Series Review: Bates Motel
The 1960 film without a doubt put the psychological- slasher genre on the map and will remain a classic for all-time. As the master of mystery Hitchcock dolls out suspense in terrifying measure, the story doesn’t explore the complex relationship between mother and son. Save for the ending where Bates’ slashing tendencies is delved into between a psychologist and the victim’s closest relatives, there’s always more to wonder about them both. The re-imagining created by Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse goes much further.
Building up to the evening where Marion Crane was murdered, Bates Motel dials back the years to when Norman and Norma first acquire the famous motel in an effort to start over. After suffering psychological disturbances throughout his childhood and teen years, Mother thinks a new place is just what they need. But a different life doesn’t fix all of their problems as Norma fights off detrimental plans destined to drive traffic away from their inn, the town’s seedy underground of drugs, and even darker secrets about their family no one could imagine.
It’s safe to say that Norman and Norma are the hearts of the show as well as the movie. Though Anthony Perkins’ performance in the movie is without a doubt timeless, Mother exists, intriguingly but lightly, as a literal skeleton in a closet. Except for Perkins and Hitchcock’s detail to the atmosphere, it’s very one-sided. Bringing both of these characters to life comes unforgettable performances from Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga who are tasked to make a disturbed duo likable, interesting, but also scary and dangerous.
Norman and Norma’s love operates at both ends of the spectrum between sane, pure, innocent love to overbearing, dependent obsession. They need each other to live, so being protective and defensive is in their nature. But this kind of love where neither is allowed to breathe on their own comes at a very claustrophobic and harmful price. For as much as they love each other, rarely are they ever on the same page because something emotional or psychological always stains their hopes, dreams, and delusions.
The leading stars work marvelously together as well as they do apart. Highmore captures Anthony Perkin’s version in mannerisms as a natural part of the character, but also make the character his own. Norman's mind works for and against him the best and worst ways. Norma manipulates him to think defensively and commit murder. Losing chunks of time, when he's his normal self he has to catch up on what his alternative personality has done. Both Normas, in physical form and in his mind, are there to protect them in the most irrational, rational ways possible.
Highmore's not only served with making such an iconic character his own but also taking on Farmiga's personality and behavior too. After all, Norman just doesn’t operate by his own well-being. He's consumed by Mother too. As his counterpart and partner, Farmiga gives Highmore enough to work with. She spins the web carefully around Norman, sometimes acting as a black widow spider and also a martyr; her protectiveness over Norman, for the most part, is done with the best intentions but also wreaks havoc. Farmiga has several different versions of Norma under her plate, and it's fascinating to see which ones she pulls out in dealing with her son.
To be a show that explores dark themes though, the series deserves and earns a firm warning for mature content. From the very first episode, viewers are on a very wild ride that will catch anyone off-guard. It did for me, but powering through the years and remaining fascinated as time went on, the show isn’t entirely gratuitous. While I think certain lines are crossed in some episodes, situations the characters find themselves in aren’t just plucked out of a hat to be as violent as possible.
However, depending on your threshold, the show touches on psychological, physical, and sexual violence either in dialogue, with depiction or alluding to specific events. Themes covered include serial killing, rape, mental illness, incest, drug use, sexual assault, taxidermy (which some might consider animal abuse), and domestic violence. While these things aren’t prevalent in every single episode, they are explored throughout and it’s ultimately up to what viewers think they can tolerate. When Highmore and Farmiga have to flip back and forth between personalities, their actions contain a lot of dry and dark humor too. So the show isn't entirely without some lighter moments, even if they are few and far between.
Impressively, the show works even if you haven’t seen the movie. Homages to the original are made in just enough detail that you think you know where the story is going, only to switch things up and keep you on your feet. The production oozes a film-noir nature in its cinematography and score and builds the atmosphere from the 1960s into the 21st century. It’s hard to imagine a show could’ve been created surrounding the events of one evening in a horror movie, but the writing for Bates Motel is mind-blowing.
From the music to infamous shower slay, and the enigmatic Bates clan, Psycho remains memorable for a lot of reasons. Though intricately linked to Hitchcock’s work, Bates Motel is one of the most honorable remakes I can remember in a long time. Once you check in, it’s nearly impossible to check out.
Have you seen Bates Motel? What did you think?