Joseph Lederer/A&E
March 20, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

There are some remarkable individual performances happening on television right now — ones that rival anything on the silver screen. (Just ask Matthew McConaughey, who is currently excelling in both mediums.) But there’s no better one-two punch on TV today than Bates Motel‘s Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore. As mother-and-son oddballs Norma and Norman Bates, Farmiga and Highmore tag-teamed to make season 1 of A&E’s modern-day Psycho prequel one of the best new shows of 2013. The duo were so mesmerizing in their twisted, dysfunctional relationship, however, that it was easy to overlook the issue that some of the plotlines surrounding them didn’t always measure up. Alas, the same appears to hold true in season 2.

The action picks up right after last season’s murder of high school teacher Miss Watson, and then jumps ahead four months. Did Norman do it? Nobody knows, including Norman himself — he suffered another blackout while at her house. This both draws Norma and her budding-taxidermist son closer (as she tries to protect him) and pulls them further apart (as he seeks to distance himself from her smothering ways). Their scenes together vibrate with awkward energy and pent-up rage, even in seemingly simpler moments, like an afternoon driving lesson — what could possibly go wrong?! — and an audition for a local musical.

The scenes without them, though, can be serial momentum killers. The drug trade that supports the town of White Pine Bay continues to feel forced and a bit silly, while the first two episodes are also weighed down by a dull subplot involving Norman’s teenage crush Bradley (Nicola Peltz), who’s searching for her father’s killer. The good news is there are signs this story may wrap up soon, perhaps because Peltz has committed to bigger and better things (well, bigger at least; she’s starring in the Transformers franchise).

More welcome is a return to the matter of a new bypass road that will render the Bates Motel all but obsolete. Construction projects might not make for the sexiest story lines, but considering how much this one ties in to the original Psycho, it was severely underplayed last season. Norma’s unhinged visit to a city council meeting in the season premiere assures us we’ll get some extra mythology to chew on here. ”This is the road that’s going to ruin our lives,” Norma frets to Norman as she sees the diggers and tractors setting up to begin work. If so, let’s hope that’s the road Bates Motel keeps traveling. B

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