Bates Motel series finale recap: 'The Cord'
Bates Motel goes all the way back to the beginning to get to the end
Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
Let me tell you what: When it comes to Bates Motel, the future is certainly not mine to see. In its final season, Bates Motel proved over and over again that it is one of the few series on television that can simultaneously subvert predictions, exceed expectations — of which there were many, given its inescapable source material — and make every shocking twist feel completely earned.
Before Dylan goes back into his mother’s former house to see his brother, who has officially lost any and all touch with reality, he calls his wife. He tells her that he has to go check on Norman alone; he can’t call the sheriff because she’ll kill him: “She doesn’t give a s— about Norman.” And that’s true. Dylan is the only person left in this world who gives one single s— about Norman Bates. Well, Dylan…
And us. In the last analysis, five seasons planned and five seasons completed, Bates Motel has done so right by its audience. For its entire final season, Alex Romero has been fighting his way back tooth and nail, stomach wound and prison fight, stolen car and hostage situation, to be able to get back to Norman Bates and kill him for what he did to the woman he loved. But what we know is that Norman didn’t kill Norma — Mother did. What we know is that Norman has only ever killed one person, and when he had control of his mind, he turned himself over to the police for it. What we know is that Norman was a broken boy without the means to fix himself.
It doesn’t make him any less a murderer. But for Romero to have killed Norman, when the person he really needed to settle up with was Mother, would have made sense… but it would not have been particularly satisfying. Making Norman a sympathetic character was a narrative feat, but it was also a huge risk; a happy ending for Psycho’s Norman Bates is one twist that even this series could likely not pull off. Dylan weeps to Norman once they’ve truly come to the end, “What I really want is something that can never happen! I want you to be happy, and I want you to be well.” He now knows what we’ve known all along: There could be no happy ending for Norman. I guess I just assumed that meant there couldn’t be a truly satisfying end for Norman either.
I was wrong. In the end, Norman Bates is just a lost boy who wants to be returned to his mother… and those of us who give a s— have to let him go.
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be
Que sera, sera
The Bates Motel series finale is called “The Cord,” in reference to Norman’s line spoken in the very first episode, while he and his mother disposed of their very first body together: “It’s like there’s a cord between our hearts… It’s you and me; it’s always been you and me. We belong to each other. I don’t ever want to be without you.” He may have copped it from Jane Eyre, as Norma pointed out at the time, but the sentiment resonates even more fully now. Because Mother might have been a nightmare in a cardigan, but she was right about one thing: Norman needed her. When faced with the weight of what he’d done to Norma, and without Mother around to protect him, Norman simply could not handle the tragedy of his own life.
The finale continued to revisit the romanticism of the pilot, drawing the starkest of contrasts to the hopelessness of Norman’s current state, to truly heartbreaking effect. But at the top of Monday’s episode, we’re not yet dealing with Norman. Mother is still in control (though Freddie Highmore plays the part almost entirely this episode), and Romero still has her in the back of a car that he’s forcing the sheriff’s station assistant to drive at gunpoint. And though there was some confusion last week as to whether Mother would know where Norma’s body was, since Norman did the snow burial all by himself, she seems to know have accessed that part of the brain briefly enough to point Regina in the right direction.
But that doesn’t mean she’s leading him to the body without her usual brand of sass. When Romero pulls over to finally let Regina go, he asks Norman how much further they have to go: “Maybe 10 minutes…. maybe I’m lying.” That earns a head-slam into the car door. Mother also straight-up tells Romero that Norman isn’t there, so he can’t hurt him: “Why should I tell you where she is if you’re only going to kill me anyway? Did you think about that, Sheriff Lonely Heart?” Uh-oh. That earns a violent backhand and a gun to the temple. So Mother does it… she takes him to the spot, they clear away the snow, and Romero digs until he hits the blanket. Underneath is Norma’s frail, dead, partially preserved body: hair yellow against the snow, eyes cloudy and frozen, and very much still dead.
And Mother just can’t help herself: “I’m so sorry. For everything that happened. I know how much you loved her.” Romero marches over to him and violently hits Norman’s face again and again until he’s left lying unconscious and bloodied in the snow. But Alex can’t help but go back to Norma, promising to get her out of there; his gun sticks ominously out of the back of his pants. “I love you; I’ll always love you,” Romero weeps, as Mother stalks up behind him, hits him over the head with a blunt object, uses Norman’s body to wrestle him to the ground, and then shoots him dead.
This is the point my notes turned to all caps and never really went back again. I mean, I saw it coming when the gun was sticking out of Romero’s pants, but I did not see it coming, you know? Romero was supposed to kill Norman; he was living for it. But a lot of things were supposed to happen in the lives of Norman and Norma Bates that never quite panned out. Some people aren’t destined for the lives they’re forced to lead.
And that’s how we find Norman, piecing together the life that should have been, about seven years too late. As Romero lies dying, he says to Norman, whose body is present and mind is unaccounted for, “You killed her — your own mother. You can’t hide from that.” In fact, everyone seems to be in agreement that Norman’s hiding days are up. Looking down at Norma, finally back in his own body, Norman recognizes her as “mother.” But then he hears it… Mother. She’s back outside of him, just to the left. Gazing at his real mother, Norman says, “I think I did kill her… She was everything I had. It was supposed to be the both of us.” Mother tells Norman, “He’s just trying to hurt you.
But Romero is dead; he can’t hurt Norman anymore. And so Mother tells him, “I have to leave now.” To quote my notes: SAY WHAT NOW? At times, it felt like we would never be rid of Mother, never see Norman again, and suddenly she’s leaving of her own accord. Between the body of the mother he killed and the dissociative identity of the Mother he created, Norman pleads, “I’ll have no one — you can’t leave me now!” But Mother says he knows everything now: “There’s nothing for me to protect you from.”
And so Mother leaves… walks off into the woods and leaves Norman alone — never a good way for Norman to be. The next thing we know, he’s blinking open his eyes to find himself sleeping in bed with Norma, bathed in buttery light: “Good morning, honey. It’s a beautiful day out. How’d you sleep?” Norman, with a perfectly intact face and crisp pajamas, can hardly believe the turn of events himself. He tells Norma he had the most horrible dream that she died. “Well, I didn’t. I’m right here… it’s just a silly dream, honey. Life is in front of us.”
Ever so briefly, it seems they really might be going the Jacob’s Ladder route: that all of this has just been an awful dream in the mind of Norman Bates, a simple boy obsessed with his mother. But down in the kitchen, as Norman still frets, Norma tells him, “You just had a bad dream, honey. You need to learn how to wake up from them. You can if you just try hard enough.” With that, Norman blinks open his eyes in the snow, recently murdered Romero on his right, mummified Norma on his left. He’s muttering, “It won’t stop. Am I still dreaming? Mother?”
And there’s that buttery light again. Norma is rushing into Norman’s bedroom in a house we haven’t seen much of before, telling him they’re moving to Oregon in their new — well, new used — Mercedes: “We’re gonna pack some s—, we’re gonna go to a new place, and we’re gonna start all over, and we’re gonna be really, really happy.”
“Okay, Mother, I’m coming,” Norman says out loud, sitting in the snow, covered in blood, sandwiched in between two people he’s killed, one the very person he’s conversing with right now. It seems that with Mother gone, forced to bear the weight of his life all on his own, Norman has reverted back to the last time his life was bearable: when it was just him and Norma, about to embark on their dream life. Key word: dream.
At this point Norman has completely broken with reality, choosing instead to start over again, and live life the way he should have the first time. We flash back to the very first scene from the pilot, of Norma driving Norman down the interstate toward their new home: “Okay, this is the part where you say, ‘Mother, this is so beautiful, I’m so happy we’re moving here, you were so smart to have thought of this.” And Norman’s response is one we’ve also heard before in the pilot. But while Norman surely imagines this lovely moment from the passenger’s seat, just like when he was a teenager, we see Norman’s world for what it really is: him, sitting in the driver’s seat, bloodied nearly beyond recognition, with the frozen body of his dead mother sitting in the back: “Mother, this is beautiful. I am so happy you’re making me move here. You are so smart to force me to do things I have no say in.”
It is sick, heartrending, can’t-look-away stuff, and these scenes are absolutely genius. Made entirely of clips from Norma in the pilot and Norman in his current state, we see Norman relive his arrival in White Pine Bay; his first impression of the Bates Motel; his hope for the future with his mother. We knew then the exact things we know now — not how they would happen, but that they would happen. That Norman would kill; that he would develop a second identity as his Mother; that he would keep his real mother’s body in the basement. We knew things were headed in a bad direction when this series started, but to flash back to how innocently things began with Norma, and then forward to just how bad they’ve gotten with Norman… it is an absolute tragedy.
And speaking of tragic: Dylan. After only briefly hearing him demand answers from Sheriff Greene about his kidnapped brother, we see him waiting near a frozen lake. He’s waiting for Remo (Remo!), who brings good tidings of a life turned around since their outlaw days… oh, and also a gun. Remo tells Dylan he hopes that’s to protect his wife and daughter, and Dylan assures him it is: “And me.” And that’s when we know. When Mother killed Romero, Norman’s future somehow became both all the more doomed but all the more ambiguous. How else could Norman’s story possibly end but to be killed by Romero? Oh…
In another great, suspensefully hanging thread, Norman — in his dream state of thinking he’s just moved into the house that, in reality, he just carried his dead mother into, bridal style, and tucked her into bed — heads down to the motel and tears away the caution tape just in time for a mother and her two young sons to pull up and ask for a room. And one of the little boys is named Dylan.
So Norman calls his brother to check in: “I just wanted you to know that we’re at the new house with the motel. And I miss you; I know mother does too… I know she can be so stubborn sometimes. It’s just because she gets hurt so easily. I know the two of you had a terrible fight before we moved from Scottsdale. I think this could be a new beginning… for all of us. We’re not a family without you, Dylan. And so, I just really think we should start over and be together, and I guess the real reason I’m calling is I would love it if you could come to dinner.”
Watching Dylan’s face as it changes from relief that his brother is actually alive, to confusion at the time period his brother seems to think he’s in, to softness at hearing words he wanted to hear for so long in his adolescence, to the absolute terror that his brother has somehow lapsed even further from reality than ever… well, I think it would be a good idea to go ahead and start Max Thieriot’s Emmy watch along with Freddie Highmore’s and Vera Farmiga’s. And wait until you get ahold of this…
Dylan immediately speeds over to the house to see Norman, but when he gets there, he hesitates to go up. And he doesn’t even know that Norman is upstairs putting a red suit and black pumps on Norma’s corpse and carrying her down to a fully outfitted dinner table as Doris Day’s “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” trills from the record player. Dylan pulls out his phone and calls Emma; he tells her that Norman was kidnapped from jail, he’s at the house, and he wants Dylan to come over. He says he can’t call the sheriff; if he tells anyone else, Norman will wind up dead. No one gives a s— about Norman.
Emma begs him not to go up: “Dylan, you have a child.” And if you’ve somehow made it this far into the episode without weeping, prepare your ducts, people: “I know I have a child,” Dylan says. “Do I have a wife?” He asks Emma to tell him she loves him, but she refuses to “arm you up so you can go do something stupid.” But Dylan doesn’t seem like he needs arming up. He seems like he’s ready to go deal with his brother, to finally do something about Norman. But it also feels eerily, awfully, painfully like he’s saying goodbye: “I’m never going to love anyone else but you. You screwed me there, Emma Decody.”
And as Dylan heads toward the house, my notes read like this: “DYLAN. DYLAN!!!! NO, OMG DYLAN, DO NOT. DO NOT!”
But he does. Dylan knocks on the door, and Norman answers, simply thrilled to see him. Big hugs all around, dinner coming out of the oven, and Norman says they can discuss whatever it is Dylan is so eager to speak with him about over dinner: “Mother’s going to be so excited to see you, Dylan.” Dylan’s face crumples: “She’s not here, Norman.” Talk about queasy: Norman give a little smile, and jerks his head toward the dining room. He’s so excited for everyone to make amends.
Dylan turns and spots the back of Norma’s head sitting at the head of the dinner table; in full horror-movie slow motion, he walks over to the table. There she is, looking somehow even deader than ever before. Her skin is sallow, her eyes are clouded over, her veins have gone black. Dylan keels over and vomits everywhere. “Poor thing, let me help you,” Norman coos. “Poor Dylan. This has all been too much for you.” Norman starts cleaning up and insists that Dylan sit down, but Dylan is pushing back now; he can’t let this go on. “DYLAN, PLEASE DON’T RUIN IT!” Norman screams. Poor Norman…
Dylan screams at Norman that he’s not living in the real world: “Norma is dead! You brought her body here.” And in perhaps the line of the night: “Well, I disagree.” Dylan tells Norman that this isn’t something that’s up for disagreement, that he has to deal with this; they have to get him help. Norman asks if that’s what Dylan wants for him, to be drugged up and locked away. And here it comes: “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT FOR YOU! What I really want is something that can never happen, okay — I want you to be happy and I want you to be well. I want Mom to be alive again. I want you guys to meet my daughter. I want to have Christmases together! I want for all of these things to have never happened!” Poor Dylan…
“Well, if you believe hard enough, then you can make it that way,” says Norman. “NO YOU CAN’T,” screams Dylan, a far cry from when he had to sit in this kitchen and explain to Norman that he had to stop calling their mom “Mother.” These aren’t little boys anymore.
Norman turns away, seeming to think about what Dylan has told him — that he can’t just believe that his mother is back, that he didn’t kill her, that they can all be a family again. And he picks up a knife. A big knife. Poor us…
Dylan pulls out his gun and tells Norman to put the gun down. “This is how it ends, isn’t it?” says Norman. Dylan tells him it doesn’t have to end this way. “I just want to be with her, Dylan,” Norman seems to plead. “Don’t ask me to do this,” Dylan most certainly pleads. Norman lunges with the knife.
Norman sinks down into Dylan’s arms as his older brother weeps, “I’m so sorry, Norman.” He pictures the woods, him running to Norma both in present day and as a child. She waits for him there in a glowing white coat, arms open. Norman hugs Dylan as he fades out: “Thank you.” This is how it ends, isn’t it?
Dylan sits on the steps of the house as Doris Day’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” starts playing. The scene fades into a close-up of a woman holding a little girl’s hand — it’s Emma. I don’t think I need to tell you how much I start crying. The little girl spots Dylan and runs up to him. I definitely shouldn’t tell you how much I started crying when Dylan scooped her up, walked over to Emma — and, oh thank goodness, kissed her.
This is how it ends: with Dylan and Emma happily ever after, and with Norman Bates resting — hopefully finally at peace — beside Norma Bates, whose gravestone speaks enough for both of them.
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams, whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me
Bates & Pieces
• I. Am. Exhausted. But I can hardly even explain — although I just tried to in 3,000-ish words — how satisfying that series finale was. It is a rare gift when a beloved show ends on its own terms, and Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse have given us such a thoughtful gift.
• And since this is the last one, I’m going to do as many Bates N’ Pieces as I want! Starting with…
• This finale was so complete, literally closing the loop from the pilot to the finale, that I feel totally fine asking the few questions that linger in the outfield: What the hell happened to Dr. Edwards?! And Chick’s manuscript? Does Dylan know his dad also died? Any others…?
• These performances, I swear. There wasn’t a weak link in the bunch, but Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot, and Nestor Carbonell must be shouted out one final time. Please shower them with praise in the comments; I will read every one.
• Mother was at her hilarious worst in that car ride with Romero: “There’s a turn, and then there’s a little more of a drive, and then there’s a walk.”
• Freddie Highmore as he reenacted his scenes from the pilot with the same sweet smiles and shy teen-speak, while looking like an absolute madman… incredible.
• The constant sight of Norma’s frail, dead body never became any less shocking over the course of the episode. My favorites: spotting her in the back of the car while Norman is wide awake dreaming that a beautiful, live Norma is sitting right beside him in the driver’s seat. And, even sadder, that final shot of her looming large at the head of the dining room table with her two sons crumpled down in the corner — one dead, the other one thankfully, beautifully, gloriously alive.
• I cannot explain my relief that Dylan and Emma not only made it out of this alive, but together.
• And I saw li’l blondie Katie looking just like Grandma Norma! I wept!
Thanks so much for reading and cheering and cringing and crying along with me in that last beautiful season of Bates Motel! May we all watch something this good together again in the very near future.