A&E's "Bates Motel" -- A Fond Farewell to a Bloody Good Show

By Ed Martin TV / Video Download Archives

It’s always sad to see a great show quietly end its run with little or no fanfare. Case in point: A&E’s Bates Motel, which will have its series finale tonight at 10 p.m. ET. Oh well, at least we had five years of this fun and always fascinating chiller. That’s four more than I expected it to get when I first heard about it. A series based on Psycho, for many the scariest movie of all time? Told with the same characters but in the present day – a time when digital media shines light into even the darkest corners of peoples’ lives and ensures that privacy is a rare privilege and that no secret is safe? What were they smokin’?

But Bates Motel turned out to be outrageously original and ferociously familiar all at once -- a mad mix of many modern characters and a few inspired by those in Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller – still one of the ballsiest works of cinema in the history of the medium, especially when we consider that it was put together almost 60 years ago! The new characters included a sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) who fell in love with and married the doomed Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and a troubled brother (Max Thieriot) for murderous mama’s boy Norman (Freddie Highmore, pictured at top), but as involved as they were in everything they didn’t dilute the twisted central relationship between the seemingly sweet and squirrely mother and son.

Indeed, despite a multitude of colorful characters caught up in a series of ever-more-outlandish storylines, the focus of this show was never for more than a minute anywhere but on Norma and Norman, who grappled with one monstrous personal issue after another while owning and operating the roadside establishment of the title and that iconic house of horrors high on the hill above it. Even when Norma and Norman weren’t in a scene or two their merged essence permeated the action.

With apologies to Hitchcock and everyone associated with his landmark movie – especially Tony Perkins, who chillingly brought Norman to life in Psycho and its three best-forgotten sequels – the credit for the impact Norma and Norman made on the show goes directly to the actors who portrayed them, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, respectively. (They are pictured below.)  Theirs have been two of the top television performances in a decade that has been overloaded with remarkable work in an ever-expanding medium.

Farmiga was harrowing and heartbreaking as the perpetually put-upon and always flustered Norma, a woman for whom abuse had become the norm long before she became the mother of a monster, and for whom love was a largely unobtainable goal except where her weak-willed son was concerned. Call her a smother-mother, or a helicopter parent, or a Black Hawk ‘copter mom – whether she intended to or not, she crushed the independence and ability to cope with the everyday pressures of life right out of her kid (making this 60-year-old story oddly relevant today).

The results were calamitous and, for Norma, ultimately fatal.

They were fatal also for a host of other people who agitated Norman in any way, most recently Sam Loomis (Austin Nichols), a character from the novel and the film who, in a neat if messy twist on Janet Leigh’s classic death scene in Psycho, was butchered by Norman while taking a shower.

Farmiga’s and Highmore’s performances have only intensified this season, with Norma fused into Norman’s psyche after he killed her at the end of season four. Increasingly throughout season five we have seen Farmiga and Highmore playing the same hybrid role in dozens of scenes. It’s not what Tatiana Maslany has been doing in BBC America’s Orphan Black, nor what Ewan McGregor is now doing in FX’s Fargo. It’s something altogether different, and given that it has continued for a full season it has been something altogether new for TV.

Bates Motel ends tonight. As of this writing I have not seen the final episode, but the previews promise a final blast of violent madness, both physical and psychological.  I assume Norman will be at the center of all that, as it should be.

It is young Highmore’s work throughout these five seasons that will stay with me for years to come. How did he do that thing with his eyes, making them reflect fear one moment, childlike innocence or adolescent confusion the next, and then malevolent darkness, as if he were a seething demon from hell?

Highmore did Perkins proud.  I think Hitch would have been impressed, as well.

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