BLOG: Bates Motel, and the rewriting of movie folklore.

| May 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

“Norman Bates no longer exists.  He only half-existed to begin with.”
– dialogue from Psycho

It is the second part that’s key.

I have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho so many times that it seems less like a movie and more like a place in my mind.  Like a great piece of music, I know every line, every image, every nuance.  It is one of those great cinematic experiences that works a kind of magic on you.

Being so familiar with that film, I watch the series “Bates Motel” with a sense of fascination and trepidation.  The series’ creators have taken great liberties with this prequel and in doing so have walked a tightrope that could have led to a major embarrassment.  I am generally opposed to the idea of “reboots” – that ungainly popular buzz word that signals that somewhere, someone has decided to slap a new coat of paint on an already established idea just to squeeze a few bucks out of a brand name. 

Yet, in resetting the origins of Norman Bates to the present and taking some liberties, there’s innate drama here above simply looking for ties to Hitchcock’s film.  What’s fascinating is that in watching the second season finale this past week, I know what’s coming in season three, but yet I don’t know what’s coming.  This series has done the impossible: created a great dramatic arch to a story we know all too well.

The season finale features two bold ties to that original film; one obvious, and the other effectively creepy.  The obvious comes at the end, as Norman (Freddie Highmore) has just passed a lie detector test and looks straight into the camera with just barely a hint of a smile on his lips – a callback to the final shot of Norman in the film, vindicated (sort of) of another murder.  The other scene peaks the relationship between Norman and his mother.  Norman is asleep on his bed while his mother watches him from a rocking chair.

“Bates Motel” could have been just a long series of boring foreshadowing, but the masterstroke was in shifting focus away from Norman as the show’s central drive.  That role goes to Norma, and it is a wise idea.  Focusing a series on the young Norman Bates  creates a lot of elastic drama.  We know Norman, his past and the chasms of his damaged mind.  What we don’t know is Norma. 

Norma Bates remains a mystery.  In Hitchcock’s film, and the book by Robert Bloch, Norma is a character who is made up mostly of words and images formed in our minds.  In the film, we get a psychiatrist blathering explanation that comes second hand from her son.  He describes her as “a clinging, demanding woman,” and our minds form the image of a batty 19th century school marm who lords over Norman, damaging him psychologically and sexually.

The series does something radically different, it presents Norma as a normal, clinging, but somewhat fragile human being who is devoted to her son and to making a better life for herself.  Yet, her fragility is a great contrast to the world that she’s entered.  The contrast between Norma and her surroundings – she’s moved to the town of White Pine Bay, Oregon, a virtual hornet’s next of corruption run, centering on a mass pot-smuggling operation – gives us a great measure of sympathy for this poor woman.  She is parent to one son who is has psychological issues, and to another son, Dillon (Max Theriott), who is mixed up in the local drug smuggling operation.  Norma is the fulcrum of the horrible things happening around her – in the first episode she is nearly raped by the former owner of her motel.

Much of the credit goes to Vera Farmiga who plays the role at ground level.  It would be fatal to the material is show played Norma as crazy.  She’s just a normal, hard-working, doting mother who loves her sons and wants only the best for them (it’s a nice in-joke that the show’s creators have Farmiga dolled up like one of Hitch’s blondes).  We have sympathy for this woman, and the show points out that she is not the sole author of Norman’s problems.  From the first episode, we are told that Norman’s psychological problems were brewing long before he and his mother opened the motel.  The series opens with the death of his father, later – we learn – during one of Norman’s blackouts.  Over the course of two seasons, Norman has committed three murders that aren’t spurred from the psychosis of his mother.

That’s smart because it puts the problem back on Norman, whereas before we were led to believe that his mental instability was the product of his mother.  Norma – in the series anyway – gains our sympathies, because she is a victim of the insane environment that she has found herself in, a private trap, if you will.

There is also a feeling of melancholy about Norma.  We see a woman who is surrounded by the dregs of society, a woman whose business is about to be ruined by a construction project and whose sons are both criminals. Her background is a sad tapestry of child abuse and later domestic problems, the saddest element of which is that we know that her story does not end well.  Norma’s grisly fate is known to us, and as we see her in the series she doesn’t (yet) seem to be the architect of her own demise.  Norma is not totally blameless.  She dotes – not unreasonably – over her son, whom she knows has problems.  We see the seeds of Norma’s domination only in tiny hints, in fragments of dialogue.  The final episode of the season featured, not only the scene in Norman’s bedroom, but a very uncomfortable kiss that may or may not have pushed her son over the edge.

“Bates Motel” is tricky.  It wades in the waters of our expectations.  We know what is coming; we know the terrible things that Norman will do over time, and what will become of Norma.  Prequels always have our expectations hanging over them, an agenda in which all the pieces must inevitably fall into the pattern that we already know.  What’s interesting here is that the writers have turned the tables, not just explaining how Norman came to murder his mother, but in reconfiguring the idea that Norma was a black-hearted wench who fed the psychosis of a screwed-up son.  They have brilliantly modulated the idea that she is not the sole cause of it all.  What they have in store for us may turn the tide back the other way – we’ll have to wait and see.  For now, the show’s writers are playing us like a piano, and it’s a tune worth listening to.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.