In the interest of total transparency, not only am I not the usual BATES MOTEL reviewer, I actually swore off the show after last season. I, like everybody else on the planet, am familiar with Psycho enough to know that Norma wasn’t going to get a happy ending, but hey — it’s an adaptation. Since for me Norma was the heart and soul of the show, and the most significant reason I kept tuning in, I had for whatever reason this vain hope that she was going to make it through the five seasons Bates Motel was going to run for, or that in adapting it there would be some way to save her. When she died, I was super not keen on the idea of an entire season of Bates Motel where the only place Norma existed was as a misogynistic hallucination, especially in a show with shockingly few female characters who get the privilege of surviving more than a couple episodes. But knowing I was going to be writing this review, I caught up over the last week, and I’m totally surprised and pretty thrilled to report that it was absolutely worth it for this episode.
After robbing her employer, Marion heads for White Pine Bay. When Sam won’t meet her at his house — because of his, y’know, wife — she tells him to meet her at the Bates Motel and goes to book a room. Sidenote: since we didn’t get any background on Marion nor do we get a really clear feel for any defining personality traits, robbing her boss seemed absolutely insane. They clearly tried to clarify motivation by establishing Sam’s “debt” (again, y’know, his wife) and having Marion’s boss refuse her a promotion or a raise, but it still didn’t quite track, and it seems like the show would’ve benefited for legitimately introducing Marion sooner instead of just teasing her, and allowing her to become an actual character.
As Marion is booking a room, it becomes abundantly clear that Norman wants to have sex with and/or kill her. He puts her in room one, his peepin’ Tom room, and overall behaves like a sketchy weirder. Not for the first time I spent a lot of time wondering why the women Norman inevitably kills don’t run away from him immediately. In moments, he seems very sweet, but also socially maladjusted and uncomfortable to be around. If I were Marion, staying in a sketchy motel in an unfamiliar city with a suitcase full of money and it was cinematically storming and this guy tried to give me a room, I would be out of there so fast Norman’s head would spin off its axis. And yet, Marion stays, and agrees to let Norman make her a sandwich, which leads to her hanging out with him.
When Norman heads back up to the house to make her food, Norma is back. Since Norma seems to exist to protect Norman, and this protection generally wards against women Norman views in a sexual way, it’s not unexpected. But Norman is starting to realize after meeting with his psychiatrist in the coffee shop that what he thinks is real actually isn’t — after five seasons of willful denial, it’s pretty satisfying to see him finally refuse to acknowledge his hallucination. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy, and Norma goes nuts when Norman tells her she isn’t real, forcing Norman to acknowledge and accept her again.
Norman takes the sandwich back down to Marion, and they talk about his taxidermy. (I repeat — why on earth is she not running for the hills?) before Sam calls Marion and she goes to her room to take it. He ends up hanging up on her, still claiming to be with a client rather than with his poor, angry wife. Marion goes to take a shower, and the music — which on Bates Motel is always a liiiiittle over the top — reaches peak ominous. Norman watches her through his peep hole, and we get a lot of shots of Marion in the shower, which obviously, knowing that the fifth season of Bates Motel is supposed to intersect with Psycho leads one to think that Marion is going to get stabbed in a re-make of the iconic scene from the film.
But it doesn’t happen. Marion gets out of the shower, talks to Sam again, realizes he’s married, and Norman comes in to basically give her a pep talk to take off. He’s clearly desperate for her to leave, and she keeps like resting her head on his shoulder and hugging him and I’m just like, girl, this boy is sweating like crazy and his eyes are twitching and he’s clearly in the throws of some kind of fit, why are you not reaching minimum safe distance? But as usual, Norman apparently has some baffling pall that prevents otherwise sane people from realizing that he’s utterly unstable. Anyway, that’s besides the point, because the point is, Marion gets away.
Given this show’s form of killing off the majority of women it introduces, I don’t have total faith that Marion won’t eventually return and meet her fate, but for now, she’s safe — and it gets better, but first, Dylan and Emma.
Dylan and Emma have been living their own private storyline, which is what I want for these two cupcakes: a happy life far away from the craziness that takes place at the Bates Motel. After Dylan explained to Emma that Norman is probably a serial killer, Emma feels compelled to look up the Bates Motel online, which leads her to an article about Norma’s death. In one of the more heartbreaking scenes in the series, Dylan finds out his mother has died — despite their difficult relationship and lack of contact, it’s always been sufficiently clear that there’s a lot of love there, so his heartbreak resonates.
He calls Norman for the first time to find out why Norman didn’t bother to tell him, and that conversation is equally difficult to watch. Norman breaks down, and Dylan is hurt and grieving and in total disbelief that Norma would kill herself, which seems to force Norman to really confront the truth in that, if not only for a moment — which leads to the earlier mentioned confrontation when Norman tries to tell Norma she isn’t real, although he ultimately fails.
But the circuit isn’t closed — we knew with this season we were getting Psycho, but we’re lacking the shower scene, and Marion is on her way to a (hopefully) happy new life. Sam comes to the motel to find Marion, and when she’s not there he leaves her a voicemail and says he’ll wait for her in the hotel. He decides to shower (I have questions, but stay with me) and suddenly we’re back in on the close-up shower shots and it becomes immediately very clear that we’re doing this.
I’m not big on violence in media as an aesthetic or plot choice. I don’t tend to find it useful or anything other than exploitative, but this. This was satisfying as all hell. Bates Motel does recreate the famous shower murder scene, but with Sam. Let me say this again, because this scene redeemed every problem I have ever had with Bates Motel in an instant: the woman (of color) escapes a grim fate, and her shitty, cheating boyfriend, while naked and vulnerable, gets murdered in a really gratuitous way. For a thriller horror kinda show, this feels (almost comically) significant and wonderful and my acne cleared up and my crops are flourishing and I want to hug everybody involved with this show individually.
I’m still mad about Norma — and the chokehold her death puts on Vera Farmiga’s heretofore stunning performance of what was, in my opinion, one of the most complex and interesting women on television — and this show still has massive diversity problems and by virtue of the premise murders an awful lot of women. But by having Norman achieve some degree of self-awareness about what’s going on, I suddenly feel sympathy for him that up until this episode I have entirely lacked.
There’s a scene before Norman convinces Marion to leave where he confronts his Norma hallucination once again, and the hallucination ceases to be Norma and instead explains to him her function as part of his personality and protecting him, dredging up memories of childhood abuse and endless frustration over not being able to protect his mother. Norman even still has some issues of thinking of Norma as sweet and innocent which is open to debate (a wonderfully dynamic lady who deserved better, absolutely, but certainly a lady with no shortage of claws and thorny sides), but putting that out in the open, and seeing him tremble and shy away from the knowledge of what he’s done really puts into stark relief what’s generally either glossed over or open to debate.
Norman is ill. He’s very, very sick, and his mother wasn’t able, due to her own trauma, to make the difficult decisions necessary to help him. He’s all alone in this house on a hill with this terrible secret his mental illness is keeping from him, and he’s scared, and he’s sad, and he’s hurt. I don’t mean to say this to absolve him of the terrible things he does or his massive internalized misogyny or all of the weird incesty moments he has toward his mother, but now that Norman is actively trying to fight against what’s been plaguing him, he’s much more sympathetic, and it makes a show I personally found unwatchable following Norma’s death enjoyable once again.
Season 5, Episode 6 (S05E06)
Bates Motel airs Mondays at 10PM on A&E
Alyssa Thorne | Contributor