Like “American Horror Story,” critical and fan reaction to “Bates Motel” has been all over the place. Some not only see the series as a serious, high-concept drama but believe it is completely excelling on that front. Some feel the show has the promise of a great drama but has been failing in its execution.
Others, meanwhile, point to the wacky dialogue (particularly from Vera Farmiga’s Norma, who is responsible for lines like “sorry that dirtbag raped me” and “I killed the crap out of him”) and incongruous storytelling as proof that “Bates Motel” is not to be taken seriously. Like season one of “American Horror Story,” it is a campy, “so bad it’s good” horror series embracing cable’s opportunity to be weird, edgy and random.
But regardless of the show’s intent, most critics agree that the show has picked up its storytelling in recent weeks. Fueled by improved cohesion between scenes and performances, a compelling villain in Jere Burns’ Jake Abernathy and Norman’s evolution into a more haunting persona (thanks largely to ongoing improvement from actor Freddie Highmore), “Bates Motel” found the road to success near the end of its first season.
Monday’s well-constructed season finale seemed to bring the show closer to excellence. But just as critics and fans were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for the episode, they were also nearly unanimous in misunderstanding one of its key “reveals.”
And that misunderstanding let some critics to unfairly repudiate the final moments of “Bates Motel” season one.
In addition to building–and concluding–key story arcs at a blistering pace, the “Bates” season finale succeeded by focusing on character. Norma’s fear of death at the hands of Abernathy pushed her to a new realm of vulnerability, and in the process, she continued repairing her relationship with Dylan while opening up further to Norman, her pride-and-joy. Her heartbreaking story of being victimized by her brother’s sexual assaults shed new light not only on Norman, but on the way tragic circumstances have pushed normalcy, comfort and control so far out of reach for the Bates family.
Romero solidified himself as a “good guy” by ultimately doing away with Abernathy, while improvement in the Dylan-Norman relationship came to a screeching halt when Norman learned of his older half-brother’s budding relationship with Bradley. Emma, meanwhile, finally confronted Norman, who refuses to detach his focus from Bradley and recognize the treasure of a girl in front of him.
And then there was that conclusion. Bloodied at the hands of Bradley’s creepy “boyfriend,” a dejected Norman, who had already broken Emma’s heart, trudged through the rain to escape a disastrous school dance. Along the way, he was spotted by Miss Watson, who offered to drive him to her house and clean up the cut.
An awkward situation in any context, it was exacerbated by recent indications that the teacher has a crush on (and certainly an emotional fondness for) her deranged student. As Miss Watson “changed” out of her dress, leaving the door open for Norman’s wandering eyes to capture the cute teacher in lingerie, Norman “snapped” into blackout mode and began a conversation with a hallucination of his Mother.
Mother noted Miss Watson’s sexual, predatory behavior, before reminding Norman that he knows what he needs to do. As Norman got up, presumably to attack Miss Watson, the shot suddenly flashes to Norman sprinting through the streets to his home.
While in motion, he encounters Norma and explains that he had another blackout, signaling to viewers that he was in the same state as when he killed his father and attacked Shelby. It certainly seemed pretty clear that Norman killed Miss Watson.
And that is why fans and critics were initially justified in groaning when, following a beautiful final shot of the Bates Motel property, the camera cut to the bloody floor of Miss Watson’s apartment. As the shot began wrapping around her bed, surely with the aim of revealing a murdered teacher to the audience, “Bates” seemed to be making the unfortunate television mistake of disrespecting its audience. Did it trust the audience so little–and think it so unintelligent–that it needed to explicitly confirm what anyone could have figured out from Norman’s conversation with his mother?
But in stopping there and building their complaints around the show’s mistrust in its audience, these critics and viewers missed the true purpose of the reveal: a “B” necklace around the murdered Miss Watson’s neck.
As revealed last week (and confirmed in the “previously on” bit, which is why it’s odd so many critics and viewers missed this key moment), Bradley’s father was evidently having an affair with a woman known as “B” prior to his death. By wearing the necklace, Watson was either exposed as “B” or exposed as knowing who it was prior to her murder.
Though the reveal confirms that others would have had motive to kill Miss Watson, it certainly does not rule out young Norman Bates as the prime suspect. It does, however, add narrative color and intrigue to the situation, turning it into something more than Norman killing a woman who might have been sexually threatening.
It also makes renders all the criticism about “Bates” mistrusting its viewers moot. Insofar as the reveal was not about Miss Watson’s death but about her necklace, “Bates” was not simply recapping what viewers could have figured out from Norman and Norma’s conversation. It was sharing something new. It was…”revealing.”
The irony of complaints about the final scene is that they attack “Bates Motel” for treating its viewers like idiots and not trusting them to reach basic narrative conclusions. But by not understanding the real purpose of that scene, and missing such a key detail, aren’t these critics and fans, in fact, proving themselves to unable to independently comprehend the A&E drama’s pivotal moments?