After five seasons and 50 episodes, Bates Motel officially closed its doors on Monday, April 24th. It was a very impressive run that saw it emerge as one of the most acclaimed series of all time but you probably wouldn’t know that because Bates Motel always seemed on the edge of unfamiliarity. Some people I know had never heard of it while others dismissed it because who in their right mind would touch Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho?
To be fair many have tried and failed to capitalize on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller. The 1960 film is universally loved but follow-ups, spinoffs, and remakes have lacked in comparison. Sure, Psycho II has its charms but by the time we got to Psycho IV we knew that the brand name was far from its former greatness. Then there was the infamous shot for shot remake from 1998 that felt like an embarrassment for all involved. When A&E announced picking up Bates Motel straight to series there was a lot of skepticism, from me included, but that skepticism was soon put to rest when I realized the creative minds behind that show didn’t seek to remake Psycho, they wanted to spin their own mythology and create a passing link between the show and the classic film.
The series serves as a contemporary prequel and reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and depicts the lives of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) prior to the events depicted in the film, albeit in the different fictional town of White Pine Bay and it’s placed in a modern setting.
The series begins in Arizona with the death of Norma’s husband, after which Norma purchases the Seafarer motel located in coastal Oregon town so that she and Norman can start a new life. Subsequent seasons follow Norman as his mental illness becomes dangerous, and Norma as she struggles to protect her son, and those around him, from himself. Bates Motel‘s storylines ignore the timeline of the original film’s sequels and give alternate versions of many of the characters and events in the original film.
The main reason Bates Motel worked so well throughout its run is that it never intended to be another version of Psycho. By not being a direct remake of that film, it gave the show some creative license with the characters and situations. Some might balk at some of the changes (one as recent as the fifth and final season moment when the infamous shower scene is gender-flipped so to speak) while others seemed to provide a bit more depth (giving Norman an older half-brother created a perfect dichotomy between the two siblings that generated its fair share of emotions). Even though there were changes, the essence of the characters were still there and you really did feel like you were witnessing that creation of the man you meet in Psycho when Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane happens upon his motel.
At the center of the story is Norman and Norma Bates. You have to connect with them from start to finish in order for the show to work and a big part of that connection is attributed to the top notch performances from Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. Highmore, in my opinion, had the harder job of the two. His performance is going to be instantly compared to what Anthony Perkins did in the 1960 film but, thankfully, he avoids mimicking what came before him. Working in his favor is that, since this is a series, there is a lot of time spent developing Norman and while it’s clear he’s troubled, Highmore also makes the character immensely sympathetic. This is someone who was shaped by his circumstances and whose mother’s unique brand of love, and eventually, her denial of his fragile mental state, pushes him further into madness. You can tell this is someone who doesn’t want to do bad things but at times he breaks and can’t control the things that he does. What I have loved about Bates Motel over five seasons is that is no real villain of the piece. It would be easy to place him in that category but there is good in Norman and like the classic line in the film says: “we all go a little mad sometimes”.
Vera Farmiga, who received an Emmy nomination for her role after the first season, gives an intense portrayal as Norma Bates. On the one hand, she loves her son (albeit in some very unhealthy ways) but she also goes to extremes to protect that inadvertently make him worse. We have to buy that she has his best interest at heart and Farmiga is excellent at playing the fierce mama bear. This is a very complicated role that a lesser actress couldn’t make work but she does so with the greatest of ease. She is also given more depth by having another son Dylan (Max Thieriot). He is pretty much the anti-Norman. He’s self-sufficient and doesn’t need the coddling of his mother and she treats him in kind. You can tell she latches onto Norman so fiercely because of mistakes she thinks she made with Dylan. He represents a side of her she doesn’t want to accept (we later learn that Dylan is a product of a disturbed situation between Norman and her brother) and it gives her layers that Farmiga gets to take to great places as an actress. Much like Norman, we need to sympathize with her and we ultimately do despite her faults. The joy of the show is that our loyalties jump from episode to episode. One minute we want Norman to get caught because he’s clearly out of his mind and the next we want Norma put in her place because she’s handling the situation all wrong. We feel this way until the end of Season four when the line between the show and Psycho truly becomes a bit more definitive.
Bates Motel has been great since its start but it achieved another level of greatness during the last two season (four and five). In these seasons we truly see Norman descend into madness and as a viewer, we know we are getting to a point in the series where a major even needs to happen in order for Norman to truly take shape. We all know that Norma has to die and that Norman would be driven so insane by this that he would ultimately manifest her in his own mind after she is long gone. There were hints of him becoming his mother throughout the series but, particularly season five has handled this transition quite effectively. I was a bit worried about watching a “dead” Vera Farmiga because I thought she would lose some of the depth she created as Norma in the previous seasons but her presence in season five adds another layer to both characters. It’s not entirely cut and dry and that’s what makes the psychology of the show so very interesting.
I won’t give away events of the series finale but I’m happy with how it ended. The creators had a clear vision of the show they wanted to create (they had a five season plan from the start) and that’s why the series feels complete. It never felt like they were making things up as they went along and that’s what makes its conclusion so sweet. A lot of shows tend to drop the ball in the final hour but Bates Motel opened and closed in the best possible way. I’m going to miss my springs that consisted of the premiere of a new season of Bates Motel but I’m thankful it went out in a way that was satisfying and I hope that those who missed it during its original run will discover it and keep its legacy alive.