Ask a “Bates Motel” viewer whether he ultimately enjoyed the first season, and you will almost surely receive an answer in the affirmative.
Ask a “Bates Motel” viewer to clearly define and describe the show, and you will almost surely find your question left unanswered.
Known to oscillate between the creepy aesthetic of “Twin Peaks,” the campy absurdity of “American Horror Story” and even the shallow drama of a soap like “The OC,” A&E’s “Psycho”-themed series never settled on a clear identity. That the cast members could not even settle on a consistent tone made it impossible for viewers to fully understand the narrative intent and objective of the series.
More notably, they could not fully articulate why this series had them hooked with such devotion.
But it did.
No matter how absurd and inconsistent, the stories and characters were engaging. The plot climaxes, reveals and twists were exciting. The performances were captivating.
Airing Monday, March 3 at 9PM ET, the second season premiere succeeds in all of those areas. It pulls no punches and wastes no time in immersing old and new viewers into the creepily wacky town of White Pine Bay. It makes no effort to slow down the action, turn down the energy or rein in the absurdity.
It does, however, develop a clearer focus. It begins to feel uniquely like “Bates Motel” rather than like a hodgepodge of polarizing TV series. It still combines character-centric storytelling with campy horror and plot developments, but it does so in a way that feels more organic and realized. Viewers will not like everything they see in the premiere — or even the episode as a whole — but they will not be scratching their heads when they watch it.
They will understand what “Bates” is and what it wants to accomplish.
They will also encounter five irrefutable positives of the season premiere.
1) Vera Farmiga Somehow Gets Better
Through all the inconsistency and tonal conflict, season one had one reliable, powerful weapon: Vera Farmiga. Throwing caution–and subtlety–to the wind, Farmiga’s Norma Bates spent season one as proof that the outrageous is not necessarily the enemy of the authentic. Nothing about Bates’ performance was safe or understated, but everything about it felt believable and honest. Her motivations were always clear, and her reactions were always justified.
Somehow, her Emmy-nominated performance has become even more riveting.
Fully aware that “Bates Motel” is Farmiga’s playground, the writers have stepped completely out of her way. They put her in positions to steal the screen and then stand idly by as theft occurs.
Her various scenes — including those related to a fight with a city councilman, debate researching on her laptop, an interaction with Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and ongoing frustration with her aloof son — might each play to different beats, but all make room for a fierce, game, outlandish, convincing and, ultimately, magical showing from the most captivating female performer on cable.
2) Freddie Highmore Arrives
He was never ineffective, but Freddie Highmore did not take as naturally to Norman Bates as Farmiga did to Norma. Occasionally unclear in tone–and often subject to difficulty with the accent–Highmore spent much of the first season offering a flawed, albeit functional take on the classic horror character.
Things changed very late in the season.
As the action started to intensify and his relationships to the other characters began to develop, Highmore became immersed in the world of Norman Bates. He became wise to the true nature of his character, and by the end of the first season, was offering one of the most surprisingly engaging performances on television.
If the season two premiere is any indication, he has made a quantum leap from that already improved state of play.
Whether navigating his tense interactions with Norma, pining for Bradley (Nicola Peltz) or investigating the murder of his teacher and mentor Miss Watson, Highmore adds an electric, haunting combination of innocence, danger and humor.
Shades of the movie icon into whom he will apparently grow remain present, but as of season two of “Bates Motel,” Norman Bates is an organic Freddie Highmore product. It is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted character that resonates precisely as needed.
3) Norman, the Companion
Not simply successful in bringing a young Norman Bates to life, Freddie Highmore is successful in bringing Norman into enthralling contact with others.
His various interactions with Farmiga’s Norma, which oscillate between confrontational, supportive and mildly uncomfortable, amplify the show’s unique aesthetic and function as the premiere’s highlights.
His longing for Bradley lands perfectly in the ground between endearing and obsessive, and his awkward exchange with Sheriff Romero would not feel out of place on “The Office.”
Highmore’s effort does not simply offer his castmates an eccentric, dynamic character off of whom to play. It serves as a means of drawing them into the quirky, unique world of “Bates Motel.”
4) Bradley Takes Action; Action Makes Bradley
Compelling and charismatic, Nicola Peltz’ turn as Bradley Martin is too straightforward and reserved to contend with the Farmiga and Highmore performances.
That does not mean it cannot function as a significant asset for “Bates Motel.”
When juxtaposed with the aggressive events of Monday’s premiere, which include a brush with suicide, an emotionally moving encounter with Norman, an investigation into the death of her father and a game-changing final scene, Peltz’ very human performance helps to ground the series. It provides resonant context for the absurdities of the action–and of the lead characters–and thus helps the premiere’s broader strokes become even more prominent.
5) Who “B” the Killer?
As Headline Planet explained last May, the intent of the final “Bates Motel” scene was not to confirm Miss Watson’s death. It was to showcase her “B” necklace. She, from all indications, was the “B” with whom Bradley’s late father was sleeping.
In addition to providing a journey for Bradley, the reveal also casts doubt on whether Norman is really the killer. Due to Miss Watson’s apparent romantic involvement, there are others who might have desired her death.
“Bates Motel” enlists Norman himself to guide viewers on the path to answers. Unaware that his adorable, yet obsessive investigation into Miss Watson’s murder renders him suspicious–and even vulnerable–Norman endearingly begins to walk himself into unwelcome trouble.