This article contains light spoilers from the season premiere.

BATES MOTEL begins its third season on A&E with “A Death in the Family.” Don’t worry, it’s not one of the main characters who has passed. But the death is important because it affects one of the players deeply, and helps shape a likely season-long or longer arc, providing some rich acting opportunities.

I liked Bates Motel from the beginning, but it’s really taken awhile to find its legs. By necessity, Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) can’t start out being a total psychopath, yet there are many hints, some very blatant, about who he is becoming, and he’s more than hinting at his tendencies. The series will have to end with all the other main characters dead or having abandoned Norman, so there is no happy ending to be had. This is a madmen’s descent into total craziness.

“A Death in the Family” lets us feel that very strongly. When a new guest (Revolution’s Tracy Spiridakos) comes to stay at the motel, Norman is very odd around her. When a new school year starts, he resists it the way a small child would. When his mother sets a boundary, he is indignant and petty, but eventually gets what he wants. This is a boy no one is helping escape his destiny, and he’s becoming more and more comfortable with his oddities. It’s a wonder the townspeople, especially those who would remember him from high school, aren’t more leery of the small business owner during the movie this series is a prequel to, as his antics get quite public.

There is one scene in particular that illustrates who Norman currently is. He makes a decision that would seem quite natural for any other teen, but that feels creepy or worse from him. Based on the dialogue uttered by the other character in the scene, it seems like Norman may be seeking control. His actions are definitely much, much more selfish, rather than those a normal person would have in this situation. He’s manipulative and not attuned to others’ feelings. This is brought out even more when he then does something that runs counter to this decision later and he doesn’t notice. This is a pivotal moment for BATES MOTEL, likely signaling the impending doom of someone because Norman won’t be able to get out of them what he seeks, and this person probably won’t realize the true extent of the danger they are in until it’s too late.

Highmore continues to bring something special to this part, and I hope it doesn’t keep him from getting other work after Bates Motel. At this point, I can’t imagine anyone else in the role Anthony Perkins made famous. Highmore has that mix of terrifying monster and naïve innocence that make his character so compelling, even if one wants to stay far away.

It’s interesting that Norman goes so dark at a time when his home life is going so well. Norman, Norma (Vera Farmiga), and Dylan (Max Thieriot) are living in relative harmony, the latter two being respectful of one another and even offering assistance and advice. Of course, they both also have their own things that they focus on, which is how Norman slips through the cracks, but really, how much attention does a normal eighteen year old need? It’s only because Norman is so different, and his family can’t see it through their affection for him, that he is further lost to them.

There’s also development on the local drug plot, which involves Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and Dylan. I am relieved that this is a comparably small portion of the hour, though, with it certainly not being Dylan’s primary plot. For any serial drama to make a certain number of episodes a year, there are usually some subplots less interesting than others. The drug trade is one of the lesser ones, but as long as it’s not focused on too much, it doesn’t really hurt the show.

Like I said, I like BATES MOTEL, but “A Death in the Family” may be the most interesting episode of the show aired since the pilot. It does some really neat things with some of the characters, and feels like it’s moving the story into the next, more murderous stage. I think there is a very limited lifespan this show should go, maybe four or five seasons max, but season three looks to be a very good one to watch.

BATES MOTEL airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.


A&E is not particularly known for their dramas. They’ve had a few scripted series up to this point, like The Glades, Breakout Kings, and The Cleaner, but they are formulaic crime dramas, not a complex, serial show that deserves attention and praise. With the premiere of BATES MOTEL on March 18th, that changes.

BATES MOTEL, as one might expect, is set at the same location as the classic Hitchcock film Psycho, and looks perfectly in sync with the earlier work. This television series is a prequel to the movie, set many years earlier. As the first episode, “Fist You Dream, Then You Die” opens, Norman Bates’ (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) father dies, and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air, The Departer), moves them to a small town where she has purchased a motel and the house behind it.

The elements one would expect from such a project are immediately present. Norman is eager to please and mostly obedient. Norma is controlling and manipulative. The motel itself is cursed from the beginning, it having been taken away from a family that has long owned the land by the bank, and a descendant of that family is not happy to let it go. The tone is creepy and disturbing, but not too obviously so.

The cast does a superb job. Highmore is the right mix of good son and budding psychopath. He is trying to be a normal kid, but that’s not the way his mother has raised him, nor does she let explore that option. Farmiga captures the portrait of the type of mother that would name her son after herself. The way she coldly receives the news of her husband’s death, then later handles Norman, is compelling to watch, and surely she is making a mark on the television landscape, owning the role.

Right away, death also comes to the Bates Motel. There are strong hints that Norma might have offed her own husband, and (very slight spoiler) there will be a second body by the end of the first hour. I don’t know if BATES MOTEL is a horror show, per se, and if there will continue to be serial killings throughout; after all, no one suspects Norman long after his mother passes on. But the stage is set for what must be.

Much of the purpose of the series will be to take Norman from normal child to cold-hearted murderer. We see he has a possible support system, with girls who want to be his friends and a teacher offering mentorship. But we also see how the boys don’t take a shine to him, and how Norma cuts him off from social interaction. And then, witnessing what Norma involves him in, we see the seeds of things to come.

Not that Norma is totally obvious in her machinations. To a viewer at home, sure, we can tell she’s a horrible mother because we see it all. To a character in the show, outside of the family, she may seem a little strict, but not someone to worry about. At least, not yet.

The supporting cast is just as good as the two leads, which helps with the overall effect. After all, BATES MOTEL is set in a town, so there must be townspeople. These fellow residents pleasantly round out the world in a very authentic way without distracting or mandating plots of their own. They include Nestor Carbonell (Lost) as the Sheriff, Keegan Connor Tracy (Once Upon a Time) as Miss Watson, Norman’s teacher, and Olivia Cooke as an odd classmate. Upcoming guests (according to IMDB and Wikipedia) will include Jere Burns (Justified), Mike Vogel (Pan Am), Richard Harmon (The Killing), and even Kate Winslet (Titantic, Mildred Pierce).

“First You Dream, Then You Die” is a lot of setup, especially the beginning, but manages to not feel too much like it is. We enter at a critical moment in Norman’s life, one that will put him on a certain path, and he already begins going down that path in the premiere. The start of the action is not sudden or jarring, and yet, this pilot does a good job of actually getting into the meat of the story. Credit writing, directing, and production, as well as the performers, because this is an excellent pilot in just about every way imaginable, with a definite cinematic quality.

My only slight complaint is that there is a bit of heavy handedness present. “First You Dream, Then You Die” begins with Norman listening to dialogue on a television talking about a grown man living with his mother. Norma wears the same dress and hairstyle to dinner that the corpse at the end of the film is sporting. But while it may have been better to spread out such references through multiple episodes, instead of sticking a bunch in the premiere, it does effectively tie this project to its source material, so it’s not totally unwarranted.

BATES MOTEL deserves attention, and Highmore and Farmiga will hopefully get some Emmy credit. Which means you probably won’t want to miss a show this good. I certainly won’t.