There's a new sheriff in town, but Mother is still in the driver's seat of Norman's psyche

By Jodi Walker
March 14, 2017 at 01:42 AM EDT
Cate Cameron/A&E
S5 E4
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Bates Motel has this glorious, infuriating way of letting me get through an entire episode thinking I’m going to shape my recap around one central idea, and then in the last minute — sometimes in the last second — completely redirecting everything I thought I understood. Which is to say: THAT LOOK. That look! That final literally-Psycho look cut me to the core, it stared into my soul, and it said, “Good luck ever figuring me out.”

Because here’s what I saw the rest of the episode (which was, by the way, very good, and directed by our very own puppy-dog-eyed, beer-distributin’ Good Son, Max Thieriot): as Freddie Highmore’s Norman increasingly takes on a more central and dynamic role in season 5 — as opposed to the more shared lead of season’s past, a transition we knew must be made from the moment Norma Bates died — it’s easy to feel sympathy for his situation, to feel like, if this small business owner could just get some help, he might be able to tamp down that tendency to, y’know… murder people.

In Norma’s absence, Vera Farmiga is still with us as Mother, of course, jutting out of stair wells, and peering over kitchen islands to ask what the hell is goin’ on here. But we know, and Chick knows, and Norman does not know, that Mother is a creation of Norman’s mind. Mother does not exist without Norman, and that seems to give Norman some semblance of power. What Monday’s episode reminds us over and over again is that Norman is not in charge here.

From the very beginning, Bates Motel has told the story of a power struggle between three often indistinct personalities: Norma Bates, Norman Bates, and Mother. Norman’s channeling of his other personality has been covered up by blackouts, it’s been tamped down by medicine, and, before she drew her last breath, Norma, ironically, was always the one thing that stood between her son and his full descent into… her. But with Norma no longer protecting Norman, there’s nothing stopping Mother from protecting him — certainly not Norman.

But for such a tragic, tragic tale, this episode sure had its funny moments, too, starting with rapport between Chick, Norman, and Mother shortly after killing — yes, he’s definitely dead — Caleb. See, Norman thinks they should call the sheriff since the actual killing of Caleb was an accident. Of note, while saying this, Norman is waving around a gun (a gun we last saw “Mother” shooting at Caleb with). Mother and Chick, however are of the same mind that they need to ditch the body and not tell anyone on account of Caleb recently being locked in their basement, a basement that really doesn’t need to be inspected to thoroughly. Of course, Chick can’t hear that Mother agrees with him, and also, Mother is a figment of Norman’s psyche. You can imagine the dynamics that are being drawn here.

Mother and Chick win the argument, so Chick and Norman load Caleb’s body into Chick’s car shortly before removing the groceries he’s just bought — “I want to make [the chicken] when I get back for dinner” — and Chick promises to take care of it. For Chick, taking care of it means giving Caleb a full Viking funeral. He wraps him up in a sheet on a raft filled with greenery, lays flowers on his bare chest, lights the pyre, and sends him out onto the lake. It’s rather beautiful. On a different show, I think we might’ve called these two frenemies.

As for Norman, he says he and Chick can be only just friends. It’s a classic it’s-not-you-it’s-me-and-my-dead-mom situation. He’s very appreciative — a word he’s very fond of these days — of all the help Chick has given to him and Mother, but adding one more person to the mix has made an already tricky dynamic even trickier. They can still be friends, Norman insists, but Chick can’t live there anymore. And he can still come over, but not anytime soon. Chick, who knows quite a bit about Norman, seems a bit salty to say the least, and leaves him with these words: You might want to cook up that chicken I brought over last night… or it goes bad. It goes real bad.”

And speaking of real bad, there’s a new sheriff in town, and she seems like one sharp shooter, figuratively and I’ll bet literally. Sheriff Jane Green swings by Norman’s house to ask him if he knows anything about the whereabouts of Joe Blackwell. This episode has a lot of juicy callbacks to previous seasons (as well as juicy foreshadowing to Psycho), but possibly my favorites are the scenes between Norman and Sheriff Green that so mirror former scenes between early-seasons Norma and Sheriff Romero: how they juxtapose these four very different characters and the way they mount attacks and defenses.

Sheriff Green shows up at Norman’s door for information about Blackwell because it seems he skipped his parole, and when his parole officer checked his house, he found Norman’s address written on a slip of paper. It also seems that Blackwell recently served jail time in the same facility as Norman’s stepfather, Alex Romero, who, by the way, recently escaped from said facility.

The sheriff delivers all of this information with a kind of measured nonchalance, while Norman receives it with a barely hidden building terror. The sheriff says it’s the timing that concerns her — what could Romero want to get to so badly that he couldn’t wait two years to get off a work farm, and why might Blackwell have been headed to the Bates Motel? Norman insists there’s nothing in his house he doesn’t know about (as we scream in unison, Kid, there are things in your own MIND you don’t know about), and the sheriff calmly reminds him that he told her just moments ago that he was working on de-cluttering his house because he couldn’t keep up with everything he has.

NEXT: How to lose a girl in four episodes by giving her your dead mother’s belongings…

Just a classic Norman snafu, nothing to worry about here! When Norman goes back inside, Mother, whose persona seems to get gruffer and gruffer by the episode, asks, “What the hell did she want with us?” Norman tells her exactly what the sheriff wanted regarding Joe Blackwell and then lays into Mother for making these decisions without him that get him in trouble down the road. Norman doesn’t want to be “getting rid of bodies, or having people chained up in my basement, or dumping people in lakes!” Mother, towering over Norman in silhouette from the top of the stairs, asks if next time she should just let him die, and Norman says maybe.

Norman is feeling powerless in his own life, and he’s dealing with that most immediately by getting rid of some of Norma’s old things. But as he’s dropping off the donations, he appears to have a thought… and then he goes to the hardware store… and offers Madeleine his dead mother’s old dresses. It is a tall, tall task to ask Freddie Highmore to make this seem not like the creepiest thing in the world, and he pulls through by making it only slightly creepy, a thing which they both thankfully acknowledge. When Madeleine is hesitant, Norman explains that his mother was vibrant, and youthful, and fashionable: “I just felt like you’d take care of them and wear them. Like they wouldn’t be something unanimated anymore.” Yowza!

Madeleine takes the clothes graciously, but she seems plenty happy to be sending Norman on his way with his order of shower liners — the Bates Motel just goes through them like wildfire! — but not before Norman shoots one last longing glance at Madeleine as she picks up a customer’s baby, looking ever so sweet. Oh Mrs. Loomis, I think it every single week, but now more than ever: Madeleine, you in danger, girl!

But Norman is facing dangers of his own. I love Brooke Smith’s performance as Sheriff Greene, which is sweet on the outside, but manages to convey that she could be absolutely deadly when crossed, and I love (and, y’know, hate because this is Bates Motel after all) that the character finally presents a real threat to Norman and Mother’s whole homicidal operation. Sure, Romero is on his way, but what he has in mind is vengeance. What Greene is looking for when she pulls back up to the gravel parking lot in a painfully familiar SUV is justice.

But she’s still just feeling out the situation. She asks Norman if they happen to keep an old-fashioned guest log, in case Blackwell came to the motel under an alias. Just as Norman allowed the detective to look over his guest log in Psycho, Norman allows Sheriff Greene to take a look here, and we’re treated to another familiar shot as the camera pans to down below Norman’s chin while he looks on at the guest log investigation in progress. Norman’s stress-eating of candy corn, I believe, is unique to Bates Motel.

The sheriff doesn’t find anything, but Norman says they get guests from Canyon City all the time, so maybe Blackwell just wrote down the address because he was thinking of stopping through the motel. The sheriff asks Norman how he knew that Blackwell lived in Canyon City. BUSTED. Instead of telling the sheriff that he knows because for a short time after his split-personality-mother murdered Blackwell, he was in possession of his wallet, he pathetically stutters out that the sheriff mentioned it earlier. Doesn’t she remember? She certainly doesn’t seem like a woman who forgets…

Back to the house, Norman runs to fuss at Mother some more. Sheriff Greene mentioned to Norman what kind of car Blackwell drove, and Norman wants to know where it is. Mother defiantly tells him that she hid it in the woods, no big deal, but Norman wants to get rid of it entirely, so before you know it, Mother is back in Norma’s infamously sporty rain wear, trudging through the woods with Norman. She insists that she knows what she’s doing: She got rid of the plates, scratched off the VIN number, concealed the car with brush, and covered her tracks on her way out. And she threw away the key.

Norman is furious with that last development: “Maybe you want us to get caught… maybe you’re sick of me, maybe you’re just sick of this whole situation!” Norma, who seems to have completed her turn into outright villain in this episode, well on her way to the demeaning shrew we know from Psycho, mocks Norman’s anger, saying, “That’s why I’ve protected your ass 24/7, so we could get caught!” She begins screaming to an invisible listener to just go ahead and lock them up, she faked her suicide, she’s still alive, her NAME IS NORMA BAAAAATES!

And Norman snaps. Norman, who feels like he’s had no control over the decisions being made for him, decides to choke his Mother. To stifle her, to end her. And as he does, she goes silent, and then her eyes go dead, like the eyes of the mummified Norma down in the basement. Norman killed Mother.

Just kidding! Her milky eyes blink and go back to vibrant blue. Norman apologizes and says the car is fine, they can just leave. Mother tells him, “Don’t ever do that to me again,” and walks off back toward the house as Norman follows behind. Because Norman is not in charge here.

NEXT: A guy with a thing in a place…

But we know he still thinks he could be, because he shows up at Chick’s trailer (which I originally thought was a junkyard) to ask him for advice on hot-wiring a car. Chick isn’t so keen on just throwing around friendly advice with someone who recently kicked him out, though. Hurt Chick and Nervous Norman are a wonderful combination, and Chick tells him he might “know a guy with a place and a thing” that could help Norman get rid of a car. But first he needs to know what Norman did. Norman breaks down: “It’s not me, Chick, it is her… There is something very wrong with her. And I’ve tried to help, but Chick, she is going to ruin us if I don’t rein her in, and I don’t know how to rein her in!” Oh, that psychosis is just too rich for Chick’s true-crime-writing blood, and he deals back in: Chick says maybe he can help Norman with “her,” but Norman doesn’t thinks so. The looks on Chick’s face says he’s going to do something.

Back at the house, Norman receives a call from Madeleine: She actually loved his dead mother’s clothes, and can you believe it, they fit perfectly. She hopes that Norman can come over for dinner later, and dammit if I don’t light up at his boy-with-a-crush smile when he gets off the phone after accepting the invitation. Really hope Mother doesn’t murder that nice girl…

She certainly doesn’t want him to go over there when he heads downstairs in his blazer, but Norman informs Mother that he’s really not interested in if she thinks it’s a good idea. And when Norman actually makes it to Madeleine’s door without Mother jumping in front of any moving vehicles, it seems like maybe Norman is in control of his own life for the time being. Though it’s kind of a toss-up of how it might affect him that Madeleine opens the door wearing the blue and white print dress of Norma’s that I think is the one Norman hid under his bed because it was frequently what Norman/Mother was wearing when he would have blackout conversations with her in previous seasons.

Madeleine apologizes profusely for forgetting to take it off after trying it on earlier, but it’s no matter — Norman seems to be pretty much in love with her and her cute house, and her lovely chicken dinner, and her stemless wine glasses, and sitting at the head of her table, staring into her eyes. He asks if she’s spoken to Sam about the concerns she shared with him in last week’s episode, and she says she thinks she was just tired when she had that episode. “We all have bad days where we wonder what’s real and not real,” says Norman ominously: “I think it’s the nature of relationships, they shift constantly… it’s hard to know what’s real in any minute unless it’s right in front of you and you’re experiencing it.”

And what Norman and Madeleine are experiencing right now is an attraction to each other. They’re treating this like a date, and as they adjourn to the kitchen to make a cake, it gets to be too much: Madeleine kisses Norman. And after showing that Norman certainly has grown up a bit since his fumbles with Bradley, etc., it gets to be too much for Norman, too. He spots Mother standing over Madeleine’s shoulder and jumps back. We see visions of Mother slitting Madeleine’s throat and her writhing on the ground, but Norman snaps back to himself and Madeleine is (unbelievably) still alive.

He runs out saying he can’t do this, and gets back to his house screaming for Mother. But what he finds is a house without Mother. A house with unmade beds and dirty dishes and no Mother — a house that exists in reality, a full, un-split reality. He leans against the kitchen table breathing deeply as the camera narrows in on his face, and in a split second his eyes flick up to lock the camera with one hell of a menacing look. You know the one… one that tells us what kind of person Norman is.

Bates & Pieces:

  • That look, I SWEAR!
  • Alex Romero’s Painful Quest for Vengeance Is Riddled With Buckshot: I love seeing Romero and his quest for vengeance, I do, but I must admit that his scenes being so separate from the main narrative while being so evenly dispersed throughout each episode is a little jarring. Homeboy is having a tough time after getting a stomach full of buckshot, but manages to rob an ambulance for supplies to clean it up and stumbles to… his sister’s (?) house for safekeeping.
  • Speaking of people with separate story lines, I miss Emma and Dylan, I do, but how about they never, ever, ever come back to the Bates Motel, and live a happy life in their cute house with their cute baby, and maybe we could just get, like, a quick web-series check in on how happy and safe and sound they are… ‘kay???
  • “Make up your mind, do I like them or do I not like them!” Yeah, Norman, make up Mother’s mind.
  • Norman Bates School of Wooing: Enter rooms by saying, “Look at you in here all by yourself.”
  • I loved that in the scene where Norman is delivering the dresses to Madeleine and thinking so much of Norma, there’s old-fashioned music playing in the background, but when he’s having dinner with her, and truly in the moment with her, they’re scored entirely by modern music.
  • Chick describes his suspense novel to Norman: “I think in the right hands, when it’s complete it’ll make quite a good little movie.” How deeply should we read into that fun little line?
  • Every reference to Psycho you saw in this episode in the comments — GO!

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seasons
  • 5
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  • 03/18/13
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  • In Season
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