Bates Motel is showing more and more signs that it’s capable of sustaining a story that’s more than just slavingly referential to Psycho. It has the potential to be a thoughtful character study about the roots of evil that actually shows tremendous compassion for its subjects. That said, there was one tantalizing Hitchcock callback, though, near the beginning of Bates’ second episode: leafing through that creepy notebook with sketches of scantily clad girls that he found under the floorboards in the pilot, Norman Bates saw an image of a woman in a shower. So it begins!
The pairing of sex and violence was at the forefront of Bates Motel’s second installment. Namely, Norman got involved with a girl named Emma, who’s suffering from cystic fibrosis, and together they uncovered what may be a human trafficking ring in town. In fact, this little Oregon burg seems to be rife with all kinds of illicit pursuits—industrial-scale marijuana farming, public assassinations, and other augurs of a massive organized crime operation. All we need now is a little of the supernatural, and we’ll practically have ourselves another Twin Peaks. I was wondering exactly how much the town would be explored on the show. It barely factored into Psycho, but it seems like it’s going to be a central focus.
The big twist that fundamentally altered the set-up of Episode 2, as opposed to the pilot, was the arrival of Dylan, Norma’s first-born son. She’s been avoiding him and even moved all the way from Arizona to Oregon just to lose him. But he found her and Norman anyway. And though he seems to have nothing but hatred for them, he insists upon living with them as he’s run out of money. Norma had better welcome him into the fold, or he may very well expose what really happened to Norman’s father. So she did, and in traditional Bates fashion showed that he’d be a part of their daily routine by having him change the motel cabins’ bed linens.
On his first night in town, Dylan went to the local strip club and found a man sitting by the stage, crying into his tumbler of Scotch. Earlier in the day, Norman had seen a man who’d been burned alive in a warehouse fire driving like a bat out of hell. Turns out, that was the father of Bradlee, the cute blonde who took him to the party in the premiere. The man, horribly burned, died soon thereafter. This was obviously a well-orchestrated mob hit. The guy sitting at the strip club near Dylan worked for Bradlee’s father and was devastated by his death. So Dylan, the bad son who wants to get involved in anything shady, immediately signed up to help the guy get payback. Maybe he’s just sublimating his frustration toward Norma and Norman by wanting to become a gangbanger, because he couldn’t leave well enough alone when he got back to the motel. He stirred the pot by saying just how resentful he was of Norma leaving his own father and putting all her attention on Norman. “I hate you,” she said to her own son in reply. Dysfunction! She said she liked Norman better because Norman likes her. And yet which son will eventually keep her embalmed corpse in a fruit cellar? Which son, I ask you?
For now, though, Norman was all about defending his mom. After he saw that Dylan had Norma listed on speed-dial simply as “The Whore,” he lunged at him with a hammer but was quickly subdued by his older brother’s superior strength. Dylan said he thought Norma had already ruined Norman.
No doubt about it, though, Norma is a terrible mother: manipulative, over-controlling, desperately insecure. When Emma, the girl with cystic fibrosis, first showed up at the Motel to work with Norman on their language arts assignment, Norma immediately asked about the respirator in her nose that helps with her breathing. Even worse, she asked the girl what her life expectancy is. It’s 27, which maybe means she’ll deem Emma a suitable conquest for Norman (or Norman Conquest!).
Norman and Emma’s project was to link up a poem—in this case, William Blake’s The Tyger—with some aspect of contemporary culture. Emma thought it was primarily an inquiry into why God would create such ugliness and terror (as embodied by a tiger) in a world that also features such beauty. She thought maybe they could connect the poem to contemporary murderers “like O.J. or Charles Manson.” Then she found Norman’s notebook—the one he got from under the floorboards. And suddenly a whole new view of the world’s underlying ugliness came forward. Emma wasn’t put off, though. She reads a lot of Manga! So these images were hardly too steamy for her.
Shortly thereafter, she invited Norman to her father’s taxidermy shop, where presumably Norman will learn all his skills. She says that she thinks this notebook was the diary of a girl from China forced into sex slavery and smuggled into the United States as part of a big human trafficking scheme. She thought that the drawings indicated one of her fellow sex slave companions had been killed and buried out in the woods, and she knew exactly the spot. So she and Norman headed out on an expedition to find the grave. And that’s when they discovered a massive marijuana field being patrolled by armed guards. Last we saw they were being chased through the woods with the gun-toting guards hot on their heels.
All this had been set up earlier in the episode when Norma went on a quasi date with Officer Shelby to the Woodchuck, an annual event celebrating the town’s history of logging. That industry had died out, and yet, oddly enough, many of the people in town have million-dollar homes and foreign cars. Like Bradlee and her family. Her father had been targeted for assassination, so it’s safe to assume that much of his—and, by extension, the town’s— wealth is owed to organized crime. The final image of the episode was of a burning corpse hanging upside down from a flagpole, presumably the retaliation for Bradlee’s father’s murder.
When I say Twin Peaks seemed the reference point for this episode—it’s not just that Bates Motel is set in the Pacific Northwest or has a general sense of eeriness. It’s that there’s an underlying sense of darkness beneath the tranquility of the town’s façade, that evil and death can suddenly erupt into a world we think is ordered and harmonious. It is what Blake was getting at in “The Tyger,” what Lynch was getting at in Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet—with the insects mauling each other at the roots of a picture-perfect picket fence—and what Hitchcock also expressed in Psycho.
If it keeps on like this, we may not want to check out of Bates Motel anytime soon.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: A+E]