viewer was naturally primed to believe that Norman and Alex would come to a head, with Norman’s axe from last week providing a possible bit of Chekhovian foreshadowing. But that proved to only be an effective fake-out, as the episode ended with Norman lighting the water heater in their basement and closing all the vents in the house except the one leading to his mother’s bedroom, with the intention of letting the gas leak take him and his mother in their sleep. His plan is partially disrupted by Alex’s sudden appearance after his fight with Norma, which wakes Norman up but which appears to be too late to save Norma’s life.
While it’s been known for a while now that Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin had a five-year plan for Bates Motel, without knowing how far the story would venture into Psycho territory it was difficult to predict when in the narrative timeline Norma’s death would actually take place. As a viewer, the realities of the industry sometimes inadvertently sap the tension out of storylines, because we know that television producers are so reluctant to let a big name actress like Vera Farmiga out of her contract even if the story calls for it. But because Farmiga plays dual roles on the show, both as the corporeal version of Norma Bates and as Norman’s delusional hallucination, the tension from that meta-narrative dissonance has never bled into the show, since Norma could theoretically be killed off at any point without the usual production- and pop culture-related downside that comes from removing the most popular and marketable lead from your show.
The show has done an effective job of establishing Norma’s ultimately tragic but relatively noble point of view throughout its run; in this episode, we see in a microcosm the contradictions in Norma’s character that have made her such a complicated and interesting character. She’s at once a fiercely loyal mother, whose unconditional love for her son would be admirable in almost every other context, but at the same time she has actively enabled his psychotic inclinations in the hope of protecting him. To see her finally face the consequences of her short-sighted actions, especially after pushing away all the other people in her life who tried to convince her of the danger she was in, it’s hard not to believe that she deserves a fair share of blame about the circumstances that have developed and the ultimate fate she meets.
Assuming that Norma’s death sticks next week, she’ll have gone to her grave believing that Norman was decent at heart, and not the monster that Alex and Dylan tried to convince her he was this week. Instead of accepting Alex’s outside perspective on the extent of Norman’s psychosis or allowing Dylan’s circumstantial (but fairly convincing) evidence that Norman may have killed Emma’s mother to cloud her judgment, Norma succeeds in finally doing what she has been attempting since we first met her in the pilot by pushing away everyone in her life who is not Norman or herself. While she writes a farewell letter for Alex and puts her ring in it, showing that she’s willing to give up her chance at love in order to continue living this cloistered existence she’s fostered between herself and Norman, it would seem that Norman is not as accepting of their relationship as it stands as she is. Though she and Norman share a tender final scene in which he convinces her that they should leave White Pine Bay and start over again on an island together, we soon see that Norman has already convinced himself that no fresh start can fix whatever is broken in their relationship.
After finding Emma’s mother’s suitcase in the attic, and finding in it the dirty robe belonging to Norma that he had been wearing when he strangled Audrey to death, Norman begins tearing up while looking at himself in the mirror wearing the robe. Though we don’t know whether he was conscious of his being the killer, while he was blacked out and acting as his Norma persona, or whether he believes that Norma herself was the killer, as he claimed to Dr. Edwards earlier in the season, it’s clear that this discovery fundamentally changed Norman’s perception of his relationship with his mother. It also goes to show that he was far more cognizant of the toxicity of their relationship than he let on or than she was ever willing to admit.
It’s noteworthy that despite all the times we’ve seen Norman murder somebody on the show, this is the first time that he ever committed a murder while being, insomuch as he can ever be, of sound mind. Compare this to last week, when Norman wanted badly to kill Alex, but couldn’t bring himself to do it because in his conscious mind he isn’t a killer at heart, and to the number of remorseless murders he’s committed while in his Norma persona, and we can understand that his decision to kill his mother and himself was not one that he came to lightly.
Elsewhere in White Pine Bay:
- What will be the immediate reaction, from Alex and Dylan, when they learn of Norma’s death? Immediate blame will inevitably fall upon Norman, but so little of the evidence that could link him to his mother’s death is concrete, and the fact that he was on the verge of dying himself would seem to be a point in his favor if he claims that the gas leak was accidental.
- It’s a shame that after resolving to be done with the Bates family last week, which felt like the choice Dylan has needed to make for years in order to find any true happiness in his life, he’s drawn back into their black hole once again this week. When he learns that Audrey’s earring was in Norma’s coat, he quickly pieces together that she must be aware of Norman’s likely involvement in Emma’s mother’s disappearance, but confronting her with the evidence doesn’t go the way he expects. Norma refuses to accept the idea that there’s any significance to the earring, and instead accuses Dylan of being jealous of Norman, as he always has been. At this, Dylan tells her that she’s never been a real mother to him and decides to leave for good, but I’m sure that learning of her death will draw him back once again and put him into serious conflict with Norman, who he already believes is capable of murder.
- Rebecca agrees to cooperate with the DEA this week and wears a wire to a lunch with Alex, where she unsuccessfully tries to trick him into confessing to Bob Paris’s murder. While last week it seemed like Alex would either be taken out by Norman or the DEA investigation, he successfully skirted both threats this week, and it’s possible that this plotline with Rebecca will only prove to be a red herring, since I can’t imagine this will take up much time next week when the show has to deal with the aftermath of Norma’s death.
Eric enjoys watching and making movies.
Eric Colasante | Contributor