Monday, March 18, 2013

The Bates Motel "First You Dream, Then You Die" Review

I first heard Norman Bates' iconic "We all go a little mad sometimes" in Kevin Williamson's 1996 genre-busting slasher film, Scream. Billy Loomis quotes Hitchcock's deranged hotel owner after he shot Randy in front of Sidney Prescott, this revealing himself as the killer, as Ghostface who's terrorized Sidney's life over a couple of days. The Bates Motel, A&E's new drama, is about Norman's life prior to the murder of Marion Crane; specifically, the series explores what happened in his young life that made him go 'a little mad.' Billy quotes Norman out of admiration. Sidney asks her psychotic boyfriend why he murdered her friends, terrorized the town and terrorized her, and why he killed her mother. Billy laughs for a second with his buddy and partner, Stu Macher, while he yells, "Why?!?" at her. Billy laughs because the 'why' doesn't matter. Life is scarier without the motive, Billy informs Sidney. Of course, Billy immediately provides his motive for murdering Sidney's mother. And The Bates Motel is going to give Norman Bates his motive.

Psycho's iconic scene is the murder of Marion Crane. The murder defines the movie and transforms it from what seems to be a typical Hitchcockian thriller into a unique and defining film. The series opens with a death--Norman's father's death. Another death occurs later in the series. It feels fitting that Norman's life, from his teenage years, has been marked and affected by death. It informs the character. Norman almost kicks the door down calling for help from his mother. The two walk into the garage where Norman's father lies, and Norman sobs in his mother's arms, just crushed by it.

Prequels are strange, creative things. When they work, folk are happy; when they don't, folk get real, real mad. The audience knows what's to come in Norman's life. The trick of prequels lies in telling the story of the journey to that moment, whether it is Anakin becoming Darth Vader, Clark Kent becoming Superman (on Smallville), or Norman and Marion crossing paths in the ol' Bates Motel. The writers need to make the journey worth it, which is tough to do. Carlton Cuse, executive producer of The Bates Motel, has experience in journey storytelling. Cuse ran LOST with Damon Lindelof for nearly six seasons. The end was not the be-all-and-end-all of LOST; it was the journey getting there that really mattered, as Christian tells Jack in the church. The audience is aware of Norman's mother issues, about his taxidermy habit, and about the hotel. How dysfunctional is the relationship between mother and son? What causes him to dress like her and talk like her? Their relationship will inform the character. I bet it's a thrill for the writers to unpack that relationship because there is so much to unpack.

Norma's dangerously overprotective of her Norman. Some girls from school befriend Norman and invite him out one evening, of which one is a pretty girl named Bradley whose influence, impact, and affect, on Norman should be quite momentous indeed. Norma refuses to let her son out. She needs him more than they need him. She ruins a chance for Norman to adapt, to help him normal and included. Norma's strange and off in a peculiar way, like how she doesn't seem surprised at all by the death of her husband, or by the pool of blood collecting underneath his head. Norma's in the bathroom, literally covering up when she opens the door to see what Norman's yelling about, almost expectant of what Norman rushed to tell her. In fact, her expression is a both expectant and dreadful. One could seemingly unravel her by her expressions and body language in the first scene. Norma reminds her son that people suck and will let them down in their lives--they've only got each other to rely on; in fact, Norman's the only one she can rely on. Norma smothers her son. Norman wants to sign up for track; she makes him feel like shit for wanting to get involved. Some girls want to hang out with him, and she shoots them down hard. Norman's bound to her. The poor kid recites a line he read in Jane Eyre to show her his love and loyalty--a quite romantic line--and it is clear the poor kid never stood a chance.

The Bates Motel represents a fresh start for the family. It's just Norma and Norman, and another son Norma seems to hate. The past that she ran from isn't quite clear, though some kind of abuse is suggested by Vera Farmiga's performance. Six months after the death of Norman's father, they move to a Pacific Northwest town where Norma will run a motel. Norman's unsettled because he's never been settled. He is a nomad, a wanderer; he follows, he obeys. What does a fresh start even mean for them? Norman pages through a book he found in the room. The book has illustrations of a girl chained in a basement. The disgruntled former owner of the motel stops by the motel to insult the family, scare them, and warn them about the secrets buried in the house that only he knows about. So, this series will have deep, dark secrets that no one talks about. Norman's sort of like a Greek character in a way, seemingly cursed by the gods, and goddamn hopeless.

Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates gently. His performance was never monstrous but more broken. Freddie Highmore is not quite broken or monstrous, but he's restrained and bothered, trapped and burdened, like he's on verge of a panic attack in every waking moment. The times when Norman doesn't seem bothered, trapped and burdened are the times he's around Bradley. He loosens up when she sits on his lap and flirts with him, and when he's with her at the party. Bradley's a female much, much different from the woman waiting at home to guilt him out when he comes home. His scenes with Bradley seem crucial because they are rare bits of happiness for him. The audience is invited to sympathize and empathize with him. Norman's eager to break free for one night that he sneaks out. Of course, when he does, something bad happens that alters his life for, seemingly, ever; an incident that's hard to bounce back from, mentally speaking. Norman's never had a choice of his own to make as he makes clear on the ride to their new home, but his moment is undercut when he undercuts himself. He's more Norma than Norman, and that's a problem.

The Bates Motel is quite thoughtful. Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano are more interested in showing the audience what happened to Norman that made him into a murder. This is a series unlike the other serial killer shows on the air. The episode's not a typical pilot. It's not clear what weekly episodic installments will look like. I'm not sure how the teen stuff with get on with the dominant tone of the series, which is peculiar, weird, and moody. The incident, as it were, will hang over other episodes. Norman's probably going to have more weird moments with his mother undressing in front of him. This show's definitely not going to be normal. There are a lot of binaries which is just perfect for a series about young Norman Bates.

Other Thoughts:

-I read a few reviews this morning and was disheartened to see all three reviewers took away the surprise of the first act. Since I'm running this after the episode airs now, I loved the shock of the modern day setting. I'm disappointed for people who turned in after reading a review that told them about the modern day setting. I mean, it's not a major thing, but it's a small, fun thing.

-Tucker Gates directed this episode! Mr. Gates is one of my favorite TV directors, going way back to ANGEL's "Hero" in 1999. His work on LOST was tremendous.

-The lighting in the kitchen during the party, when Norman and Bradley talk, was really cool.

-Nestor Carbonell portrays the sheriff. It's good to see Nestor free from The CW.


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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.