We return to the atmospheric and nostalgic world of serialized ‘Psycho’ prequel ‘Bates Motel’ Monday night in a premiere that is equally as bizarre and seemingly random as the first season.
That is to say, we are greeted with more of the same pulpy eerieness and sudden shifts, for better or worse, as problems evaporate as quickly as they pop up, and characters take turns being weird and secretive.
Whereas the first season seemed happy to oscillate focus between the madness that is Norma (Vera Farmiga) and the tall, lanky bundle of hopeless idealism and insecurity that is Norman (Freddie Highmore), it’s the growing boy that's falling further into depravity.
Evermore invested in taxidermy, and still doting on Bradley, Norman isn't just the awkward teen without a father, he's now becoming completeley obsessed with death after things get settled in the premiere. Strangely, though perhaps not surprisingly, the episode opens with the funeral of Miss Watson, introduces a new twist to the storyline, and then jumps ahead four months in time.
While Norman continues to wear his strange tendencies and distorted view of the world on his sleeve, what’s most troubling about the premiere is not the unraveling of Norman’s psyche, but the perception that the plot is becoming too much about other characters.
When Season 1 ended, with an image of a dead, bloodied Miss Watson on the floor of her apartment shortly after she was trying to seduce Norman, the assumption of course was that he killed her, and yet again the Bates family would be involved in a murder, just as the series began.
Instead, while Norman is busy stuffing dead animals and mourning the death of Miss Watson, it’s the beautiful Bradley who becomes plagued and the focus of a continuing thread (searching for reasons behind the death of her father) with many new wrinkles.
What’s more, Norma seems the most normal, or at least relatively. She acts the concerned mother, refusing rent payment from eldest son Dylan and telling Norman he needs to go outside and play. She also plays the part of the engaged citizen, going to a town council meeting to protest a new highway that's bad for business.
It’s still a solid episode, complete with the beautifully eerie cinematography and unexpected outbursts we’ve come to enjoy from the show (not to mention the greatness that is Sheriff Romero, of whom you never really know what is going on). Yet it feels in danger of veering too far off the railings, and in an effort to maintain longevity, it’s becoming more about the dark underbelly of a town and something like 'Desperate Housewives' instead of the increasingly uncomfortable and traumatic relationship between mother and son.
There is as much a cliffhanger at the end of the premiere as there was concluding Season 1, as ‘Bates Motel’ never wastes a moment to keep things all kilter and melodramatic. There too seems plenty of opportunity going ahead for our characters to lie, cheat, steal, cover up, and, well, kill. Dylan, Bradley, and the Sheriff are all fine supporting characters, but they are only interesting in respect to Norma and Norman (who were both perfectly cast).
Lest the show deviate too far from its core, which is the twisted, wonderfully devious devolution of a pair of people who can’t quite keep it together without one another. And that there, is great guilty fun to watch.
‘Bates Motel’ returns on Monday, March 3 on A&E at 9/8c. A live after-show starring Farmiga and Highmore will air at 11/10c.