Bates Motel, Season 2: Episode 5 – “The Escape Artist”
Written by Nikki Toscano
Directed by Christopher Nelson
Airs Monday Nights at 10 on A&E
What the hell is Bates Motel? If someone were to watch the series pilot and “The Escape Artist” back-to-back, that person would have a hard time making sense of what this show is going for. That isn’t to say that the content–what happens in this episode–is “bad” or “weak” or some similarly vague adjective. And that’s also not even to say that a wildly inconsistent tone is something that prevents the viewer from engaging with what they’re seeing. It might be an issue for someone who wants to see the more Psycho elements of this story (in which case, stay away from “The Escape Artist”). But, really, Bates Motel has become something so far removed from what people thought it was going to be, given its source material, that this easily falls into the category of “interesting if somewhat failing experiment.” That’s a much better place to be in than it sounds.
“The Escape Artist” is, to me, a strange little love story shared by two of its central characters: Norman and Emma. There’s been implied attraction there, one-sided or otherwise, but both characters find themselves in similar circumstances with two other characters amid a very disparate serialized narrative. Norman has some conversations with Cody about how parents can be such downers. Then there’s this tree-climbing escapade that has no right being in a show like Bates Motel because of how oddly Romantic it is (but whatever, I’m on-board for oddities). Finally, and presumably, they have sex. It’s somewhat of a similar journey for Emma, who has a walk on the beach with Pot Guy and heads back to the motel for a sober re-do over the other night. I don’t really see why either of these stories are important, but I’m definitely not complaining about their inclusions. If anything, I hope the season makes use of these foundations. Does Cody’s crappy domestic life provide Norman with some kind of insight into his own? Is the dramatic tension with Cody just going to be how Norma doesn’t like her because she’s a rude little girl with tattoos and cigarettes? Is Emma’s sexual journey some kind of eye-opening experience that’s going to draw her any closer to the main action of Bates Motel? I literally have no answers worth sharing to these questions, but they’re ones that I’ll be thinking about next week when the episode inevitably ignores them entirely to go be an action show for 45 minutes. At the very least, Olivia Cooke brings out Emma’s social awkwardness so well that it’s hard not to smile with her. And, as I’ve stated about Vera Farmiga, if Bates Motel is only going to impress because of its performances and not because of jumpy story, then at least it has that going for it.
Compare those two plotlines with Dylan’s. In about as stark a contrast as you can get, Dylan and Zane get shot at, Dylan walks into the middle of the street like a cowboy and he gets ran over. There are just no synapses connecting the different parts of Bates Motel each week. The B- and C-stories are off in their own little worlds, content to wander wherever their curiosities take them. Maybe I’m being unreasonable for thinking that stories should coalesce into something bigger. Maybe Bates Motel is a great example of a camera moving around a town and letting it live and breathe on its own. “Today,” it tells us, “we’ll be looking over in this corner. Isn’t this stuff interesting?” That’s where the “interesting experiment” description above comes in. I think the lack of cohesion in Bates Motel prevents it from being a good series overall, but as a collection of parallel-running short pieces, maybe it works.
Meanwhile, Norma gets caught up in her own drama between becoming an ally of Nick Ford and housing Sheriff Romero after his house has been burned down. Again, there’s implied sexual attraction between Norma and Romero, but rather than taking any kind of definitive stance on it, Bates Motel just lets it linger there, ready to be used later if the need arises. The ties with Ford are probably what make “The Escape Artist” important on the larger scale. As the season has progressed, Norma has become more fully integrated into White Pine Bay. That expansion makes for a story that has the potential to be more interesting than the insular events at the motel and house. Yet, the series has struggled with the other denizens, so I wonder what Bates Motel would look like on a smaller scale and if the the three or four main characters would be enough to pull the weight of the story. That said, if the series is a wandering eye hovering over the town, there’s probably enough going on to craft a working television show out of it. That show isn’t called Bates Motel, though. It’s more likely called White Pine Bay.
– Sean Colletti