You can't have one (brother) without the... Mother
Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E

The promise of season 5 of Bates Motel, and the utter thrill of last week’s episode, came with the all-important knowledge that the series would finally be catching up with its source material. And boy, did it catch up: About the time Norman chose to kill Sam Loomis at the behest of Mother, we shot right past catching up and cruised into a whole new stretch of narrative highway. Now here we are, completely off script in a post-Marion-Crane world.

Of course, it’s not as simple as rebranding this series, Bates Motel: 2 Fast 2 Furious, but Monday night’s episode goes to great lengths to show that we are entering brand new territory for this this classic story, and that’s because Norman is teetering on the edge of a new world himself. A world where there’s a little more truth than what he’s been allowed to see before. A world where Norman might be able to tell the difference between the love he had for his mother Norma, and the “protection” that Mother offers him in return. In this world where Marion lived and Norman killed Sam himself, Norman has the potential to realize that there’s no way out of the mess he’s made with Mother — but there could be a way through it.

That’s a lot of ground for a mentally ill young man to cover in a one-hour time frame, and this episode is a little eclectic as a result, though I’d say every plot-noodle that’s thrown against the wall just about sticks the landing. The front half of the episode, dominated by Mother, is full camp, featuring hapless body-ditchings, catfights in the car, and comparing finding out you have a homicidal dissociative personality in the form of your dead mother to finding out about Santa Claus. The latter half of the very same episode, once Dylan enters the scene, is a slowly breaking heart, both for the audience and for Dylan, two entities that have always been intrinsically linked.

Dylan has been a somewhat random character from the start, made utterly lovable by a vulnerable performance from Max Thieriot and a pretty swift pivot somewhere around season 2 from someone who had his mother saved as “Whore” in his phone to someone who just wanted to love and be loved. As a result, Dylan has often felt a bit like a character being dragged through this mental marathon as a lamb being fattened for the slaughter. Once he was paired with angel-pixie-dream-friend Emma, I assumed it was to absolutely destroy us when Norman murdered them dead. But after tonight’s episode, the question must be asked: Has Dylan been fattened up for five seasons — one weed adventure, complex incest plot, and precious baby daughter at a time — because all along he’s been Norman’s only hope of being saved?

Because Mother is right: Dylan has never understood the relationship between Norman and his mother. And that is because Dylan generally serves as Bates Motel’s heavy dose of reality, and the reality of the relationship between Norman and his mother is, at best, twisted, and at worst… well, whatever cylinders it’s firing on now. I mean, this opening scene is b-a-n-a-n-a-s. It starts with a close-up on the bloodied face of Sam Loomis, the man Norman has recently stabbed to death. Norman stands overhead, splattered in blood, looking shell shocked at his life choices. Mother enters the scene in her cleanin’ scrubs: “Jesus, Norman, turn the faucet off, you’re wasting water!”

Meet Mother, who in this episode officially transitions from any remaining semblance of her inspiration, Norma Bates, to the full villainy, violence, and manipulation of Psycho‘s be-bunned shrew of a woman (bun still MIA, hopefully forever). Mother tells Norman, “You wanna play with the big kids, honey, you gotta act like a big kid,” which means pulling on some rubber gloves, folding the man you just killed into your trunk, and driving him out to the lake to dump his body. Like a big kid, Norman!

In the car though, Norman is still having trouble reckoning with the fact that he just murdered someone. Mother tells him that he can’t ask her for the truth and then freak out when she shows him. Norman responds that the “truth” is just kind of a lot. They pull up to a familiar looking entrance to the lake… and find police lights. Norman pulls the car into the woods, and they watch from a distance as a body is pulled from the lake. It’s a beautiful shot of Norman and Mother as they watch reality catch up with them outside in the winter twilight — and then Norman keels over and vomits. It’s perfect.

Back in the car, Mother scoffs, “It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us,” and Norman screams back that it is almost certainly Jim Blackwell, the man the sheriff keeps coming ’round to question him about! So Mother slaps him — and Norman slaps her back! It’s soapy slapstick madness, and these two are absolutely losing it. Mother says since they can’t use the lake this time, they’ll just have to choose between the cliff or the woods. Norman, finally catching on: “This time? How many times have we done this, Mother? How many bodies are they going to find in that lake?”

Mother gives a pitiful little whimper and tells Norman if they link these crimes to him they’ll kill him or put him in a mental institution: “Whichever it is, it’s going to be the end of us.” In that moment, behind the fear of losing Mother welling up Freddie Highmore’s already quivering eyes, there’s a hint of something else: perhaps the spark of a realization that, despite what’s sitting next to him in this car, the end of Norman and his mother has come and gone. As hard as he’s tried to hold on to her, and as much as she controls his every waking moment, Norman Bates lost a long time ago.

“We don’t have time for this emotional bulls—!” cries Mother.

And so, this time, they take to the woods with Sam — “He’s heavy.” “Yeah, well, he’s tall…was tall.” — where Mother is sure she’s seen an old well just prime for dumping a body in. By the well, Norman pauses to have a crisis of conscience: “I can’t believe I did this. He didn’t deserve to die.” Mother tips Sam’s body the rest of the way into the well and says, “If I had a quarter, I’d make a wish.” Oh, this personality once created to protect Norman has built to something truly repulsive within the labyrinth of his psyche, hasn’t it? I will admit that it’s been a tough transition to accept that Vera Farmiga’s performance as fiery, bold, colorful, semi-insane but ultimately lovable Norma would eventually be overtaken entirely by this detestable bizarro-version… but damn if she isn’t eating this role up just as much. When Norman questions if he should turn himself in, she says if he can’t handle it, she’d “be happy to” take back over for a little while. She is The Woooorst (the worst in the world).

Next on Mother’s checklist comes selling Sam’s car to a chop shop for cash and walking back to the motel five miles in the cold… where they find the sheriff pulling into the parking lot. Norman, always a slick improviser, jogs over to Room 12 and acts like he was just coming out — it’s linen day after all! The sheriff isn’t really pretending to buy Norman’s social awkward shtick today, but she’s also not making any accusations. She informs him outright that they found multiple bodies at the little lake near the motel last night. “Dead bodies?” Oh, Norman. She tells him that one of the bodies was Jim Blackwell, so Norman doesn’t need to worry about him bothering him anymore, but she is still curious about why Blackwell had Norman’s address and what it had to do with Alex Romero.

And speak of the laser-focused devil, this episode is intercut with multiple updates on Romero, whom we hadn’t seen in a while. He’s still at the house of the woman he begged for safe harbor a few weeks ago, and we find out she is an old friend. For now, she’s got him on antibiotics and has hidden his gun. He simply asks that she “make it show up by the time I’m strong enough to leave.” Much like Dylan, I feel confident Romero’s slow burning and oft-delayed quest for vengeance will come around to feel worth it, but as it stands… boo thang Alex Romero has gotten the short end of season 5’s otherwise completely sharpened stick.

Concerned after his chat with the sheriff, Norman tells Mother, “We have to get everything out of here that could possibly arouse suspicion.” He says it, oddly, while holding a wheelchair, standing near the basement, I guess because one thing that might arouse suspicion of what Norman Bates gets up to… IS THE MUMMIFIED CORPSE OF HIS MOTHER sitting in the middle of a shrine in his basement. Mother asks where they’re going to put “her,” and they are really operating on a mental minefield these days, huh? Norman suggests that maybe Mother should go get some things done at the motel while he takes care of this: “I see.”

And yes, I’m glad Mother’s severity wasn’t a part of this beautiful, deeply weird moment, where a boy wheeled his dead mother’s corpse out into the middle of a snowy bank, laid her in an open-faced grave, covered her in a blanket, kissed her, and told her he loved her and would be back as soon as he could. Given what’s coming, it’s a sweet promise, but likely an empty one.

What’s coming is Norman’s big brother, Dylan. The one person in the world with both the knowledge of Norman’s situation, and the emotional means to help him. As he pulls up to the house where he once lived, where he’s already attempted to give so much, he looks stricken with grief. Dylan made it out, but he left his mother and his brother behind; now one is dead and the other is… Norman Bates. Norman pulls up next to Dylan’s huge truck in Norma’s little Mercedes, and for a moment it’s reasonable to wonder if Dylan’s familial presence might be big enough to get through to Norman. But is anyone in Norman’s life really bigger, more powerful than Mother?

They get up to the house, and Dylan takes in his brother’s home: dead flowers everywhere, cigarettes on the piano, women’s shoes in the living room. Norman asks how Emma is, and Dylan tells him they’re married now… and they have a baby. Oh, Freddie Highmore’s earnest face just about breaks my heart, and then Max Thieriot’s as Dylan shows Norman a picture of his niece, looking like he’s willing his brother to understand, to let the knowledge of a new life, a healthy family, make him want more for his own life, and the family he has left.

There’s a world where Norman could be the sweet uncle, the one who tells Dylan, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t call you, that I haven’t seen you for so long. It’s just… you have no idea, Dylan, every day is a small century.” But that’s a world that doesn’t contain Mother. And during Norman’s bout of brotherly honesty, Mother is peaking around the corner in Norma’s most well-behaved cardigan. Dylan asks if Norman is still seeing Dr. Edwards, and Norman tells him no, but he did just bump into him in the village this week. Norman says that he really doesn’t think he needs those meds anymore anyway — Mother peeks from behind the door more aggressively.

Norman ignores her. He lowers his voice to a whisper: “The only thing is that, I do sometimes miss our mother… it’s just not the same and it never will be.” Dylan tells him, “I don’t think you’re well, Norman.” With the death of Norma, Norman’s last tether to reality, his last bit of accountability left him alone and susceptible to the darkest, most confused corners of his mind. But here Dylan is, like he has been so many times, offering a lifeline from the twisted reality Norman has built for himself. He tells Norman he’s going to stay there for a few days, and they’re going to figure this out.

But Dylan doesn’t know about their third roommate. Norman wakes up to Mother watching him sleep, and she flashes him a big, cheesy smile: “He can’t be here… he’s your brother, I know you love him, but you can’t let him in.” I know it’s kind of the name of the game around her, but it remains truly tragic to see someone be so fully manipulated by their own mind. Mother says she understands Dylan has good intentions; he’s just never understood them: “The reality is, we can’t have him in our lives anymore.” That’s the price we pay for having what we have. It’s just the two of us.”

As I shudder, Mother advises Norman to cook a nice dinner for Dylan: “Charm him, convince him that you’re happy… and then make him leave.” I repeat: The. Muthaf—in. Woooorst.

But before we get to that dinner — first, a bomb drop! Dylan goes to the pharmacy to see if there’s any way to refill Norman’s old prescriptions from Dr. Edwards. The pharmacist comes back out and tells him they tried to get the okay from Dr. Edwards, but the thing is, “He went missing a little over a year ago. Apparently, he’s presumed dead.” See, when I said Dylan was the only person in Norman’s life with the knowledge of his issues and the means to help him seek help for them… what I meant was he’s the only non-imaginary person in Norman’s life with the knowledge and the means. To quote my notes regarding this revelation: WHAT THE WHAT?!

Dylan manages to get a few pills from the pharmacist to tide Norman over, but when he returns to the house, there’s a young woman who looks ever so much like his mother making her way up the stairs. Madeleine tells Dylan she’s a friend of Norman’s; I have this gut instinct that she’s about to fall in love with him, because that’s what tends to happen when Norman’s lady friends are introduced to Norman’s older brother. But on the scale of Bates Motel priorities these days, ill-advised crushes are so season 3.

Madeleine tells Dylan she needs to speak to Norman because her husband is missing, and she thinks Norman might have seen him. Dylan, only barely letting on that this is the worst news he could have received, tells Madeleine that he’s sorry, but Norman is “in a really fragile state right now.” Madeleine doesn’t understand, so Dylan elaborates: “Norman has mental issues. He’s… not well.” Other than that being the understatement of the century, it also has to be the most straightforward explanation we’ve gotten of Norman’s mental state in a while.

Norman Bates… has mental issues. And he’s about to show the full extent of them. Dylan walks in to find Norman cooking him a formal dinner featuring, like, 100 candelabras. He tells Norman that he just met Madeleine and she said her husband was missing. Norman, king of improv: “Yes… the Loomises. I’ve spent some time with them both. I don’t know them that well.” Dylan asks him again, pointedly, “Do you know what happened to him, Norman?” and when Norman tries to say they can talk about this later, Dylan insists, “We’re talking about this right now.” Dylan is an adult now, one who has a little experience taking care of people (re: his baby) who don’t know how to take care of themselves, and most importantly, he doesn’t have to go through Norma to try to help his brother anymore.

But Norman still answers to a higher power. Dylan asks if Sam came to the motel yesterday, and Norman tells him that, yes, he happened to be there yesterday: “The problem is, Dylan, that he was not a very nice man.” He explains that Sam came to the motel because he was cheating on Madeleine, and the genius of Highmore’s Norman performance is that this tense, halting explanation could go about three different ways, not the least of which are: Mother is about to possess Norman’s body and murder Dylan; Norman is about to freak out and try to murder Dylan; Norman is about to break down and beg Dylan for help.

None of those things happen. As Dylan continues his inquisition, Norman says, “Stop trying to confuse me, and stop meddling with the truth!” Because Norman knows deep down that his “truth” is so carefully constructed that Dylan can’t be a part of it, that it’s only built for two. Norman tells Dylan that he knows he cares about him, but he needs to leave soon. I’m screaming the same thing at my television — LEAVE, DYLAN, LEAVE! — while also desperately hoping that he’ll stay and help, the one person who can.

Indeed, Dylan moves closer and tells Norman that he just really wants to help him get better: “You need to trust me, please. I’m your brother and I love you.” He gives Norman the pills that he got and begs him to take one in front of him. And bless his heart, Norman looks like he wants to. But Norman Bates’ mind is not a matter of simple wants. He goes over to the sink to get water, and we hear Freddie Highmore say this sequence of phrases as Dylan looks on in confusion: “Please stay out of this, Mother.” Pause. “I just want to talk to him, Norman.”

There’s a slow, suggestive turnaround from the sink — you know the one. As Mother speaks these words through Norman’s mouth, my heart aches for how painful they are to both of Norma’s sons: “Dylan. Dylan, I know you mean well because you’ve always meant well. And you may not believe me, but I am so proud of you. I love you. Unfortunately, I can only ever be a real mother to one person. And so, even though I love you so very much, and this pains me… you’re getting in the way.”

And then that she-devil KNOCKS DYLAN OUT WITH THE GLASS! I saw red. And then I saw Norman come out of nowhere and knock Mother to the ground just as she grabbed a knife to finish the job. And what does Dylan see? From his bloody vantage point on the ground, he sees Norman writhing around on the table wrestling a knife from… himself. Y’all it is lunacy; it is camp; it is heartbreaking; it is… Bates Motel.

Norman wrestles down Mother — if not actually physically, he tamps her down mentally. As Dylan stares on clutching his head, Norman strides to the phone and dials 911: “I’d like to report a murder.” What’s that now? “My name is Norman Bates. And I killed Sam Loomis.”

Bates & Pieces:

  • The final rows of my notes are just pure capslock mayhem. I guess it makes sense that the shower scene got flipped on its head, and so would the way in which Norman ends up in police custody. But everything still feels crazy… and I still trust this series entirely.
  • “I hope I remember where I put the Luminol.” Lots of fun little callbacks to previous bits that are now making sense to Norman as he sees the truth of the lie he’s been living with Mother. Poor Norman.
  • Between Dylan breaking down in sobs after spotting Norma’s dressing gown, Norman laying her to temporarily rest in the woods, and Romero’s ongoing quest… the grieving for Norma Bates is endless. It makes sense for a woman who was so much larger than the life she led.
  • The logistics of Norman sitting in that coffee shop talking to Dr. Edwards… discuss. Also, WHAT HAPPENED TO DR. EDWARDS???

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