For those who have been desperately waiting for Bates Motel to really lean into it Psycho roots, the third season of the A&E series will not disappoint.
After Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) nearly ended his life at the end of season 2, the nascent psychopath will take a giant leap towards fulfilling his destiny in the upcoming third season, which sends Norma (Vera Farmiga) spiraling as she desperately tries to hold onto the last vestige of her son’s innocence. Below, Farmiga and Highmore, along with executive producer Kerry Ehrin, deep-dive into the descension of a psycho:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you guys leaning more heavily into the Psycho themes this season?
KERRY EHRIN: We very conscientiously built to it over the first two seasons. We all know the Psycho mythology, so we all know where it’s heading. The first two seasons were very much about creating the new world that was a part of the film that people didn’t know and getting to know the tone of it, and the characters and the perversion of Norman starting to descend into this psychosis. This is the meaty part of the mythology.
We’ve already seen Norman have his “episodes” where he imagines he’s talking to Norma, so what makes this different?
FREDDIE HIGHMORE: What exactly happens to him? Does he, as we’ve seen in the past, see Norma as this vision in front of him telling him what to do, and he has this imaginary scene with her? Or does it go more in the direction of Norman becoming Norma himself and believing that he actually is her as opposed to having a conversation with her? And his awareness of it as well. There’s a certain kind of manipulativeness that can come from that that will be interesting to explore in the third season. Now he has this knowledge, does it become powerful to him in some way? And to push the boundaries a bit more of do we still like Norman as someone we’ll support, or will he be a little more harder to like?
What goes hand in hand with Norman falling into a psychosis is Norma spiraling. What can you tell us about her trajectory?
VERA FARMIGA: What separates this from the two previous seasons is her awareness that Norman’s mental state is wafting in a certain direction, and the acceptance of that. What happens to her is that she’s simultaneously stronger this season and weaker. You see the unraveling. As his mental state darkens, she’s desperately trying to glue back these fragmented pieces of his psyche. Up until now, she thinks it’s only her love that can be that binding force. She is in full mama bear mode, but she’s feeling the panic. There’s no way that a mother that has a cold, special needs child—there’s no textbook way to fix that child. So she’s carrying him on her back up this hill, she’s feeling the panic, and I think inside, she’s just screaming. There is a part of her that’s just had enough, that’s exhausted, that doesn’t know how to cope. And one of those coping mechanisms is going to be a kind of disconnect.
EHRIN: It’s just a fascinating storyline to get to do, because everyone knows who Norman Bates is, and everybody knows what his mental state is, but this is a very real story of a mom dealing with having to face that there’s something not just wrong with her son, but badly wrong with him, something sinister. It’s been a really rewarding story to unfold and really terrifying and really heartbreaking and incredibly moving also, because Norma Bates, for all her dysfunction and flaws, she’s always valiant. You have to admire that about her.
As she sees that Norman is dangerous, will she realize that her coddling might actually be attributing to his downfall?
EHRIN: Yeah. You have to look at her as someone who is so dysfunctional herself and so starved for any sort of healthy upbringing. She has things wrong with her, but she doesn’t have the tools or the enlightenment to know how to fix it. She’s not really able to step back from it and say, “I’m doing this because I need it, and it’s causing something bad to happen over here.” But I do feel like, this season, she’s growing more able, or is pushed more to having to look at that.
HIGHMORE: Norman has, I guess, stayed in the world for his mother, and so that’s a slight burden on her in terms of she’s the reason that he stayed and the only reason he didn’t [kill himself] at the last minute. Because he stayed for her, she’s forced into returning to that mutual dependence as opposed to letting go, because that’s the only reason that he stayed.
FARMIGA: The lies and deceit [for Norman], I think that is over. I think that has not worked for her, so that is a forward-moving step.
HIGHMORE: In a way, she’s always trying to help him get better, she does it in the wrong way. Maybe she just carries on not doing it so well [Laughs]. I mean, that’s the thing: We know it’s not going to end well for them. But certainly it’s made them closer and that mutual dependence is just as strong as ever. Whenever one of them tries to break it off, it ends up being impossible.
What steps is Norman going to take to be “normal” this season?
HIGHMORE: Norma has always had this void for a man in her life. She’s always had Norman, but they haven’t been completely equal—Norman’s been her son, and she’s taking care of him. In the third season, Norman seeks to become her equal a bit more. He’s named manager of the motel, and he starts to see her as an equal and perhaps hopes to fill that void of that man in her life. So the relationship shifts slightly more towards the husband-wife thing that’s been hinted at in the past, as opposed to mother and son.
What can you tease of Bradley’s (Nicola Peltz) return?
EHRIN: When Bradley returns, we get to see what her life has been like for the last year since she left. It’s a little shocking. She returns wanting to put an end to something. You can imagine if you were gone from your home for a year under some dire circumstances, what it would mean to return and reconnect. It’s a very, very rich storyline for her.
HIGHMORE: I guess it’s Norman’s first—maybe it wasn’t love—but infatuation, that he fell for someone outside of his mother. She’ll always have this special place for him. But before that, I think it’s about exploring Norman and Emma (Olivia Cooke) and that dynamic that’s always been hinted at and to what extent will they get closer this season.
Norman passed the lie detector test, but will he still feel pressure from Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell)?
HIGHMORE: No, I think Romero has closed that case, and now he’s done his duty as a police officer. It’s like, “Okay, there’s something wrong going on here, but as long as I’ve covered my tracks, and I’ve done what I can, there’s no point carrying on digging into this weird duo that have showed up at the motel.” But then in the third season, his suspicions are kind of aroused once again by a certain incident. So that uncertainty around who Norman really is, that sparks it off again in his mind.
Tracy Spiridakos will appear in the third season as a new hotel tenant, Annika Johnson. What can you tease?
HIGHMORE: Certain vulnerable women seem to find that they want to open up to Norman—and maybe that’s not the best idea. He has this certain attraction to her, and it isn’t necessarily a sexual thing, but it’s like, “Oh, someone that I can trust,” or he comes across as slightly odd, I think, but at the same time, slightly trustworthy despite that. But as we know, it’s not quite that. [Laughs]
EHRIN: When Annika checks in, it’s at a really tender time for Norman, because he’s just had this medical episode, and Norma is very much trying to keep him close and keep him safe. So into this walks Annika Johnson, who is a woman who very openly deals in the sex trade and is pretty grounded about it and not apologetic at all. She’s just a cool, lovely, honest woman who does this. But Annika doesn’t really realize that the presence of that sexuality or even talking about it in front of Norman is a huge trigger for him, and Norma does have more of a sense of this. So when she sees Annika first walking in, she gets a bad feeling. Norma feels connections between things like sexuality in women and her son being dangerous or her not being able to control it anymore.
Caleb (Kenny Johnson) is going to be sticking around this season, so what does the father-son dynamic with Dylan (Max Thieriot) look like?
EHRIN: The Caleb story is such an interesting one and so moving, because Dylan, more than anything in the world, has always wanted to belong to somebody and to have a family. Dylan was a child of incest and rape, so that’s why Norma never really bonded with him. While he tries to get closer to his mom, at this very tender moment in their relationship, Caleb shows up, and it’s on the heels of Norma and Caleb’s mother dying. Caleb shows up and also is feeling like he doesn’t belong to anything anymore. He no longer has his sister in his life, he no longer has his parents. He is remembering that he has this alleged son, and he reaches out to him, and he wants to be able to just be around him for a little while. Of course, Dylan knows that’s a horrible idea, because it’s a huge betrayal of his mother, but at the same time, he has sympathy for Caleb as a human being, and also a tremendous yearning to have a parent that wants him and wants to be there. We don’t know what kind of a guy Caleb is. We know what we know about him, which is horrible. But we don’t know if he’s just a bad guy and if Dylan’s being sucked in. It’s really fascinating to go on that journey with him.
What is Romero facing this season?
EHRIN: Well, Romero is facing the collapse of his entire identity, which is, he has always been the stoic keeper of the law on his own terms, and he’s always had the control. Because of how this last year has spun out to some extent, it all has a huge bearing on him and how he is perceived in the town, and how he perceives himself. The really fun part of this year with his storyline is that we get to peel back the onion a little bit and get to see what’s under some of the stoicism and who he really is and how he got that way. Also, his storyline crosses paths with Norma. They circle around each other a lot, and their relationship evolves in an interesting way, because they’re both control freaks, and they’re both so needy internally.
FARMIGA: They’re obviously drawn together, these two souls. The thing about them is that they both have this armor of guardedness. Norma just wants to feel safe at this point in her life. She’s clinging to anyone, everyone like a life raft, and Romero has been that for her. There’s just a sense of peace that she feels.
As you continue to lean into Psycho, can the series end any other way than what we already know and expect?
EHRIN: Oh yeah. It’s not going to end there! [Laughs] There’s a whole structure in place that we’re working toward. When you think of Psycho, the mythology of it, there’s a lot of area to be covered that never gets covered in the movie. The concept that Carlton [Cuse] and I have always had is that this is a “romance” between two people, not a physical one, but they’re emotionally bonded to each other. That’s also part of the story you’re telling. People should not expect that it’s going to end in that same place.
Bates Motel returns Monday at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.