'Bates Motel' is Back, How will A&E's 'Psycho' Prequel address the women of White Pine Bay?
The last time we saw Norman Bates on A&E's freshman series Bates Motel, teenage Norman was standing over the body of his high school English teacher, her neck slashed and her body cold. She was, as far as the audience could tell, Norman Bates' first female victim. Before killing his teacher, Norman had only slain one other: his father. Season 2 of Bates Motel premieres Monday on A&E, but where did we leave off?
For the uninitiated, Bates Motel acts as the prequel to Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic, Psycho, and follows 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) as they attempt to sustain residence by opening a motel in the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon. The sleepy town has a element of creepiness you can't quite put your finger on — perhaps it's the eternally grey skies, the foreboding forests, or the fact that the Bates' seem to be stuck in a time warp where they only clothes they wear clothes and drive cars from the 1960s. (No, this is not a Twin Peaks spin-off, although the comparisons are numerous). The Bates' move to White Pine Bay after the mysterious death of Norman's father, who, at the end of Season 1, we find out was killed by Norman himself during a psychotic trance. He doesn't remember it, and his mother Norma has gone to every length (i.e. moving) to ensure her son doesn't let on to the monster he truly is.
But what differentiates Bates Motel from Psycho is our investment in Norman. Anyone who knows the name Alfred Hitchcock knows that Norman Bates is the ultimate villain. Bad to the bone. But in adolescent form, and with an overbearing and influential mother to boot, Norman is simply a poor and socially-awkward teen who should be pitied. Except for the fact that he's a serial killer. And this simple fact is one that we often forget as we watch Norman navigate the halls of high school, heart break, and family drama.
Without a male influence (albeit his pot-growing brother, Dylan), Norman is surrounded by an overdose of estrogen from all angles. It is his relationships with these women and girls, his desire and his sexualization of each of them, that appears to be the driving force of his neuroses. And it is the women in Norman's life that shape him the most. So before we dive into Season 2 Monday night, let's take a look at how each of these female relationships have evolved over Season 1, and where they will go in the coming episodes.
A classmate of Norman's, Bradley (played by Transformers' Nicola Peltz) fulfills the show's need for the archetypal "Hitchcock blonde." Think Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Tippi Hedren in The Birds, and Kim Novak in Vertigo. She is graceful, gorgeous, and serves little purpose other than to be Norman Bates' lustful wet dream. Bradley is drawn to Norman and steps outside of her clique to befriend him. One night after Bradley's father had passed away, she confides in Norman and asks him to come over. He eagerly obliges and they end up sleeping together in a hilaaaaarious sequence involving billowing sheets and wind machines. After the fact, newly de-virginized Norman fancies them a couple and Bradley shuts him down: We are not together, she confirms, leaving Norman feeling more confused and angry than ever. Bradley's lack of commitment enrages Norman, and he becomes even more irate when he sees Bradley hanging out with his older brother Dylan.
While Bradley is a victim of familial tragedy (her dad was killed in a freak fire accident), she transforms Norman into a victim by denying him a relationship. While it may seem commonplace that a young woman can decide who to sleep with and how to control her own body, Norman does not see it this way. Their one night stand drives Norman to the point of obsession, and in his mentally unsound mind, he transforms Bradley into both an object of sexual desire, and an enemy. He reasons her as malevolent, but can't stop dreaming about their sexual encounter. Perhaps this is the first notch on Norman's unstable bedpost of reason: Girls hurt me, so maybe I should hurt them back.
Emma (Olivia Cooke) is Norman's closest friend at school, and has an obvious crush on him. She also has cystic fibrosis, a disease that has lowered her life expectancy to a mere 27 years. Emma and Norman get along swimmingly: they spend time together at her father's taxidermy shop, where Norman likens to the craft instantly (foreshadowing, much?), and spend time investigating the town's many mysteries. Emma even takes a part time job at the Motel, working closely with Norman's mother, Norma.
In an early episode of the show, Norma meets Emma when she shows up at the Motel looking for Norman. Although hesitant of Norman's female friend at first, Norma soon warms to the young girl when she finds out she is dying. In this way, Emma is not a viable "threat" to the too-close bond Norma has with her son, a relationship Norma is constantly fighting to keep. Emma is smart, open-minded, helpful, generous, and genuine. She is the anti-femme fatale, and seems to be the only female character that could "save" our doomed anti-hero. But because we've all seen, or at least heard of, Norman Bates stabbing a woman to death in his Motel shower, we know he is past saving.
The only teacher at Norman's school who he relates to, Miss Watson is a homely yet attractive woman who takes a liking to Norman because of his dark, deep, and brooding prose. She is intrigued by his unique mind, and encourages him to enter a writing contest at school. She is also the first person that Norman kills when "Mother" takes over his mind.
After a school dance where Norman got slugged in the face (for starring a bit too closely at Bradley), Miss Watson takes him home with her so she can offer him medical attention. But when she exits to her bedroom to change into something more comfortable, leaving the door open a crack for Norman to gaze at her womanly figure, it is simply too much. Norman slips into neuroses, and the sound of Mother's voice enters his mind. "She" tells him that Miss Watson is trying to seduce him. She tells him Miss Watson is trying to take advantage of him and must be stopped, and she tells Norman to kill her. Miss Watson acts as another item of desire for Norman, as his trance is triggered when her ample bosom begins to show — he is equal parts turned on and terrified — and just as adult Norman watched Marion Crane undress through a peep hole before he slaughtered her, Miss Watson's gender, her innate female-ness, is the reason she must be destroyed.
In the first episode of Bates Motel, the stage is set for the mood of the entire season: Norma is raped by a man who is attempting to exert his power. He breaks into the Motel, and in a graphic and cringe-worthy scene, rapes Norma as she attempts to fight him off. Norma's rape signifies the metaphorical raping of what we know Norman will do to most of the women in his life: destroy them because he feels threatened. But Norma does not let her rape define her, and she kills the man who raped her in attempt to stop his assault.
Being a single parent has forced Norma to think of her son as her only true family. Her husband is dead, and because of it, Norman has taken on dual roles as both the son and the husband. She even gets undressed in front of him without batting an eyelash. When he turns to leave she simply scoffs, "I'm your mother, Norman." The two even cuddle up next to one another in the same bed at night. The lines between mother and son and teenage boy and lover are harshly blurred. The audience assumes that their nearly incestual relationship is part of the reason Norman has so many issues. But is Norma just being a protective mother, or does she truly have sexual desires for her son?
Ironically, Norma is a kind of feminist. She named her son after herself (men can do it, so why can't women — she reasoned), and understood the social implications of reporting her rape. But just because she has feminist qualities does not mean she doesn't feel threatened by the women in Norman's life. While Emma, because she is dying, is not one of them, Bradley certainly is. Emma even takes Norma to spy on Bradley, the girl who took her son's virginity, through the window of Bradley's yoga class. Norma cringes as the elegant Bradley performs child pose. Norma is threatened by Bradley's youth and sexuality, and sexualizes her, as Norman has done, through the barrier of a glass window.
So what do these relationships mean for our anti-hero? Why is Norma overly-obsessed with her son and why does Norman return the affection? Who will Norman kill next? And most importantly: Why are all of these women — teachers, classmates, his own mother — so drawn to creepy, boring, Norman Bates?
Bates Motel returns Monday, March 3 on A&E. Watch the teaser for Season 2 below: