Bates Motel, Ep. 1.02: “Nice Town You Picked Norma ” has far more on its mind than Norman

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Bates Motel, Season 1, Episode 2: “Nice Town You Picked Norma”
Written by Kerry Ehrin
Directed by Tucker Gates
Airs Mondays at 10pm ET on A&E

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was already famous as the screen’s master of suspense, but when he released Psycho he forever changed the shape and tone of the screen thriller. Infamous for its shower scene, but immortal for its contribution to the horror genre, Psycho is perhaps Hitchcock’s most famous film, and his most influential. Hitchcock didn’t just create modern horror, he popularized it. So it is no surprise that many people decided to write off Bates Motel long before the series even premiered. It takes a lot of courage to create a prequel to a movie that is both a landmark in film history as well as a monument of moviemaking. After 52 years, is there anything left to say about Norman Bates? Showrunners Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), seem to think so.

Episode 2 continues to develop the disquieting relationship between Norma and her son; or rather sons. “Nice Town You Picked Norma” introduces us to Dylan (Max Thieriot), Norman’s older, half brother and black sheep of the family; a character briefly mentioned in last week’s pilot. Along the way, we are also introduced to several new story threads just as complex as the multiple facets of Norman’s jumbled personality. This week, Bates Motel is thankfully more low-key than last, but still, no less twisted. When a series packs this many story-lines so early on, viewers can’t help but worry. Let’s try to keep up, shall we: Bradley’s father is a victim to a car crash and a human torching, all in one day. Keith Summers’ car is found near the motel, arousing suspicion from Sheriff Alex Romero who doesn’t hold back in aggressively interrogating Norma Bates. Meanwhile Norman and Emma partner up to investigate the contents of the manga book Norman found last week, hidden in the motel room. The next day, Emma and Norman set off to a location sketched in the book, only to be chased down by two armed men. Over the course of only two episodes, the plot thickens to an even more unlikely degree as we learn that residents of the town are growing drugs just outside the community- perhaps explaining why the townsfolk are so incredibly rich. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Norma gets close with Deputy Shelby and Dylan gets himself drawn into the criminal underworld of White Pine Bay. As the episode comes to an end, the town is horrified by the sight of a burning body hanging over the street. Bates Motel feels like a cross between Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Dexter and The Craft. A&E’s hit series is all over the place, but that’s one of the reasons why it’s so entertaining to watch.

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Great television operates on many levels. The first and obvious level is built upon entertainment value and a second resides in it’s aesthetic value. But the best shows interweave metaphors, commentary, subliminal messages and under the surface of it all, builds upon layers of complexities that can intellectually overwhelm an audience. What makes Bates Motel so fascinating is the central characters of Norma and Norman, and exploring their relationship despite having foresight into their future, is what why most people are watching. “Nice Town You Picked Norma” shows the violent side of Norman Bates, as he attacks his brother Dylan with a mallet, but more importantly it further reveals his attraction to his mother, and his sexual jealousy. Psycho has been cited as “the first psychoanalytical thriller”, and back in 1960, Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema with both sex and violence, but he was still restricted from fully exploring those themes. Now in 2013, storytellers are allowed to dive deeper into the disturbing recesses of Norman’s mind, and this episode got the ball rolling. I don’t know what was more uncomfortable to watch; Norma interrogating poor Emma and asking her bluntly what her life expectancy is, or Norman gazing over while his mother undresses in front of him. Slavoj Žižek once said that. “the Bates’ mansion has three floors, paralleling the three levels of the human mind that are postulated by Freudian psychoanalysis”. This is something important to keep in mind, as I suspect Norman’s every step closer to transforming from man to monster will all be ignited under that one roof. Norman is actually safer when away from the house, and of course from his mother, and its interesting to note that Dylan is full aware of her negative impact on him. Dylan may be introduced as two-bit hoarder, unemployed and lacking manners, but something tells me he might become the audience surrogate into their past. Dylan serves as the catalyst for the first on-screen evidence of Norman’s murderous habits, and his role should become crucial to the overall series arc, acting a force for good.

The central theme of Psycho is the concept of multiple identity, and the entire film is designed to be as fractured and confused as the inner world of Norman Bates. In Bates Motel, the town itself seems to be a metaphor for Norman’s psyche. In Norman’s case – his physiological problems is the centre of the show, and it will be interesting to see how his fear, his repressed anxiety and his divided thoughts will continue to develop as the secrets of White Pine are slowly revealed. Despite the tasteless and poorly executed rape sequence featured in the pilot, Bates Motel has done a great job of allowing the revelations to unfold without a ton of exposition. The dialogue, or lack of, and fine performances from the members of the Bates family, fill in the blanks; and despite the numerous subplots, the series has done a fine job in establishing the main characters in such a short time.

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Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore continue to turn in outstanding performances and Max Thieriot is a welcome addition to the dysfunctional family. Unlike Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga isn’t fastened to an actor/character from the Hitchcock film. Therefore, in a sense, her role should be easier to pull off, but in fact, Vermiga is given a lot of heavy lifting to do. Her Norma may be the toughest sell, and it is crucial that the writers focus heavily on her character. So far, both Norma and Norman have had an equal amount of screen-time, and if this persists, the show can only get better. All in all, “Nice Town You Picked Norma” is a strong second episode in a series that continues to prove that it has far more on its mind than Norman does.

– Ricky D

Other observations:

Emma is still pretty awesome, and even more awesome when she recites William Blake.’s “The Tyger.”

I guess now we all know how Norman is introduced to taxidermia.

Sheriff Romero is kind of a dick.

How did Norma get that scar on her thigh?

Did anyone notice that Norman was using Keith Summers’ flashlight- a memento perhaps?

Don’t forget to listen to our Bates Motel podcast. New episodes drop every Tuesday night.

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