Welcome to Bates Motel‘s final season, where the relationship between Norman and Norma Bates is more complicated than ever. (Yes, even now that she’s dead.) So, to help guide you through the twisted mind of Norman, showrunner Kerry Ehrin is blogging the season’s most pivotal episodes.
‘BAD BLOOD’: LIFE IS ALL PERCEPTION
This is one of my all-time favorite episodes, written by the talented Tom Szentgyorgyi, but it was also one of the most challenging for a number of reasons. All we knew when we started breaking the story in the writers’ room was that we knew we wanted to do an episode where Caleb was held prisoner in the house, and (we had a feeling) it would lead to his death. It’s never easy to kill a character, but they also have a way of letting you know when the time is right for them to go. It felt right that Caleb should not last long in this world once he hears of Norma’s death — that, on some level, she was what grounded him to this world.
So that was the only footprint we had as we started to break the story. We went through quite a few incarnations including one where Norman (as Mother) was torturing Caleb by way of payback. A lot of the versions we did, however, felt too arch and silly, so we opted instead to tell the most human story we could: What happens when three crazy people are all trapped in a house together? It seemed like a great way to tell a heightened version of a typical, dysfunctional family: Everyone trapped inside their own issues, no one actually communicating except on a very superficial level, everyone secretly trying to control things to meet their needs. Chaos ensuing. Just a regular day in the life of people all over the world!
The idea that Mother would not be able to kill Caleb was key. It was interesting to think that Norman’s version of “Norma” (Mother) would still have a vulnerability for her brother even though he had horribly and inexcusably violated her. So what developed was an emotional roundabout of three people (Norman, Chick, Caleb — and throw in Mother who is her own entity — so four “people”) who were all circling each other with limited information. All in a fog of deceit and emotion and heartache. All feeling their way around in the dark, as it were, about what to do with the man who is chained up in the basement. They couldn’t let him go and yet no one seemed able to step up and kill him.
This felt like a cool story.
I always get excited when a story we are breaking starts to feel like it could exist as a play because I know we are on to something. People trapped in a house where no one can do the deed of killing Caleb. It reminded me of Hamlet’s situation in a funny way. So we started breaking this story, which on some level felt like we were trying to shape mist because it lacked a lot of “incident.” Every step of it was pretty much made out of someone’s perception as opposed to an outside “action.” As writers, though, it was a lovely, blurry world to step into and unfold, piece by piece.
This is one episode I personally see as a true black comedy. It is absurd in the way that dysfunction can be so funny if you are able to step outside of it and look at it without being emotionally invested. The scene where Chick brings Norman breakfast in bed, right on the heels of Norman talking to Mother, and Norman wondering through the whole scene with Chick if he saw her, and being worried that Mother’s secret is blown, was the stuff of flat-out comedy. Also the dinner scene, where Norman believes that Chick can see Mother, and Chick is playing along so he can observe Norman’s dementia for a book he’s writing is one of my all time favorites — just crazy, fun farce. So then the challenge becomes grounding it and keeping it real. (These are my FAVORITE scenes in this show — where you are being tossed around in the winds of absurdity but at the same time your heart is breaking.)
This episode also provided a lot of puzzles in production, which were solved admirably by the talented Sarah Boyd, who directed this and 502. As Sarah puts it: “It was a challenging episode, not only because it came on the heels of 502 with very limited prep, but also because the script played on the three main characters having multiple states of ‘crazy.’ We talked a lot in prep about how to show each subjective state — especially when they came into contact (and conflict) with each other. A small example may at first seem like a continuity gaffe — in Norman’s bedroom Mother leaves the room and leaves the door wide open. Then Chick walks in, opening the closed door. This momentarily confuses Norman — and the audience can appreciate that, in fact, Mother was really never there and the door was closed all along!”
The basement scene, where Mother goes down to visit Caleb, was also a very demanding scene in that it was all based on Norman and Caleb’s crazy perceptions of what was happening in those moments. The goal was to arrive at a place that was meaningful in the middle of a fog of blurred reality. That it was meaningful to them because they were PERCEIVING it to be meaningful. And that we (the audience) would be caught up with it because we were inside their perception at that moment. That was the goal, and Sarah nailed it beautifully. From Sarah: “The basement scene, as Caleb is seeing Norma/Mother, was both challenging and very rewarding: We needed to be in his head and allow the audience to go through his confusion and ‘see’ Norma as well as Norman — but also feel something was wrong. I’ve always liked the effect of swing-and-tilt lens to create a shifting, altered state, so we played with various focus shifts and of course put both Freddie and Vera in and then had lots of great options for editorial to choose from to move back and forth between reality and delusion.”
This episode has a dreamlike quality that cocoons Caleb as he breaks from reality. In the end, it seemed right that no one should kill Caleb but his own actions. He was a lost soul with a black mark on his heart he couldn’t erase. He started to lose it as soon as he heard about Norma’s death. He spiraled down. He started to not be able to tell reality from illusion — much as he had spent a great deal of his life trying to live in the illusion that he had not attacked his sister, who he loved, in the most abusive and violating way possible. It made sense that his death should have a randomness to it, that he was running wild, not knowing where to go to save himself, until finally he is taken out of his pain, and the guilt of the pain he inflicted on others, by death.
I couldn’t write this without saying goodbye to Caleb and thanking the wonderfully talented Kenny Johnson for taking on this incredibly tough role and making it into something so multi-dimensional and heartbreakingly human. You gave Caleb a beating heart, Kenny. You played a doomed and sometimes evil person with integrity and love. You broke our hearts, just as he had broken Norma’s, with a kaleidoscope of qualities that blurred the lines and simply made us feel. In the ocean of Bates, where truth is irrelevant and perception is the only guiding force, you always moved gracefully in those deep waters. It has been a pure joy getting to work with you and your beautiful mind. Thank you so much, Kenny.
Until next time, my friend, when we meet in another crazy dream. :)
Max Thieriot and director Sarah Boyd
Rehearsing the basement scene