Bates Motel Season 2 Finale Review: A Motherly Tragedy
I wasn't very thrilled with Bates Motel's Season 1 finale and the murder of Blair Watson. We had just done all that with Keith Summers in the series premiere, so covering up another murder felt repetitive. Thus, when Season 2 kicked off with Bradley killing Gil, it seemed like the show was doubling down on murder cover-ups that would entangle the Norms, and I was not too optimistic about its prospects in its sophomore season.
That lack of optimism was largely misplaced, and thank goodness! Blair Watson's murder investigation was handled off-screen, and it didn't really return to the narrative until the seventh episode of this season. Bradley was put on a bus (presumably to go fight giant robots)—and again, thank goodness, because I never found Bradley even remotely interesting. Plus, her slaying of Gil was what set off the gang war in White Pine Bay that in part kept Dylan busy and separated him from the Norms for much of the season (Caleb, Norman's brother, was the other thing keeping Dylan away).
So instead of dealing with murders in a direct way, Bates Motel tightened up its stories and tone in Season 2—quite an improvement over Season 1, which often felt too scattered between Norman's teenage development, the sex-trafficking mystery with Emma and Norman, the cover-up of Keith Summers' death, Dylan's career in the drug business of White Pine Bay, and, of course, all the longing looks between Norman and Norma. Bates Motel will always need that last element, but so much of everything else felt grafted-on, like a bunch of different shows and styles cobbled together into a weird Frankenstein's monster of a show.
Looking back, it's not as if Season 2 had any less going on, but rather that everything that was happening was connected to other stories in a more cohesive way than Season 1 managed to achieve. It helped that White Pine Bay started to feel like a place with people in it as opposed to this slightly dystopic city in the Pacific Northwest built around a marijuana business and a compromised sheriff. It had a city council, a community theater (Norma belting out "Maybe This Time" may've been the highlight of the season), and people who have lives and houses. In short, there was a world for the Norms to interact with, a world that would drive them away from and toward one another in equal measure.
Norma had Christine (Rebecca Creskoff) and Christine's brother George (Michael Vartan) to play up politics and romance, the former of which was interesting due to Nick Ford's involvement and its addition of some much-needed color to the town. The Norma/George romance never really did anything except highlight the jealousy and bizarre give-and-take that defines Norma and Norman's relationship; George was always going to fizzle out, but Norman getting kidnapped and trapped in a box sped thing along.
Norman primarily had Bradley's replacement, the significantly more interesting Cody (Paloma Kwiatkowski, who hopefully will be getting more work), and their stories were more about teenagers and sex. Again, Cody added color to the season, but she also served as a way for someone else to get in on Norman's secret blackouts while also not running into Norma immediately, which is something Emma totally would've done—and which she totally did. But as Cody was the rebellious teenager sort, the absolute worst thing ever in Norma's eyes, she was like George, and had to be shuffled out of White Pine Bay for the sake of the Norms.
Both these larger serialized stories kept circling back to the Norms as a pairing, since both Norman and Norma are jealous/protective of one another's new romantic interests. But they also served larger narrative arcs, including Norma landing a spot on the city council and making Norman aware of his blackouts. This, more than anything, was what the finale was about, and ended up resolving.
In fact, there was a hell of a lot of resolution in the "The Immutable Truth." So much of it, in fact, that the only dangling storylines by the end were the pot one and the questions of whether or not Dylan will be the one running things come next season, and whether or not Norma will still be on the city council. The finale even resolved—for now—Romero's interest in Norman as a budding killer, thanks to the polygraph test. When Season 3 begins next year, Bates Motel will have a relatively blank sheet of paper on which to write a new story.
More important than the larger seasonal plots, however, was the way the finale saw everything laid out between the Norms, as Norman finally learned the truth about his blackouts and the death of his father during the confrontation in the woods with Norma, itself spurred since Norman realized that he had killed Blair Watson.
That scene in the woods was pretty much my everything about Bates Motel. Other aspects of the series' general weirdness—seriously, the "Let's try out for a musical!" idea was just so bizarre for the show that I couldn't help but love it and cherish it and hate that Libby OF ALL PEOPLE got the part instead of Norma—have helped to keep things interesting when the Norms aren't sharing the screen, but when they are, pretty much everything else feels entirely justified, or at least tolerable. Their wonderfully touching moment at the end of the episode tiptoed right up to the creepy line, but because Farmiga and Highmore have somehow figured out how to not cross it, their closeness and raw emotion brought everything into complete focus.
One Bates Motel's producers, Carlton Cuse, called the show a tragedy in a recent interview, and it's really the best way of looking at this story, and that scene in particular. It's not a tragedy about Norman, because Norman doesn't have a tragic flaw in the way we we normally think about tragic flaws—his blacking out and killing people is just a straight-up flaw. Rather, Bates Motel is a tragedy about Norma, because she just loves her son so damn much that she drives him to become the killer who ends up keeping her skeleton in the fruit cellar. Norman was ready to kill himself because he doesn't want to be the person he's becoming and, more importantly to him, he doesn't want to hurt Norma. And Norma convinced him otherwise through the power of motherly love (and motherly guilt), saying that they have to be together, that they're supposed to be together, and that if he dies, then she'll only be a "few steps" behind him. She thinks she's saving her son's life, but she's actually just killing herself.
Bates Motel's second season wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, or even what passes for those things on the show. Dylan was stuck in the drug war storyline after his break from Norma—which itself followed the reveal from Caleb—and it was very, very boring. Zane (Michael Eckund) was a worn-out jumble of unstable criminal clichés, and his sister Jodi (Kathleen Roberston) bordered on being a non-entity for all the value she contributed to the narrative. The saving grace of the drug storyline was that Nick Ford's (Michael O'Neill) involvement allowed it have small, tangential connections to Norma's various goings-on, but given how long it took those connections to pay off, the rest just fell all sorts of flat.
That's probably why I was so oddly elated to see Dylan and Norma's reconciliation in this episode. Seriously. My notes have "AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW." in them in response to watching them hug. While Romero seemed insistent that Dylan take over the pot business (presumably both operations?) and that means we may have yet another drug storyline next season, he'll at least be back in the Norms' orbit again.
While Dylan was understandably lost for much of this season, the character works best as someone who's aware of just how dysfunctional the Norms' relationship is—and who's not only willing to say as much, but to try to do something about it, even if his efforts turn out to be wildly ineffective. (Plus, Max Thieriot is really wonderful as a counter to both Farmgia and Highmore's odder performance vibes, and I missed that this season.) When you keep up with that tragedy lens, however, Dylan's inability to protect Norman from Norma's motherly impulses contribute as much to Norman's descent into Psycho-ness as her love does. It's even more of a reason to keep him around, as it enhances that perspective.
As a result of this finale, I'm not entirely sure what's in store for us in Season 3 beyond Dylan and the drug operations. I'm hopeful that more citizens of White Pine Bay will arrive and make things complicated for the Norms, but given that there's no lingering mystery or inciting incident to propel us at the start, I'll guess we'll just spend the offseason theorizing.
COMMENTS FROM THE GUESTBOOK
– Just in case you'd forgotten what we're building to here. Then again, how could you?
– I didn't touch on Emma's story very much, but that's largely because I think Bates Motel is afraid to do too much with her, or to allow her to get too close to Norman (hence the blandly handsome pot-dealing guy). I think the show likes her as much as I do, and doesn't want it to feel as if she's getting too close to being murdered.
– If Norma loses her city council seat, I'm going to be very sad. I want to see her be ridiculous during these meetings.
– Norma and Norman danced to Bobby Darin singing "Dream Lover."
What'd you think of "The Immutable Truth" and the season as a whole? Got any ideas for what Season 3 could be about?
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