The third episode of A&E's new thriller series Bates Motel aired last night and, man, is that show weird. A less affected Twin Peaks? An Oregon-based, incest-twinged Stephen King story? It's really not clear where the show is ultimately headed, but, silly in parts as it may be, I'm all of a sudden quite eager to find out. Let's talk about the weirdness, though.
First off, the obvious. We're dealing with Norman Bates here. And while it's been made clear that this show is not strictly a prequel to Psycho — it's set in the present day, after all — I think we can assume that we know where this show is basically headed. Norman, now a teen, will grow up to be a cross-dressing murderer of ladies who lives happily with his mother's corpse. How else to explain Vera Farmiga's dominating and too comforting mama Norman? Or, y'know, Norman's lurid obsession with images and visions of bound and gagged women. This isn't Dexter we're talking about, some oddly noble killer of bad guys. To make a terrible and probably offensive analogy, let's say that Dexter is the Will Truman of TV serial killers to Norman's... Lafayette from True Blood? Meaning, Dexter is all milquetoast and made blandly palatable for a broader TV audience, while Norman is more stylized, more risque. (Gay people ≠ Serial killers, duh.) Last night, Norman was overcome with fantasies of his teacher tied up and crying on a bed, causing him to pass out in class. That is pretty, pretty intense! I mean, this is a show that is partly about the birth of a murderous sexual sadist. Isn't that a strange thing to watch? I'm not even sure how, like, socially responsible that is, but that it's getting past the powers that be, that they're allowing our hero to slowly turn into a real monster, is fascinating. Maybe just from a pseudo-academic level, but that's enough.
So that's the show's chief weirdness, and it's a big one. But then there's also the budding incestuous relationship between Norman and his mother. In these instances — the jealousy when one or the other has a date, the ooky smile that crossed Norman's face last night as he and mother hugged, the way the half-brother calls them Mr. and Mrs. Bates — the writing is sharp and the acting is quite good, but yowsers is that some risque stuff to put on television. At least in its upfront-ness. Again, we're talking about our two leads here! These are not creepy side characters. These are the characters, and it's slowly becoming a will-they/won't-they. A Moonlighting kind of a thing. Between mother and son. Between Vera Farmiga and the little boy from Finding Neverland. It is very strange that their relationship is the centerpiece of a big, splashy scripted series on a popular (well, popular enough) cable network. Yeah it's 2013, but wooftie. Mother-son incest played seriously and by the two leads of the show? That's pretty out there.
But, we expected those two things, didn't we? I mean, there was always going to be Norman the gestating murderer and of course there'd be Mother, looming large in his life in some capacity. So while those two elements are decidedly odd and off-color, they're not exactly a surprise. What surrounds them certainly is, though. Show creators Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin and Anthony Cipriano have created a show about the Bates Motel and its two troubled proprietors, but they've also surrounded them with a town full of kooks and criminals, a place where everyone has a dark secret and mysteries fill the nearby woods like mist. (Super Twin Peaks-y in that regard, but without all the oddball humor.) These other story elements really have nothing to do with the Bates mythology in any way, but there they are nonetheless, making this less a show about a motel of horrors and more about a peculiar town lying on the gray edges of the Pacific Northwest. (The show is filmed in British Columbia, looking lush but autumnal.) So while it is initially distracting that Norman has a bad boy half-brother who rolls into town and starts working for the local pot kingpin, or that Norman and a girl from school (who, Fault In Our Stars-style, wheels an oxygen tank around with her) are suddenly solving a mystery involving Chinese sex trafficking, it's also so downright bizarre that I'm increasingly curious to see just where the hell they're going with all this.
What was that pitch meeting like, I wonder? "So... it's teenage Norman Bates and his mother..." "Go on." "And they've just bought the Bates Motel after the mysterious death of Norman's father." "I'm liking this..." "And then Norman starts investigating a Chinese sex trafficking mystery while his half-brother—" "Half brother?" "Yeah half-brother, while his half-brother goes to work for the weed business that funds the town and has incited a fiery turf war. And Vera Farmiga's in it." That is a very peculiar pitch! But A&E went for it. Which must mean that the creators have some idea of where this is all headed, tonally and plot-wise, right? I know, I know, Carlton Cuse was one of the Lost guys, so he is never to be trusted again. But Ehrin used to write for Friday Night Lights, so maybe she will help temper his wilder impulses or drag them toward some measure of coherency? I certainly hope so, because while much of Bates Motel is abjectly silly — of course the cute cop with an interest in Norma also has a girl chained up in his basement — there's something undeniably alluring about how completely unexpected it all is. Who knew that this could be a show? That all these different elements could be smooshed into one series and it would somehow, despite itself, kinda work? It's too early to really make a definitive call on Bates Motel; it could still prove a scattershot disaster. But I'm thoroughly intrigued at the moment.
Will Norman solve the mystery of the Chinese symbol in room 4? Will Dylan ascend the ranks of the local marijuana cartel? Will we find out what those burns on Norma's legs are and why she's clearly lying to Norman about his blackouts? Will, um, she and Norman, like, y'know, do stuff? Keep tuning into A&E's Ripley's Believe It Or Not, sorry I mean Bates Motel, to find out. God knows I will be.