Bates Motel: “Gone But Not Forgotten,” Death and Dysfunction

Dylan (Max Thieriot), Norma (Vera Farmiga), and Norman (Freddie Highmore) stand in the rain at Miss Waston's funeral. Photo courtesy of A&E at
Dylan (Max Thieriot), Norma (Vera Farmiga), and Norman (Freddie Highmore) stand in the rain at Miss Waston’s funeral. Photo courtesy of A&E at

Episode Grade: A

“Bates Motel” may have been on break for the past year but it certainly hasn’t been forgotten. Season two of the ingenious contemporary prequel series based off of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-defining classic “Psycho” begins exactly where it left off–within the fractured memory of the young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), following the “mysterious” death of his teacher Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy).

Let’s face it, it isn’t a mystery as to who done it; however, newcomers to the show may find themselves a little confused about the characters and the plot. But the show certainly does enough to captivate even the most casual viewer with the chilling suspense and genuine mystery built up with the fragile, yet demented mind of Norman Bates.

This new season immediately feeds our curiosity from last season by addressing the murder of Miss Watson, and keeps on feeding us with yet more mystery as the complexity of Norman’s dual personality is faced head on. Norman’s actions are the result of a very fractured mind, and like last season’s “blackout” in which Norman kills his father and injures the previous owner of their house, Norman must deal with the repercussions of killing Miss Watson during a supposed blackout.

In true horror fashion, the series opens ominously with the shrill cry of a telephone ringing as a thunderstorm rages outside. Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) receives the shocking news that school has been cancelled due to the death of Miss Watson, who was the “victim of a violent crime.” It’s clear she’s suspicious of Norman’s role, as he came home bloody and disoriented, and she’s been privy to his blackout killings before.

His spotty recollection of the night leaves many questions to be answered, but whether out of ignorance or just plain denial, Norma bends to the slightest show of emotional vulnerability on Norman’s part.

Directly after the incredibly awkward funeral, we see Norman in a truly vulnerable moment as he creepily handles the pearl necklace of Miss Watson (a trophy, if you will).  This act of transparency happens ironically after Norma, in an effort to comfort him, tells Norman that “we only see the tip of the iceberg with people. We see what they want you to see.” It makes you question, does Norman really not remember what he did? Does he honestly feel remorse?

Naturally, that’s not the only tragedy in Norman’s life. Bradley (Nicola Relz), the object of Norman’s affection, is going off the rails, literally. Still struggling with her father’s death from season one, she attempts suicide by jumping from a bridge.

But in a very abrupt change, we’re left in the dark as to her survival, and suddenly it’s four months later in the town of White Pine Bay.

Bradley (Nicola Peltz) waits for her mother to take her home from the institution. Photo courtesy of A&E at
Bradley (Nicola Peltz) waits for her mother to take her home from the institution. Photo courtesy of A&E at

In stark contrast from the first five minutes of the episode, we see the Bates house unnaturally alive–the main house has an abundance of life with a colorful garden and the motel is packed with tourists, excitedly packing their cars to explore the town. Even Norma is livelier than usual, her hair blonder and her dress brighter. It seems all the darkness of death and dysfunction has been eradicated from the town; however, it’s all just below the brim, waiting to breach the surface.

And, of course, it does. Norma worries for Norman, who is still obsessing over Miss Watson, spending most of his time in the basement doing taxidermy and visiting her grave constantly. Norma is also dealing with the success of the motel, which is in jeopardy when the construction of the new bypass threatens potential traffic.

But, it’s when Bradley (who we find out has been recovering in a mental hospital and is being released) lands herself in trouble (don’t want to give away any spoilers) immediately after uncovering some rather interesting information about Miss Watson and her father that the shit really hits the fan, and she drags Norman right in the middle of it.

What a way to start the season. If this episode is any indicator of the future of the show, it can’t do much better. “Bates Motel” brings back the true essence of horror. Rather than the gratuitous blood and guts of horror films today (though it has it’s fair share of blood), the show goes back to the basics, relying on the implications of horror–the suspenseful music or the subtle sound of a frantically beating heart that you can’t distinguish between the tv’s or your own heart, the look of terror on someone’s face, or just a shot of a dark room. “Bates Motel” relies on the unknown to elicit fear in the viewer, and it certainly works.

The story itself does well to restore the reputation of prequels. The show does a great job of upholding the original cannon of “Psycho,” alluding to the film’s end with one-liners (Norma criticizes Norman for spending “way too much time in the basement” stuffing animals, the same basement that Norma will eventually be laid to rest) that anyone who’s seen the original film will recognize with a laugh, while maintaining a more modern and original perspective.

And the actors understanding and command of the characters make it all that much more entertaining to watch.

Vera Farmiga’s overbearing and controlling portrayal of Norma is some of the best acting on television right now. She can make me hate Norma and feel sorry for her all at the same time, with her desperately strict ruling over Norman (trying to control his every move, what he wears and who he hangs out with) that’s really just an attempt to get a handle on her own life, which seems to be one disastrous event after another (first, her son kills her husband; they move to a new town where she is raped; then she murders her rapist; then she’s arrested…the list goes on, and that was just the first four episodes of season one).

Her controlling nature toward Norman, with its incestuous undertones, really begs the question of nature versus nurture. Is Norman’s eventual, and current, lapse into a psychotic state a result of nature or Norma’s controlling upbringing?

And, it must be said, Freddie Highmore is surprisingly perfect as Norman Bates. At first glance, it’s difficult to see anything other than the cute little kid from “August Rush,” but he quickly erases that image with his perfectly nuanced performance. His ability to navigate from an awkward and timid teenager to an emotionally unstable and psychotic murderer is nothing short of spectacular.

And the complete 180 transformation that Nicola Peltz does with Bradley’s character is scary. Even after her father’s horrible death (he was basically burned at the stake in the middle of the town), she still had a handle on herself, though a little reckless and insensitive (like sleeping with Norman and ditching him directly afterward).

But, from the very first image we see of her in the mental hospital, eyes sunken and a heavy hand guiding a cigarette to her mouth, to the femme fatale that is desperate for answers as to her father’s death, her transformation is shocking in the greatest way. I can’t wait to see where her desperation will land her.

“Gone But Not Forgotten” earns itself an A with this tense season opener. The show has easily transitioned from last year’s season of exposition into a concrete thriller that is gearing up for its climax, and I can’t wait to see what horror is in store at the Bates motel.

“Bates Motel” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E.