Bates Motel ended its fourth season by bringing characters closer to the events of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Psycho (1960), and announced in July that Rhianna had been cast as Marion Crane, but it’s the character we lost in season four that remains a surprising surprise.
If you haven’t gotten a chance yet to make it through Bates Motel’s fourth season, especially episodes nine and ten, this is your spoiler warning.
The first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, Psycho, it was on television. I remember because during the commercial break they showed an ad with Norma Bates’ picture, ruining the ending.
It still stings a little, but given a few years to gain some perspective on my first spoiler (and to have experienced many more thanks to Game of Thrones), I’ve come to see that Psycho came out in 1960 and has had a longevity most movies would kill for (poor choice of words?). That I got through it halfway unaware of that iconic reveal feels pretty satisfying.
When A&E’s prequel series, Bates Motel, came around in 2013, however, I knew what was up and while the Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) of the pilot were searching for a fresh start, their fates (if anything like the movie’s) were doomed to be tragic. With Norma, in particular, a character who exists as a nagging persona in her son’s head and a corpse in their basement when Psycho starts, her days seemed inevitably numbered. Yet, since this is television, days become dozens of episodes, and by the time the season four finale arrived, emotional investment in actress Vera Farmiga’s layered performance was at an all-time high.
Norma Bates always had to die. While executive producers, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, have talked about not wanting to be constrained into making everything match up with the movie, season four worked hard to set-up viewers for a fall of this caliber. It hurt. After Norman grudgingly agreed to commit himself into Pineview for his blackouts (*cough* murders), the usually inseparable mother and son faced being apart for the first time. In retrospect a trial-run for the permanent separation to come, the tonal split it brought to the show reflected how differently distance affected each Bates. Norma missed Norman terribly, but she also understood the good Pineview could bring into their lives. She even found love in a contrived marriage with Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) to cover medical expenses. Hopefulness, and something like happiness, shone behind all her scenes.
Norman’s sessions with Dr. Edwards (Damon Gupton), in contrast, grew progressively darker as Freddie Highmore proved once again how chilling he can be in his role as Norman. Dr. Edwards, for his part, distinguished himself by being the first person to witness what only viewers had ever seen and lived to talk about: Norman’s personality switch into Norma. A huge breakthrough, Dr. Edwards’ treatment, paired with a physicians’ objectivity neither Norma, Romero, or Norman’s older brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot) could bring to the pieces of the switch they’d seen, showed promise. Norman’s desire to go home, meanwhile, cut treatment short, and instead of leaving Pineview with a healthier disposition, Norman returned more agitated, more suspicious of the mother who sent him there, and, as her death by CO2 poisoning would confirm, not any better.
Episode nine closes on a frantic Romero giving Norma CPR. Norman, prepared to die by her side, wakes up. Norma’s survival would have undercut any later attempt the show made to have Norman take her life. Nonetheless, because we live in a universe where television characters seemingly dead can, after months of speculation and haircut debates, come back, fan denial set in. Similar to Norman’s own denial, episode ten takes its time providing final confirmation of mortality. A stretcher is followed from the house to the ambulance but only when inside the ambulance is it shown to be carrying Norman. When confirmation of Norma’s death comes, in a milky-eyed close-up that will haunt viewers until the show’s return on February 20th, only Norman can maintain any doubt.
Subverting expectations, it’s not Norma’s death that is up for speculation going into season five — it’s Norman’s. While it’s hard to imagine the series continuing without either of its leads alive (and that would definitely be a digression from the movie) only after Norman threatens to shoot himself does Norma’s “ghost” appear to him once more. Is this Norma protecting her son from beyond the grave? Norman’s split personality making a reappearance? Or has Norman died after all?
No matter which direction the series goes (and the middle option seems most likely) the biggest reason Norma’s death feels so impossibly early is what it means for the show’s future: a Norma-less final season. Vera Farmiga will still be a part of the cast but she’ll only play the Norma in Norman’s head, corrupted and incomplete unless there are flashbacks. Season four worked because of the balance between the light and dark elements. Norma’s relationship with Norman may have been linked with his mental illness but she also was his chance at redemption.
To put it in Joseph Campbell monomyth terms, by killing the person he loved most, Norman met his “belly of the whale” moment and crossed it. He’s past the point of no return but viewers, for better or worse, aren’t. Whatever season five looks like, we’ll be there to see it through.
Bates Motel returns 20th February 2017 on A&E.