“He’s not a bad person; he’s not a criminal… he’s crazy.”
Appropriately on National Sibling Day, Dylan continues his streak of plainly (and finally) stating facts about his brother Norman that we’ve all been screaming at our screens in vain for five seasons now. Norman Bates is not inherently a bad or evil person. The Norman we have come to know is the product of a mental illness that he cannot control and that his mother was unwilling to attempt to control with appropriate measures for far too long. No, Dylan’s phrasing is not the most sensitive — Chick would tell him “crazy” is a word the world tosses around a little too often — but that’s because Dylan is ignorant to exactly what’s wrong with his brother.
This is what Dylan knows: that Norman sometimes flips a switch and seems to be possessed into thinking he is their mother, Norma; that Norman killed his father, probably killed Emma’s mother; that the list probably doesn’t stop there. Dylan knows that Norman is crazy. But the most important thing Dylan knows is that with help, Norman can get better. It is a hope — a sweet hope, the hope of a brother, a hope that could only be born from the deepest familial love — that is seeming more and more like it will get Dylan killed.
Bates Motel might not be the most realistic or nuanced story of mental illness on television, but it does take one angle very seriously: People cannot control their minds, but their minds can most certainly control them if left untended. Mother can take Norman over entirely — wear him like a peter-pan-collared dressing gown. Mother is the villain of this story; Monday’s episode (directed to freaky-deaky perfection by all-grown-up Freddie Highmore) makes that perfectly clear. And the painful, invigorating, completely conflicting hell and heaven of watching this series is that Norman has the potential to be this story’s hero. Every time Mother takes over, I want Norman to be stronger, I want him to batten down the hatches and resist.
But that’s not how it works. Mother doesn’t take over Norman because he’s weak or because he’s innately bad — Mother takes over Norman because she exists. As long as Norman isn’t medicated, Mother will exist; as long as Mother exists, he is likely to not be medicated; and as long as Mother exists and Norman is not medicated, Norman can never be the hero of this story, merely one of its many, many victims. Norman isn’t a bad person, he’s not a criminal — he’s crazy.
At the beginning of this episode, no one is more aware of that fact than Norman Bates himself, who is trying so desperately to do the right thing. Sheriff Greene and the police are at his house following his call last week confessing to the murder of Sam Loomis. As Sheriff Greene speaks to him, he has his eyes closed; he opens them and sees Mother; he closes them, opens them again, and she is gone; he begs Sheriff Greene to get his meds from Dylan. She promises to do so, but before giving them to him, she puts him in an interrogation room down at the station.
And so begins the first of this episode’s many incredible scenes between Norman and the many strong-willed women in his life, both old and new. As a calm and patient presence, Sheriff Greene has served as a thrilling counterpoint for Mother all season, one that reaches brand new heights when she comes face to face with the woman (er, dissociative woman personality) herself. But for now, Greene is talking to Norman, and she doesn’t love what she’s hearing. Norman says he dumped the body in a well, but he keeps pointing to different spots on the map to show her where that well is and generally doesn’t seem too confident in the facts of his own story. When the sheriff asks if Norman also killed the two people they found in the lake — Joe Blackwell and an unidentified female — he tells her, “It’s possible … there’s a lot that I don’t know, Sheriff, a lot that I try very hard to understand, and I just never can.”
But Sheriff Greene has her own theory: She thinks he’s making it up. That his crazy mother died tragically, leaving him to “develop this strange adult affect to present maturity” when he’s really still a child. “And children sometimes act out. Almost always because they feel ignored.” It’s incredible how right and wrong one person can be at the same time. (The writing from Erica Lipez is particularly elegant this week, and Brooke Smith’s unreadable calm as Sheriff Greene knocks it out of the park in a series already so packed with dynamic performances.) Norman tells Greene she’s not wrong about the psychological analysis, but he did kill Sam Loomis: “I watched his eyes go blank. I did — me, Norman.” It’s really the only thing he’s sure of.
And so Norman is sent to a holding cell and finally given his meds, which he gulps down as quickly as he can. For most of the scene between Norman and the sheriff, there was an analog clock reflected in the two-way mirror right over their heads, marking the passing time… counting down the seconds until Norman would be away from Sheriff Greene. Until he’d no longer be in control. In what has become a classic Bates Motel move, the camera pans over Norman’s shoulder to reveal an icy blue stare waiting for him, reminding us that our protagonist is rarely without his antagonist.
Mother hisses, “What did you do?!” and throws Norman to the ground. He insists that he couldn’t let her hurt Dylan, but Mother screams at him that Dylan abandoned him: “I AM THE ONLY ONE YOU HAVE. I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO’S GOING TO PROTECT YOU!” Then she wrestles him over to the toilet, sticks her fingers down his throat, and makes him vomit up in his medication. Then she wraps his exhausted body up in her arms and whispers to her son: “I know you think I’m a monster. I know you think there are people still fighting for good in this world, but honey — there is no good. It’s just life, which is hard, and cruel, and undeserving of your kind soul.” Norman sits there stunned, frightened, but seemingly content to briefly be in his Mother’s arms as she reassures him.
Norman may have created her, but Mother is Norman’s god. And right now, she’s going full Old Testament: “Honey, you are in a big pickle. And I’m not mad at you…I just can’t let you do any more damage. It’s time to fix this.” And by “fix this,” she of course means: bash Norman’s head against the toilet, knocking him out cold — a self-induced blackout.
How jazzed must director Freddie Highmore have been when he realized that there would be logical reason to have a two-way mirror in at least half of this episode’s scenes? It isn’t symbolic imagery he uses sparingly, but it is used deftly to confuse and clarify just who is in control of Norman’s split-asunder mind at any given moment. Here, we find Mother tidying her blonde bob in the clothes Norman was previously wearing as she waits for his second round of questioning with Sheriff Greene. Greene walks in and asks Norman how he’s doing — he turns around to reveal the face of Norman. But we know who’s in charge, if by response alone: “Peachy keen, thanks for asking.”
The sheriff doesn’t show signs that she’s thrown by the change in Norman’s behavior, but she’s ready for it. When Mother asks her if it’s standard procedure for her to question someone who’s mentally ill without a lawyer present, Greene reminds him that he didn’t ask for a lawyer. Norman/Mother insists that he says crazy things when he’s of his meds, so he apologizes for the inconvenience, but he’s ready to go home. Greene reminds him that he confessed to murder, and Mother sasses back that he knows his rights, “So unless you’re charging me, I’m heading right out that door.” And there’s really only one thing you can says to that: “Norman Bates, you’re under arrest for the murder of Sam Loomis.”
“EX-CUSE ME,” Mother cries, and in that moment, I swear they superimposed Vera Farmiga’s eyes over Freddie Highmore’s. The sass was perfect, as are the 10 seconds where Sheriff Greene is reading Norman his rights, and Mother is just yelling over her that she can’t do that; it was all made up, “I was just upset! My brother had just showed up and he can be a real asshole.” But even Mother can’t get out of this one. Norman really has gotten himself into one heck of a pickle!
And it’s not just him and Mother it’s affecting. Chick shows up at the motel with a dead raccoon ready for stuffin’ to find it swarming with officers and people in hazmat suits. An officer tells him that the motel is an active crime scene, and that’s all she can say. But Chick begs to know if the owner is dead and is relieved to find out he’s not. But he is in jail, and that’s why Dylan has hired Norman a no-nonsense lawyer, the one he tells that his brother isn’t a bad person; he’s just crazy. Dylan tells her that Norman has to be in a mental facility and sends her to the Sheriff’s Department to meet with him and strategize how to turn this pickle around.
But Julia Ramos doesn’t find Norman at the station… she, of course, will be meeting with Mother. And Mother tells her that if she’s Norman’s lawyer, she’s working for him, not Dylan. Julia says sure, but there’s that small problem of him having confessed to murder. Mother says, “I wasn’t on my meds; I didn’t know what I was saying.” So that’s the new plan: plead confessions of insanity to cover up crimes of insanity. Julia says that’s fine, they’ll say it was a psychotic break, but Norman didn’t just confess to murder… he told the police there was a body and how to find it: “If they don’t find anything, you should be fine.”
Cool, sounds good, Julia, just one quick follow-up from Mother (suddenly wearing Vera Farmiga’s face again rather than Freddie Highmore’s): “And if there is a body?” Well then — Julia says Norman would need to be able to explain why he lied about being the murderer of that body. Mmhmm, okay, one last thing: “And why would someone lie about something like that?” Because someone else would have to have killed Sam Loomis, Julia tells her. Mother quirks her mouth into a tiny smile.
These two… are a deadly combination. And the combination of Mother and Julia facing off against Sheriff Greene? Incredible. That is a whole lot of dominant personalities in one room, and all of them think they’re on top. But only once can be right. As the women talk about why formal charges haven’t been filed yet, they’re filmed in the two-way mirror with the female image of Mother sitting at the table. As Mother begins to mount her new defense for Norman, the camera pans to the non-reflected image to show Norman-as-Mother: “The truth is, Sheriff, I don’t know where the body is. I’m not even sure if there is a body. I’m so embarrassed to admit this, but I fell in love — desperately in love — with a woman: Madeleine Loomis.”
And Mother, you better believe she is doing her finest, sweetest, most naive Norman impression. (Which, for the record, means that Freddie Highmore is performing as Norman… who’s playing Mother… who’s performing as Norman.) Mother/Norman explains that Madeleine reminded him so much of his mother: “It was like they shared the same indomitable spirit, and I was undone.” He says Madeleine was lonely because Sam was having an affair, an affair that he would conduct at the Bates Motel: “Nasty, nasty, nasty man.” Okay, so far this all actually checks out…
And then comes the fiction: Apparently, when Madeleine found out, she showed up at the hotel, enraged. Sam’s mistress took off, and Sam and Madeleine left together. But later she came back on her own, shaking and in shock, saying that her life was over because of what she’d done: “She told me Sam was dead, something about the woods, a well. She just sobbed in my arms… then she kissed me.” Oh, Freddie Highmore is crying the saddest tears, and it almost feels like those belong to Norman, even if the words — the lies — are Mother’s: “She was so vulnerable, and I suppose after my mother’s death, not being able to save her… I wanted things to be different for Madeleine, and that is why I decided to take the blame.”
There’s a delicate tear flick. “Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight… I fear I may have been an easy target,” says Mother richly. “My mother always did say that I was too naive about beautiful women. And mother was always right.” But the one thing that Mother has always misunderstood is just how much the “mother” stuff gives her away. It’s weird, and it’s creepy, and people hear it. The sheriff hears it. She doesn’t know exactly what to make of this story, but she also clearly doesn’t buy it entirely, because she invites Madeleine into her personal office — no mirrors or cold metal seats here.
And Mother did get one thing right in Norman’s lies about Madeleine: She really is so fragile, sitting here, having been wronged so harmfully by Sam, and now by Norman Bates. The Sheriff asks about her relationship with Norman, and Madeleine says they’re friendly. So Greene just goes all in: Norman said he killed her husband, but there’s no evidence yet that he’s dead. The sheriff goes to comfort her, telling her, “I hate tell you this, but it’s important that we be able to ask you questions, like, do you know why Norman would claim to have murdered Sam?” Madeleine says Norman just liked her store, and Greene tells her that he seems to have been infatuated with her: “Is there any basis for that infatuation?”
We don’t get an answer to that. The next time we see Madeleine, she’s shivering outside with mascara on her face. She glances back at the building and sees Norman looking staring back at her as he’s led through the hall to be deputized. Or rather, she comes face to face with Mother leering at her through the glass. No reflection this time — just unadulterated malice. It is stomach-churning physicality from Highmore.
And the next time we see the sheriff, she’s at Dylan’s hotel room, informing him that the female body they found in the lake is, in fact, his mother-in-law: “Thought you’d want to be the one to tell your wife.” But Dylan knows that she’s just trying to gauge his reaction, one that he’s keeping pretty neutral, by the way. But Greene’s motives can be multi-faceted: “I understand the instinct to protect your brother. But I’ve seen family members destroyed over much less than you’re facing now. Consider cooperating with us. I can’t guarantee it will feel good, but it’s the right thing to do.” Dylan bids her goodnight. I bid my loyalty to A&E and Bates Motel until the end of time if they will just keep Dylan and Emma safe.
Unconcerned with safety… is Alex Romero. He finally finds his gun at Maggie’s house and hoofs it to the Bates Motel, where he finds an empty house with nothing but memories of Norma, complete with her occasional glowing vestige. I will admit that despite being a sweet tribute to their love, I found these hallucinations a little out of place in the mix of all the other, more complex ways Norma has been mourned; his brief look at the carpet where he laid her limp body down was much more meaningful. But I’m also relieved to just finally have Alex back in White Pine Bay, as I’ve also been finding his distance from the main story a little… well, distant.
But now he’s here, and he’s creeping around Norman’s house, falling asleep in Norma’s bed, as everyone seems wont to do. When he wakes up, he hears Norma’s voice through the vents, which seems impossible. Another glowing hallucination. Why, no, it’s just Chick listening to recordings and hacking away at his typewriter in the basement! Romero has his gun on him immediately, demanding to know what Chick’s doing there. Chick sputters around trying to explain how he became close with Norman, but Alex would rather address how Norman “killed his mother.” Chick’s retort: “And he loved her.”
Chick tells Alex that Norman is in jail, and he’s simply downstairs in the place where Norman kept Norma’s body after he dug it up from the ground, writing a true crime novel. Alex is… stunned, to say the least. And Chick is, as ever, unaware of when to keep his mouth shut: “The sheriff who escaped from prison on a mission to avenge the woman he loves from her murderous and sick son… it’s, like, too much man! You guys are perfectly worthy adversaries. Perfect!” Chick is getting riled up in the way that only Chick (and maybe Norma) can, ranting about how true crime has more intrigue and surprise than any scripted drama could ever dream of…
AND THEN ALEX SHOOTS HIM RIGHT THROUGH THE HEAD IN THIS SCRIPTED DRAMA THAT IS BATES MOTEL! Oh, I was not expecting that. And I’m not yet sure what purpose it serves narratively, but I’m certainly sad to lose Chick. Presumably, his true crime manuscript is turned into a book posthumously, which is turned into a classic horror film, which is decades later made into a shockingly good TV series…
But it’s a story that doesn’t yet have an ending. A new scene opens on the observation side of the two-way mirror. There’s a TV screen showing the live video feed where we see Norman sitting at the interrogation table. But when we look through the glass, we see Mother, both of them briefly visible together, as though they’re one person in two bodies, instead of the opposite. And there’s that clock, hanging above both of them, ticking the time away. Mother soothes out loud, “Just be patient, Norman. If this goes well, in the morning you can come back, keep me company. I don’t mind admitting that I miss you.”
Deputies walk around in the snowy woods, looking for something. One spots a concrete cylinder sticking out of the ground — a well. Cut to a body wrapped in plastic being pulled out of it. Sheriff Greene arrives. I don’t want to says she looks happy but she looks… eager.
Back at the station, Greene opens the door to the interrogation room as Mother mumbles, “Told you I’d take care of it, Norman.” We see Norman’s body stand up in the mirror. Greene addresses him: “We’re charging you additionally with the murders of Jim Blackwell and Audrey Ellis. You don’t need to say a thing.” But I’ll say something: Monday’s episode taught me that I can somehow simultaneously feel sympathy or Norman and enjoy the sweet, sweet victory of Mother getting her ass handed to her. She’s a nasty, nasty, nasty woman.
Bates & Pieces:
A few people noted in the comments last week that they felt last Monday’s episode should have gotten an A. Grading Bates Motel against itself, especially in season 5, is tough, but I am attempting to grade on a curve. So, in comparison to my (subjective) seasonal high point — the full Psycho treatment of Marion Crane’s not-death — other episodes might rate a little lower. But I want to state plainly that and I give season 5 as a whole one big, resounding, neon blue ‘A’ and encourage you to offer your own personal episodic grades in the comments.
Another great note from last week’s comments: Someone pointed out that Maggie — former host of Romero the Escaped Convict — is Maggie Summers, Keith Summers’ sister, who was around briefly in season 1 in connection with his nefarious dealings. Nice catch!
RIP, Chick. You were just the weirdest, and I’m scouring Etsy for a writing hood just like yours the second I finish this recap.
“Dancing with the newborn angels trying to get a muse” = “I’M WRITING A BOOK!” in Chick-speak.
Have we ever seen White Pine Bay this deep into winter? If you didn’t already know the end was nigh, that thick, icy snow would surely be a clue. Not to mention, all that winter gear for the sheriff and her deputies made me absolutely thirst for a Fargo/Bates crossover.
I demand an Emmy for Freddie Highmore. DEMAND IT, I SAY!!!