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“Nice Town You Picked Norma”: Bates Motel Review

By on March 26, 2013

Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in Bates Motel. Image © A&E

“That’s what normal people do, Norma.” Dylan Bates (Max Thieriot), the far more adjusted Bates son says to his mother (Vera Farmiga) in this week’s Bates Motel. Sure, it is funny considering how painfully abnormal Norma is, but the same could be said for the rest of White Pine Bay. As we learn in this second episode of the series, “Nice Town You Picked Norma,” everyone seems to have a creepy secret up their sleeve. Since the show would be interesting enough with just the Norman Bates and his mother co-existing in a motel premise, this indicates a future wealth of complexity in the season.

Broke and jobless, Dylan arrives to shake up the Bates household with his smouldering eyes and cigarette. A clever, argumentative character with knowledge of his family’s twisted history seems like a stereotypical plot device, but Thieriot shapes Dylan with his own – and much more subtle – demons in a manner that makes him appealing. Considering the fact that he has stumbled into a way to make some money, it appears he will be sticking around (much to mommy dearest’s chagrin).

Charming young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) has several of the local ladies fawning over him already. Highmore is this fantastic walking contradiction, and his exchanges with the equally talented Farmiga are what gives this show a special edge. In one moment, like when Norman tearfully attacks his brother for disrespecting their mother, he seems truly psychotic. The disturbing and pornographic torture drawings that he is drawn to don’t help, either. At the same time, he’s also a fragile and frightened kid who says words like “peculiar” and worries about his friends.

One of those friends, the lovely Emma (Olivia Cooke), is fleshed out more in this episode. Despite her illness and baby brown eyes, she’s no wilting wallflower. Since Norma’s pointed prying and Norman’s creepy drawings do not send her running for the hills, we may safely assume she will also be around for a while. We may also quietly question her judgment. Either way, her budding relationship with Norman is about as cute as a young romance with Norman Bates can be.

Max Thieriot and Vera Farmiga. Image © A&E

Max Thieriot and Vera Farmiga. Image © A&E

Most alarmingly manipulative and captivating of all is Norma, who is played flawlessly by Farmiga. Whether she is half-dressed and having an awkwardly questionable moment with her son, or using her wily ways to woo a police officer, Norma is certainly calculating. She spends a lot of time obsessively cleaning, too (you know, to hide the murder).

Norma’s makeshift date with the less intimidating police officer, Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel), reveals how corrupt the town is. As Zach mentions, the townspeople have occupations such as “organic pig farmer”, yet somehow can afford European cars and fancy houses. Apparently even local law enforcement promotes the town’s vigilante justice system. This is made abundantly clear when a burning body is hung on display as a warning – and the cop’s reaction is to direct traffic.

Norma and Norman obviously have a troubling relationship. For example, Norma’s reaction to Dylan pointing out that her son might make out with a girl shouldn’t quite be jealousy – yet Dylan clearly knows the comment will agitate Norma when he makes it. Some of these hints are a little blatant, as if the show is forcing it on the audience. We are already aware of this problem, and so a little more “show, don’t tell” could be used here. Letting viewers search for subtext is more satisfying than offering a finished, bold-faced product.

Even with the various uncomfortable moments, nothing in this second episode offers anything as upsettingly graphic as the pilot was. It is unclear how far the show will push some of these boundaries yet, but what it has done so far makes it worth watching. The story is strong, and even if it weren’t, it has such a dynamite cast you might not notice.

What did you think of the episode, and of this sinister new show in general? Are all you diehard Psycho fans appalled, or perhaps tentatively optimistic? One thing that this episode has proven is that the show is much more than a prequel to the film. Check out Bates Motel Mondays on A&E.

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