Controversy surrounding a film or TV show is, for the horror fan, usually a good thing. The extremes of fiction are a draw, and the tutting of the PTA is nothing but blood in the water. Bates Motel has attracted its fair share of condemnation about its certification from the PTA and their like, and not without good reason.
A contemporary prequel to the cinematic classic that is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho was always going to have a problematic central relationship. In the original film the titular psycho Norman Bates has a deep connection with his already deceased mother that only the most naive wouldn’t read as a sexual one.
Naturally then Bates Motel is about a high school aged Norman Bates (previously Anthony Perkins, now played by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore) and the not-at-all appropriate relationship he has with his mother, Norma (played by Vera Farmiga).
Primarily a relationship drama with lashings of openly Twin Peaks aping small town weirdness, it’s crucial that the central dynamic between Norman and Norma works. And work it does via the flawless tag team of Highmore and Farmiga.
While Highmore is a semi-recognisable name, he’s never been completely in the direct blaze of Hollywood stardom thanks to his penchant for picking projects like August Rush (2007) The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and The Art of Getting By (2011). Not altogether weird films, but certainly ones that dip their toes in the more offbeat end of the cinematic spectrum.
Despite being 21, Highmore definitely looks the part of the high school student that Norman is at this point. The stylists behind his look have managed to achieve a fine balance between giving him an old-fashioned look, while never straying into hipster territory. The clothes are mostly brown among other muted earthy colours and his hairstyle is bushy without it being ridiculous, or something the character clearly wouldn’t be happy with. It’s a look that perfectly complements how he sees himself: old fashioned, moral, sensitive and a traditional upstanding kind of guy. His dialogue and design are very much at odds with the man we know he’s going to grow into, and it works very well.
Indeed the ever present shadow of Psycho manages to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to both the show’s characters and fantastic atmosphere. On the contrary to it being a lazy exploitation of an existing masterpiece, it’s completely to the credit of the show’s creators, Carlton Cuse (writer and producer of Lost), Kerry Ehrin (writer of Friday Night Lights) and Anthony Cipriano, to have identified an angle that will allow them so much credibility leverage. Norman is a far more interesting character than most as we know exactly what becomes of him in the end. Norman is just a kind, often confused young boy who seems to be suffering from occasional blackouts, and without Psycho hanging over him like the sword of Damocles, that’s all he’d be. Most shows derive their drama from keeping the audience guessing where their characters will end up. Here, with Norman’s temporal and psychological destination known, it’s not where he’ll end up, but how he’ll end up there that keeps us hooked. It’s akin to watching a car crash in slow motion. In the first series however we’re a long way off the full blown burning wreck, but we do get to see the vehicle hit several of the potholes that send it that way.
Many fictions have used dramatic irony to try and grip the audience, though it’s rarely done, if ever, with believable serial killer characters. The deep innocence Highmore is able to convey works brilliantly in conjunction with this. Highmore nor the script let the widely known perfect finale do all the work, however. Norman’s mental instability is very well portrayed, and Highmore is a fantastic actor, especially with his eyes; at moments of severe stress he can use them to convey incomprehension, terror and violence all at once. It’s a very believable, almost panicked state that Norman descends into. Along with a far more knowledgeable understanding of psychological problems than those we had in the 60s, he manages to make this future serial killer’s predicament and even ultimate destiny, sympathetic. That’s how good Freddie Highmore is: he manages to make Norman Bates sympathetic.
It’s not just Norman who benefits from this grand foreshadowing, however. Psycho is arguably the most famous horror movie in history, and from it comes the shower sequence, unarguably the most famous cinematic murder of all time. As such Norman Bates’ reputation precedes him. In all fairness, Bates’ reputation as a serial killer is probably far greater than it should be – he’s never reached Jason Voorhees of even Michael Myers levels of mass murder. Regardless, the Bates of Psycho is widely regarded as one of cinema’s premier lunatics, and this frees up both his mother, the small town they’re in, and the story to do, and be subjected to some very disturbing situations.
Take the first episode, in which we’re treated to the opening salvo of Norman’s father dropping dead in highly suspicious circumstances, Norma being raped as Norman comes in from sneaking out, and Norma repeatedly stabbing her later defenceless attacker to death in front of him. It’s brutal and barbaric in a setting of forced normalcy. The series follows this with Norma having a romance with a policeman with very unpleasant things in his cellar, a lynching-cum-burning, and a disowned stepson Bates turning up, all strung together with a story that combines a town entirely dependent on pot and sex-slave trafficking.
Without the shadow of the Bates future hanging over it, this would swerve the show into ridiculousness. However, because you going into the show thinking, “What does it take to make the ultimate psycho?”, you’re already answering yourself with “an awful lot”, and as such, you’re going into the show with a very generous allowance for unpleasant circumstances to take place without it seeming over the top. And in all likelihood, it would take a battery of unpleasant circumstances to turn a boy with such moral aspirations into a psycho.
The other half of the central equation is Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) who has been recognised in the role by several awards. Farmiga is excellent at echoing the naivety of her son. Her naivety is matched with a powerful determination to have the perfect American life. It’s a life that the show as a whole believes just doesn’t exist, and Norma’s determination to force that life into existence means she is forced to make, at times, very drastic decisions. It’s a combination of powerful writing and acting to deliver a character who has high standards for life and refuses to let it fail to meet them. It’s a great cornerstone for a character, one that’s hugely relatable and commonplace to varying degrees, and that cornerstone is mightily well made.
Beyond this the character dynamic between the two is very uncomfortable viewing in places, yet believable and, again, alarmingly sympathetic. The writers have crafted such an appalling past, turbulent present and desperate future for Norma, and skilfully positioned her in a situation where her steady rock has only ever been Norman. So again, we can understand why she’s unconsciously fostering unnatural connections with her son.
Of course as the show progresses it begins to ask questions of nature versus nurture. As the Bates’ past is slowly revealed, and we’re shown the reasons for their current situation, the lines blur as to just how much of these unconscious incestuous feelings are the fault of the mother. It’s riveting and bold.
Outside of the central duo there’s some fine support from Max Thieriot as Dylan Massett, the step brother. Yes, he is eye candy, however it’s well-tempered by his apparently drop-out lifestyle and quickly acquired job as a gun toting weed field guard.
Mike Vogel is also very good as Deputy Zack Shelby. The show nicely subverts the handsome, clean-cut cop stereotype by having him also partial to a spot of slave trading.
Season 1 of Bates Motel is absolutely gripping. The finale packs a punch, but with it also comes a worry we’re getting a bit too close to Norman hitting his stride too soon. Likewise there’s going to be a difficult balancing act ahead: the writers will need to find a way of not overspending on that generous credibility allowance, while not reeling it in too much so it becomes a morbid Desperate Housewives.
If it can keep going in the same direction it is, however, Bates Motel is going to be a TV series that’s easily worthy of its illustrious progenitor.
Developed by: Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, Anthony Cipriano
Executive producers: Mark Wolper, Roy Lee, John Middleton, Jr., Kerry Ehrin, Carlton Cuse
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Theriot, Nicola Pelt, Olivia Cooke
Running time: 435 minutes
Release date: 3 February 2014
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