Near the end of the season premiere of Bates Motel, the mercurial Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), grieving the death of her estranged mother, pleads with her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore), to spend the night in her bed. “Because I’m so sad,” she whimpers, Farmiga’s face flashing the exaggerated frown of a silent comedian. “Move over, you silly woman,” Norman replies, their patter suddenly queasy with camp, as if performing the roles of husband and wife. Intimations of incest, fevered battles, delusions of happiness: On the limited evidence of the single episode provided to critics, Bates Motel is set to double down on the madcap delights that made A&E’s Psycho prequel one of last year’s most improved series, deepening its connection to Hitchcock’s classic with the high-flying Freudian horrors of the excellent episodes “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Presumed Innocent.” It’s still a series bloated with the tiresome distractions of drug wars, crooked cops, and young love, but when Norma and Norman court and spark, Bates Motel is a scream.
The third season opens as summer comes to a close, and the kindly, stringy killer clings to his mother more firmly than ever, refusing to begin his senior year of high school. In the skillful hands of Farmiga and Highmore, treading the line between too much and just enough, Norma and Norman’s familiar cycle of tenderness, resentment, and renewed attachment becomes a downward spiral. Each humiliation, as Norma drags Norman out of the car in front of his tittering classmates, and each embrace, as they watch old movies in bed, only narrows the number of possible outcomes. Bates Motel has long used our knowledge of the inevitable to create its deliciously creepy portrait of Oedipal dysfunction, and Norma and Norman’s mutual retreat from the world (she later allows him to home school and promotes him to motel manager) cuts a clear path to Marion Crane.
Indeed, the forthright allusion to Psycho, as Norman spies on a beautiful guest while she showers, depicts more directly than ever before the sexual element in his murderous tendencies, and Highmore lends the character a new, leering aspect that sends a shiver of unease down the spine. Norman’s blackouts become hallucinations, his desires dangerous expressions of unconscious rebellion against his mother’s coddling. For her part, Norma’s quicksilver changes, by turns suffocating, protecting, and snarling at her son, suggest a woman who can’t help but pass on the sins of the past, as desperately as she might wish to do otherwise. This vein of fatalism, as played out in each bristling exchange between them, remains the source of Bates Motel’s most electric moments. The series invites the viewer to relish the rubbernecking that accompanies Norma and Norman’s headlong plunge toward catastrophe by emphasizing the fact that the ending is predetermined.
If discovering the sinister particulars of how they’ll get there is the driving force of Bates Motel, the surfeit of subplots might be seen as a series of speed bumps or potholes, slowing an otherwise ferociously entertaining two-hander at every turn. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s incineration of 27 fields’ worth of marijuana sets in motion a narrative arc involving Norman’s brother, Dylan (Max Theriot), and Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell); Norma’s brother, Caleb (Kenny Johnson), who attempts to win Dylan’s trust; and Norman’s friend, Emma (Olivia Cooke), who pouts her way through a few more featureless days in the motel office. But none of these is much more than a vestige of Bates Motel’s uneven first season, which aimed for garish melodrama and arrived instead at sluggish, forgettable dross. Would that the series had learned more from the second season, which proved that Norma and Norman’s strange, frayed family of two needs no embellishment. “I may be growing up, but I’m not going anywhere,” Norman reassures his mother, and indeed Bates Motel is at its ghoulish best when it keeps its feet firmly planted on the terrain of their tumultuous relationship.