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.