Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s always notable when a show manages to re-engage viewers after leaving them ready to jump ship over a season ago. Bates Motel has been fighting against the onset of redundancy since it began (Who cares how Norman Bates becomes a killer? is a somewhat justified question), and it began to lose that fight last year. I would have defended the show to someone asking that previous question in the first two seasons; in season 3, I probably would have answered with a mumbled, disinterested shrug, the equivalent of a, “Not me, anymore.”
There’s creativity and a twisted bent to the open two-episode blast of the show’s fourth season that immediately made me remember what I liked about Bates Motel from the beginning. Question: Who cares how Norman Bates becomes a killer? Answer: Anyone who likes truly batty drama, just-over-the-top-enough performances, and the occasional, pointless side-plot or two. Bates Motel isn’t the perfect representation of the brooding, anti-hero TV drama movement, but as its creepy, cross-dressing, psychopathic cousin, the show is at least once more fun to watch.
The opening hours of season 4 wholly embrace the fractured psyche of Norman (Freddie Highmore), and his new “Mother” alter-ego. Before delving into that pit of crazy-town, though, the show deals with the fallout of the murderous actions taken by town sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), and finds Norma (Vera Farmiga) desperately trying to find her son following their fight at the end of last season and his secretive slaying of Bradley (Nicola Peltz).
Norma asks Norman’s brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) for help, but he’s off to Portland to support Emma (Olivia Cooke) while she undergoes a liver transplant surgery, hopefully saving her life in the process. Bates Motel has a blatant problem with over-padded subplots that fail to go anywhere satisfying, but the new focus on Emma this season feels justified and endearing.
That’s mostly thanks to Cooke herself, who played a similar role with comparable aplomb in last summer’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. She grounds the more out-there moments of the show whenever she shows up, and the new relationship between her and Thieriot largely connects. Major bonus: it gives each character something else to do besides obsess over Norman and (sigh) become White Pine Bay’s drug kingpin.
But worry not: things take a turn for the wacky soon enough, and by the end of the premiere, Norma and Norman are once again toeing a very, very questionable line in determining what constitutes a healthy mother/son relationship. The best part about the new run of episodes is Norman’s inability to distinguish visions of his mother and the reality. Did she kill someone? Did he? Did he-as-her? We know the difference, especially in the premiere’s final, line-in-the-sand moment, but the uncertainty makes Norma’s slow realizations feel satisfyingly tragic.
Like every season past, Farmiga is the reason to watch Bates Motel: she moors the world’s off-kilter, strange angle with her miraculous ability to be a roaring powerhouse of ferocity in one scene and a sarcastic fountain of mirth in the next. You’ll hate her for being so blindly overprotective (something she gets called out on this time around, finally, with surgical precision), but you’ll love her for the same reason.
Now that he’s in Mother mode more often, Highmore remains a great dramatic companion to Farmiga and gives her obsessive behavior a convincing explanation. Things get especially trippy when he mimes her mannerisms – the way he holds her robe, plays with his hair, smiles off to the side – with the clarity of a mirror. As the long-in-waiting plot turn of the series, his embrace of this murderous persona is justified, given the amount of build-up we’ve had, but also surprisingly effective: Norman is gone, and you’ll be clinging to your seat even when he’s hospitably checking in patrons to the motel.
He’s still not in full-on Psycho territory yet. And that makes sense – A&E renewed the show last summer for this fourth season and a fifth next year. What that decision does do, though, is cement concern for where the show is going. At the end of the second episode, there’s an interesting stab at a potentially tricky plot point Norman will have to navigate for the rest of the season. If done right, it could yield the most fascinating glimpse into Norman’s mind yet; if not, it could just be yet another wheel-spinning story on the bumpy road to the death-by-stabbing of that iconic woman in the shower.
But, far more than last year, there’s reason to be confident in co-creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin. Season 4 of Bates Motel is silly and odd – such is the world of White Pine Bay, although Twin Peaks this ain’t – but none of the show’s drama feels superfluous. There’s real momentum to the opening episodes, which peak and valley with the expected, low-key violence of the show and its stranglehold on Norma and Norman’s epically screwed up relationship. As long as Bates Motel maintains its current tone – like Leave it to Beaver meets a calmer version of American Horror Story – there could be just enough life left in the show to see it through to its inevitably (hopefully?) blood-soaked conclusion.
As twisted as ever - and perhaps even more so - Bates Motel recovers from a slightly stumbling third season with confident lunacy, focusing on Norman's psychotic break - and Norma's desperation - with eerie precision.