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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Here’s a little lesson in Murder 101 for my readers: if you’re going to kill a guy, especially if it’s in self defense after being violently attacked and you’re not Buffalo Bill, you don’t keep a souvenir. You don’t keep a memento from the corpse. You don’t, like Norman Bates, keep the dead guy’s belt. The police will invariably find it and you’ll be in hot water.
However, if you do keep the belt of the dead guy you’ve killed you’ll then have to pray very hard for one thing: that A) you can get romantically involved with one of the cops investigating the case and B) that cop is also helping run a human trafficking ring so you can turn the tables and paint him into a corner, if necessary. That’s what Norma, Norman, and Dylan succeeded in doing in “The Truth,” an episode that felt like a midseason finale in the way it swiftly wrapped up a lot of the biggest narrative strands of the season thus far — except that this is cable so we’ll have a brand new Bates Motel episode waiting for us next week. I hope you’re watching how it’s done, Network TV.
“The Truth” opened with Norma in a psychotic rage over the Chinese sex slave Norman presented to her. It proved that her boyfriend Shelby had been involved in the sex trafficking ring Norman and Emma had been investigating and that she had been woefully misguided in trying to pursue a romance with him. She got in her car half-cocked and tried to speed off for, in all likelihood, a violent showdown. Norman grabbed onto her car door as she tried to motor away, but she couldn’t shake him off. He jumped through the window, took her keys out of the ignition and through them away. Blind with fury, she said that she just wanted to talk to Shelby. Norman knew better. The main thing was that his Mom was so tired of seeing people get away with s**t. But to take down Shelby, you’d need a little bit more finesse.
So Norma calmed down pretty fast. So quickly in fact that she figured out how to manipulate Emma into not going to the police about Shelby. That wouldn’t be good, after all. Even with his sex slavery, he still had Keith Sommers’ belt and could destroy Norma and her son. Norma convinced Emma that they should let the poor girl rest until she’d truly be ready to go to the police, and in the meantime they’d keep her in one of the cabins. And to seal the deal Norma bonded with her over her past. Emma said that her mom had abandoned her, leading Norma to return that “she deserved better.” Emma practically jumped into her arms for a hug. How bad of a home life do you have to have to want to be a part of the Bates family?
Dylan quickly become an MVP when it comes to finding and eliminating evidence. He had a feeling that since Shelby and Keith Sommers had obviously worked together in the human trafficking ring, that maybe Shelby was keeping the latter’s belt on Sommers’ old boat. So he and Norman went down to the docks and broke in. Dylan always has to stir the pot, however, so he told Norman he thinks his mother killed his father. Why else did they pick up and leave without any word?
Back at the Bates Motel, Shelby showed up. And he was itchin’ for a little action from Norma. This put Norma in an impossible position: have sex with a man she despises just to stall for time…or what? So they start to have sex. But then Shelby heard water moving through the pipes of the motel, meaning that somebody else was staying there. And Norma had been saying that the place was vacant. Curious. He walked from cabin to cabin and finally stopped at the one the poor sex slave was staying in. He shouted, “Police!” And the girl came running out. She fled into the woods and Shelby got a shot off at her before Norma could intercede. We don’t know if she was hit. Neither did Shelby, so he ran into the woods after her. As soon as he left, Norman and Dylan returned, and Dylan announced that Norman was coming to live with him. A boy’s best friend may be his mother, but that boy needed to get away. Of course, before they could get any further with this, Shelby returned, gun drawn, and walked everybody up to the house for a little chat.
Shelby is obviously a psychopath. He sat everyone down around the kitchen table and started saying things like “Why are you making me do this to you?” as he was pointing his gun at Norman’s head. He then decided he would beat up Norma for the fun of it, and the son began to go into one of his detached-from-reality episodes. To Norman all went quiet. The only thing he knew was that his mother was in danger. So he charged into Shelby like a madman, allowing Dylan to grab his gun. Before long Dylan and Shelby were having a gunfight all throughout the house. Dylan managed to shoot Shelby in the leg, but he ran out of clips, meaning he’d have to run upstairs to get more. Shelby followed him up that famous staircase Arbogast will one day ascend, and we half expected that someone — Dylan? Norman? — would come charging out and stab Shelby on the stairs. That didn’t happen.
Norma and Norman made it to their car. Norman had suffered some kind of head injury and was zoned out. Finally, Mother called the police. They’d get help…although I don’t know how kindly they’ll take having to shoot at one of their own. The bigger problem was that Norma had forgotten her car keys, so they were stuck motionless in a getaway vehicle that wouldn’t provide any getaway. And just then Shelby came stumbling out of the house after a few exchanges of gunfire. He got to their car, raised his gun…and collapsed before he could get off a shot. The crisis was over. Well, all except that they’re going to have to explain the presence of this dead cop on their property and convince the police that Shelby was part of this organized crime ring when their key piece of evidence, the sex slave, was nowhere to be found.
Dylan wanted to tell the cops everything, including about what happened to Keith Sommers. He really believed, also, that Norma had killed Sam Bates. So Norma decided to level with him. Sam was beating her brutally one day, and finally Norman just had enough. He went into one of his “zones,” just like he did when he charged into Shelby and knocked Sam unconscious with a blender so hard that it killed him. (The fact that he likes to kill people with a blender makes him a spiritual cousin of Mark Moses’ Paul Young from Desperate Housewives, with Sam as Mrs. Huber.) Norman never even knew what he’d done. And based on what he’d just seen Norman do in the fight with Shelby, Dylan believed her.
Let the cover-up commence!
Is this show moving fast or what? Are you excited for where it’s going right now? And how do you think they’ll explain all of this to the police?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
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The third episode is always the real test of a new series. Sure, the pilot establishes the concept, but there’s usually a long production hiatus between the shoot for the pilot and that for episode two. The second episode of a show can almost come across like a second pilot, in a sense. So the third episode is the real indicator of whether a series can transcend the novelty of its concept and immerse you in its story and characters on a long-term basis. These third installments are usually easy on the shocks and plot twists but dive a little deeper into the characters and their relationships.
That was what happened in the third episode of Bates Motel, titled “What’s Wrong With Norman.” (A title that excluded a question mark.) But damn, if it still didn’t end on a hell of a reveal. Our friendly neighborhood Sheriff’s deputy, Shelby, keeps a Chinese sex slave in his dungeon of a basement! I’m surprised by how quickly the sordid details of Norma and Norman’s town have floated to the surface: the human trafficking issue certainly reared its ugly head once again, as did the potfield. And it would be the Bates boys, doing a capable Hardy Boys impression, who would discover all this. Dylan took the job to work for Bradlee’s father—who, amazingly, had not died but was in an induced coma with a very poor life expectancy. That meant guarding the potfield, a task he prepared for by doing a whole “You talkin’ to me?” routine in his mirror. He’d make $300 a day protecting $5 million worth of weed. Dylan wanted to guard it and smoke it. But he learned the two families from town that own it would not be too pleased about that. Apparently, this potfield is responsible for much of the local economy.
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Little did Norman know that his brother was now guarding the potfield from which he and Emma had barely escaped with their lives last week. Emma was particularly shaken. She felt guilty because she never really believed that there was human trafficking going on. She just used that as an excuse to bond with Norman. But once she saw that shed for real, she knew a dead Chinese sex slave really had been buried there. Norman wanted to have nothing to do with it. He called that diary “pornographic” and denied being obsessed with it. And yet he collapsed in the middle of class after imagining his teacher and Emma as the girl tied up. Was he aroused or horrified by that flight of fancy? Or was he horrified because he was aroused? The attraction and repulsion to sex that will one day make him take up a butcher knife are already firmly in place.
Norman recuperated in the hospital, an expense he and his mom sorely didn’t need. And we saw once again what a big TCM fan he is. It looked like he was watching a Ronald Reagan movie, but I couldn’t tell which one. More eagle-eyed classic Hollywood fans, please render an assist to this cinephile in the comments if you know what movie that is. While there, Bradlee stopped by to give him flowers. Norman is somehow a babe magnet when it comes to both girls with oxygen tanks and girls who are the prom-queen type.
Officer Guyliner, I mean Romero, showed up at the Bates’ house with a search warrant to look for Keith, the previous owner who raped Norma and who got a butcher knife stuck between his ribs. They scoured the place, and Norman knew immediately he had been given away because he had kept Keith’s belt as a souvenir. Moron.
Emma used her oxygen tank to force her way in to Bates House. She told Norman that if they forgot that poor dead girl it will be like she never existed. They had to uncover the circumstances of her death and expose this human trafficking ring. They searched the bathroom and found a Chinese character under the bathroom sink, a character that Yahoo Answers later revealed translates as “beautiful.” That made them even sadder. With that character and the diary hidden in Norman’s room, she must have been kept captive there. The motel itself was probably used as a brothel. In just the span of 30 minutes of screen time Norman had gone from wanting to deny this girl’s existence to doubling down on the search to unravel the mystery of her death. It’s also remarkable to see how one of the most awkward characters in pop culture history has already found himself in the middle of his own love triangle: with hottie Bradlee and sickly Emma, who cut in to his conversation with Bradlee with more than a glint of jealousy.
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So Norma went on a date with Officer Shelby, involving wine consumption by a warm, cozy fire…and a little subtle blackmail. He told her that he found Keith’s belt under Norman’s bed. He wondered, did Norman kill Keith? He knew the former owner of the house was a bully, and he indicated that he might be willing to suspend the investigation. If Norma let him “take care of her.”
At first Norma took him at his word. She told Norman she thought they were safe. But as she continued to think about, she knew her son was right: Shelby could blackmail her to do anything. This was Norman’s mistake. And Norman would have to correct it. “You know what you have to do, don’t you?” asked Norma, indicating that Norman may have placed them in situations like this before and been forced to mop up after himself.
So Norman went to Officer Shelby’s house, presumably to steal back the belt and maybe also to kill Shelby. But what he found was a veritable haunted house. No. Scarier. The kind of place a serial killer would live. All flickering lights, peeling paint, and dark shadows. And whimpers. Oh, the whimpers. Behind a door where Norman maybe thought Shelby was sleeping was…a Chinese sex slave! So he’s in on the ring! And maybe even worked with Keith to keep it going, despite his saying that he didn’t like the guy. The final shot? Shelby pulling up to his house and about to enter the door. Get out, Norman! Terrifying.
What will Norman do to get out of this? Will he have to slash his way out? Or will he somehow escape with the belt and without Shelby noticing? Maybe he can use the existence of this sex slave as a type of blackmail over Shelby?
What do you guys think? And at this point, are you now officially hooked on Bates Motel?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: A+E]
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