TV: Bates Motel (2013)

Bates Motel has just aired its finale with high acclaim following it by fans and critics alike. Even though it has only been a five season long affair the series has wrapped up at a point where it felt most natural.  If you want to avoid spoilers, I’d avoid reading any further.

Bates Motel is somewhat of a re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho which in turn is based on the Robert Bloch novel of the same name which was published in 1959. Horror fans should already know the in and outs of the Norman Bates mythos, who is played brilliantly by Freddie Highmore, pretty well. At the very least, most know that Norman’s victims are usually female and that he has a mommy complex that manifests itself in a way that has him dressing up as her after her death. In fact, he sometimes believes that he is her. Upon shallow judgement many would sum him up as “crazy” or incorrectly as a “schizophrenic”.

The Norman Bates legend has been the great-great-grandfather of horror stories for decades and we all knew where Bates Motel was heading by the end of it all. What makes this show, which also stars Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates, so successful then? Could it be the fantastic cast and grim atmosphere surrounding the characters and the motel itself? The new direction and additions to the original story are also worth noting. At the very core, though, is the psychological explorations of what makes these characters who they are. They are not just depicted as bad people or with simple intentions. These are complicated, multi-layered characters you can sympathize with before and even after they commit murder during the progression of the story.

Mental illness is complex and situational. While being an effectively creepy horror/suspense show, Bates Motel is also indirectly teaching its viewers about mental illness. Even if slightly exaggerated, it does a great job at depicting behaviors and traits that are atypical of people with different mental illnesses and personality disorders. A couple of specific ones do come to mind when watching Norman, and Norma especially, but I don’t want to mention them to avoid labeling. After all, they’re just my own speculation.

Norma’s childhood demons were tragically unraveled as the series went on revealing that she was sexually abused by her brother. Many sufferers of various disorders and mental illnesses end up developing these issues due to abuse, which they can sometimes pass on to their own children. This happens through their own form of abuse. Norma didn’t physically or sexually abuse Norman but she unhealthily smothered him with love that teetered on the line of incest. As stated before, many fans already knew that the nature of their relationship would be quite unorthodox. What the show did was carefully map out the cause and effects of this relationship and instead of displaying it as in-your-face creepy, they made the characters unsettlingly real. By giving us this background on Norma, we start to put the pieces together. Many victims of childhood abuse fear abandonment even as adults, and giving Norman this intense smothering was a way to keep him close. In Norma’s mind, there is no relationship as close as one between a mother and son and the lines are blurred for her. She often goes to Norman for counseling and to unload her feelings, even those regarding her romantic situations, and goes as far as physical intimacy (cuddling & sleeping together). This type of interaction is normally provided by other adults  for most people. In this way, she actually conditions Norman into feeling as though he absolutely needs her close to him as well. This is sometimes called covert (or emotional) incest.

A trait that Norma and Norman both maintain throughout the show is their aura of charisma. Indeed, many people who suffer from a disorder can function quite well in society and even be well-liked by many. For anyone who has a family member, friend or someone else close to them with an illness this trait often rings true pertaining to their own experience. For some it is a positive trait when their loved one comes to mind but for many this effortless charisma haunts them. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it could be a quite triggering reminder for some at how real these characters are. Norma and Norman both have several men and women that grow to like them during the show’s progression. They’re quite charming and more often than not are easily liked by the people in White Pine Bay, Oregon.

The most important aspect of this display of charisma by both mother and son is the dispelling of myths that surround sufferers of mental illness. Firstly, it is thought that these people have difficulty functioning in society and are easily spotted by how “weird” they are. While Norma is quite volatile, the expectation is that she should be expressing erratic emotion constantly. Quite the contrary, she manages to hold a lot of it in throughout the progression of the series. Norman also just comes off as a quiet (and geeky?) teenager in school and to the people that get to know him, and his faults are just chalked up to him having a difficult time adjusting. Furthermore, another misconception about sufferers and their charisma is that it is all manipulative and pre-meditated. This comes from a difficulty understanding the many layers that a human being could have. Norma and Norman are at times very genuinely nice to people and there doesn’t seem to be any hidden agenda for most of their positive interactions with others. When Norman tries to encourage and cheer up his friend Emma, viewers can undoubtedly see the genuine nature of his actions. Norma, too, also seems to express concern for others even if she does have a hard time ultimately connecting with them.

If you’re looking — or are just familiar with some of these traits — you’ll notice that Vera Farmiga’s tragic portrayal of Norma Bates is masterfully done. She plays the flawed mother of two struggling with her inner demons simultaneously with her lack of self-awareness looming behind her brilliantly. There is a vacancy to her expressions during her interactions with others that I would peg as some of the best acting I’ve seen. Farmiga surely knows all the inner workings of her character and must have done her homework. She manages to stay true to Norma’s brand while at the same time making her very real and even relatable. This is not just some fictional character from a novel, but a carefully crafted one that could be found in day to day life.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that Bates Motel is a highly recommended show for fans of psychological horror. It elevates the genre to the highest peak and gives us a literal but refreshing take on the word psychological. It also stands firmly as a drama, because calling it a horror series is a bit strange even if there are aspects about it that are very unsettling. Some people I know who have tried watching complained that the show was too dark for them and they felt uneasy watching Norma and Norman’s life unfold. Indeed, I think the scariest aspect of Bates Motel is the atmosphere and just how close to home Norma’s personality might be for many viewers.

If you want to share your own thoughts on the show, please feel free to comment!

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