Purported to be a prequel to the 1960 Hitchcock classic, “Psycho,” A&E’s “Bates Motel” examines the Bates family’s plight long before the fateful murders were to ever take place. In a setting and time far removed from the original’s Californian home, a seventeen year old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) move into the motel following the sudden death of Norman’s father. While they attempt to forge for themselves a new life in the quiet town, the horrific discoveries made and surrounding violence prove to offer little reprieve from their problematic home life. Although the familiar and iconic building of the motel initially promises closer ties to the original tale, what instead follows is a unique series that doesn’t so much as emulate old storylines but draws inspiration from them.
“It’ll be dealt with, an eye for an eye.”
“Bates Motel” sets itself in White Pine Bay, Oregon, one of many noticeable changes made to the classic horror tale. The transportation of events into the present day reflects an obvious attempt to disassociate its storylines from any preconceived notions that the audience may have about the “Psycho” lore. It is not meant to be viewed as merely a prequel exploring the development of a well known character, rather, “Bates Motel” pieces itself together as a series determined to create its own unique brand of horror inspired mystery.
To accomplish this, the first two episodes quickly move through introductions and on to the fictional town that lies outside the motel’s claustrophobic walls. Upon discovering a journal hidden underneath the carpet of one of the motel’s rooms, Norman increasingly becomes entangled in the secrets of the quiet country town, which include a marijuana grow-op, involvement in the sex slave trade, and a hierarchy within the town that often leads to the murder of those who overstep. The multiple allusions made to the town’s dark history in these first couple of episodes are at first difficult to grasp as they seem to come completely out of nowhere. From the moment that the Bates’ family steps into their new home they are met with one bad situation after another without any real sense of logic or purpose. While this works well to create a suspenseful atmosphere, and an active distrust of many of the people that the family comes into contact with, it also lacks credibility.
“It hardly matters right now. There’s a dead man on the floor…”
By the third episode, however, the show seems content with its accumulated misfortune and slows its pace enough to refocus on the show’s primary draw. It’s here that we finally see more of the effect that recent events are having on the characters’ psyches. The introduction of Norman and Mrs. Bates closely adheres to the series’ source of influence. Highmore fits naturally into his role as the young, introverted Norman Bates. In physical appearance and demeanor alone, he manages to replicate the quiet unease characterized by Anthony Perkin’s original performance. While he’s still only a kid who wants nothing more than a normal life, and perhaps a girlfriend in the near future, there are many moments that illustrate the off-kilter nature that’s hidden underneath his unassuming exterior. The moments when we see Norman’s anger bubbling to the surface, or the one scene in which he converses with an imagined apparition of his mother, are expertly timed and performed as Highmore increasing presents a boy who is losing control of his own reality.
Working with what little source material she has, Farmiga presents a Mrs. Bates who is obviously meant to be the show’s antagonist, at least on some level, while also maintaining a level of ambiguity that promises a lot of potential insight into her relationship with Norman. All throughout, Highmore and Farmiga convincingly play up the undercurrent of incestuous attraction that propels each of their characters. Farmiga wholly embodies the controlling and smothering nature of Mrs. Bates, but in a way that doesn’t immediately come off as cruel. Watching her drag Norman around their new motel like a newlywed, or ruthlessly interrogate his female friends, is certainly unnerving, but its balance with the seemingly genuine desire to do right by Norman adds a level of complexity that, ultimately, really drives her performance.
With just enough of a divergence in detail to offer a fresh tale of horror, A&E’s “Bates Motel” combines classic story elements with a 21st century flare to produce a series that effectively restores much of what made the original so memorable. While it’s new setting and the occurrences therein leave a lot to be desired, as the series moves past its introduction and into the central plot, there’s still plenty of room for the individual strands to converge in a coherent and satisfying way. Hopefully, it realizes that soon.
My Rating: 6.5/10