The promotional art for the fourth season of A&E’s Bates Motel features Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) clutching his pearls with a murderous look in his eyes. The tagline? “She wouldn’t even harm a fly.” In other words, there will be no saving Norman this year.
He is turning completely into “Norma,” his psychopathic alter ego, a variation on his mother Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), the only person who truly cares about him and knows the depth of his evil. Is this the year when everyone learns how dangerous Norman Bates is? And how will Norma pay for enabling him?
The season premiere, “A Danger to Himself and Others,” picks up right where season three ended. In that finale, Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) shot Bob Paris (Kevin Rahm) and Norman had a fatal “episode” with Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz), bashing the brains of his first crush against a rock. Alex is infinitely more aware of his crime, and covers it up by sinking a boat with Bob’s body aboard. Meanwhile, Norman is missing and his brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has been putting up posters to try and find him.
Norman wakes up dirty, bloody, and shaking. He’s talking to himself, stumbling through the woods. He speaks to “mother,” saying things like “You can’t pretend like none of this ever happened.” Unlike previous episodes of Bates Motel, we don’t actually see what he sees this time, which makes him seem even sicker than usual. A local catches him speaking to “mother” and corrals him with a firm knockout punch.
Dylan and Norma get the call that Norman is in the psychiatric unit of a county hospital in the next town over. Dylan reveals that he has to go to Portland for Emma’s (Olivia Cooke) lung transplant; he can’t go after Norman. As Dylan heads off to the Ritz-Carlton of medical facilities, Norma is headed in the other socioeconomic direction. We see Norman strapped to a gurney in the hallway of a dark hospital that’s straight out of Jacob’s Ladder. It’s crowded, loud, and terrifying. He begs people to find his mother.
Norma to the rescue! She learns that Norman is under 48-hour observation and there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it. Norma’s façade of alleged protection for Norman is collapsing. The doctor, Louise Palma (Elizabeth Greer), mentions that Norman is extremely agitated and violent. Norma reveals that Norman has had blackouts, but that she hasn’t gotten him any mental help or medication. Time may be up for Mrs. Bates. Dr. Palma says, “If and when we need you, we’ll contact you.”
Meanwhile, Dylan is at the opposite end of the care spectrum. The writers are clearly using this story line to draw parallels — perhaps if Norman had gotten help earlier, or if his mother could afford professional care, then all that bloodshed could have been avoided. At Portland All Saints Hospital, Dylan sits with Emma’s father, Will (Andrew Howard). The surgery is just getting started when Emma’s estranged mother, Audrey (Karina Logue), shows up. Will is not having it, and kicks her out of the hospital. I like seeing some more background for Emma, who makes it through the surgery. Also, Audrey is framed as a parallel to Norma: The former turned from a sick child and ran, while the latter put her sick child in a bubble.
After going to Alex to ask for help, Norma goes to the prestigious Pineview Institute for the mentally ill. There’s a long waiting list and she can’t afford it, but she’s nevertheless determined to get Norman admitted. She runs into a Dr. Gregg Edwards (Damon Gupton), and tries to flirt her way to the top of his personal waiting list, but he’s gay. She switches from the sexual approach to the sympathetic one. It works. He’ll see him after Norman’s released from County.
Still at the hospital, Norman is struggling to understand the intermingled flashbacks of his fractured brain. First mom is baking cookies, then she’s killing Bradley. Norman can’t distinguish real from fake, good from bad. Unlike the first three seasons, in which he was often functional, it seems like this season’s Norman will be hard to keep under control. They may actually have to rein him in, if they plan to eventually match the conversational Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic. For now, he’s more like a wild animal than a serial killer.
While Dylan goes to visit Emma, Audrey checks into the motel and meets a very suspicious Norma. Norman is ready to be discharged. Norma is so happy, she brings breakfast to Audrey, but their ensuing conversation only makes her wary again. Emma once wrote to Audrey about how much she liked Norma and how she had a crush on Norman. Norma can’t deal with this right now. She’s got to go get her boy.
Norma gets a few warnings: “You can’t go back to what you were doing. You can’t ignore your son’s need for care.” Norman needs a doctor and a plan for treatment, or else he’ll be returned to the facility. Social services will contact Norma in the next 48 hours or he’s coming back to County. (This feels a bit like a TV-designed ticking clock more than realistic policy, but I’ll let it slide.) Moments later, Norma and Norman reunite in the hall with a running hug. The music swells: “Let’s go home, mother,” and he kisses her on the head, as if he’s taking care of her.
Audrey wants to get something to Emma, but Norma isn’t having it. She wants this failed mother to leave her and her boy alone. As Audrey leaves, Norma gives Norman a haircut in the kitchen and we hear Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” playing. It’s another great time shift, like Norma’s Doris Day outfits and the production design of the Bates home. It’s almost as if the Bates are stuck in time, trapped between the era of the film and the era of the show. They occupy the uncanny, displaced space in between.
Norman admits that he dreamt that he killed Bradley Martin. Norma is pretty aware that it’s not just a dream, but Farmiga has a fantastic way of portraying how easy it is for this woman to just swallow reality and keep on going. They’re still sleeping in the same bed, spooning even, when Norma wakes up early to call Alex for help. She locks Norman in the bedroom and goes to meet with Alex, then asks him to marry her so she can get the insurance to pay for Plainview: “It’s not like you’re doing anything else.” She asks for it the way that people ask for a cup of coffee, and the pained look on Carbonell’s face is perfect. He kind of loves Norma, but this is such a disgusting manipulation. He refuses.
Meanwhile, Norman wakes up a caged animal. He breaks down the door, turning into his alter ego “Norma” after he falls. He puts on her clothes. He fixes his hair. He changes his mannerisms. We see “Norma” in the mirror. And that’s right around when Audrey comes to the door.
“Norma” answers. Audrey is wary, but totally unaware of what’s about to happen. “Norma” pours her tea and looks relatively harmless, if a bit odd. Audrey explains how she just wants Emma to know that she loves her; she wants her to understand why she did what she did. “Norma” snaps: “What sort of person runs away from their sick child?!” And then, she strangles Audrey to death over tea in her Sunday best. It’s going to be a violent season.
- I love how the music cues sound more like Bernard Herrmann’s work with each passing season. The opening sequence of Alex sinking the boat is accompanied by a particularly Hitchcock-esque composition.
- Speaking of Alex, the show has long belonged to Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, but Nestor Carbonell has been doing underrated work since the beginning, delicately playing the show’s most relatable character.
- Another underrated element: the costume design. I find it kind of hilarious that the Bates are portrayed as broke as they are, but Norma always looks incredible.
- This episode was directed by Tucker Gates, a veteran of not just this series but Ray Donovan, Homeland, and House of Cards.
- Where do you think Bates Motel is headed this year?