The noose is tightening on Bates Motel. As Norman Bates's façade crumbles, his mother Norma is watching her chance for domestic bliss erode amid violence. As has been the case in the previous years, the midway point of season three feels a bit transitional, as if what happens in "Refraction" could have been the first act of an action-packed hour. It's the kind of tension-raising move that the creators of Bates Motel have used before, but it can make an episode feel like its treading water. Everything about "Refraction" works, from the performances to its design and atmosphere. It just seems a bit repetitive, especially with regards to the Dylan/Emma arc. Those kids are darn cute, though.
Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and his new wife Norma (Vera Farmiga) are cleaning up the mess left by the home invaders. They broke a stained-glass window that Norma loved, and she feels personally attacked. I love that a character who has done as much wrong as Norma can say something like, "I have been so good," with a straight face. (Meanwhile, she probably knows that her son killed Emma's mother and buried her in the front yard.) Alex claims it's just a hazard of marrying a law man. As Norma drives to town to find someone to fix her window, "How Long" by Ace plays — another great bit of time displacement. The Bates family is perpetually torn between the era of the Hitchcock film and today. We see that Chick (Ryan Hurst), the man seeking vengeance against Norma's brother Caleb, is following her.
Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) meets with Dr. Edwards (Damon Gupton). He's finally ready to get to the root of his problems. He suggests he might need another MRI or medication. Norman has settled down. He's asking for help. But when he uses the word "typical" to describe his relationship with his mother, Dr. Edwards thinks he doth protest too much. He raises the subject of Norman's father, which leads the young man to get even more defensive. Did Norman kill him out of jealousy? Norman asks if he can call to check on Emma (Olivia Cooke), but he uses his time on the phone to leave a message for mom. He's working hard to get better. He thinks he can do it. He cries. It's poignant because we know Norman's inevitable trajectory. We know about Marion Crane. There is no "better."
Emma comes home with Dylan (Max Thieriot) and they talk about moving to Seattle. Emma looks at a drawing of herself with breathing tubes in her nose, noting how much she's changed before she kisses Dylan. The new man in Emma's life tells her father that he's going to Seattle for a job interview, which goes surprisingly well. Well, it goes well when Dylan drops the artifice that he worked at a place called Artful Artifacts, then starts bragging about his mad skills running a marijuana operation. Guess it's not that different from working for a hops distributor.
While Dr. Edwards gets a call from television's most inefficient police force to inform him that Norman's charges against his mother aren't true, Chick arrives at the Bates Motel. Looking as physically menacing as ever, even with the cane, he pretends to be the guy sent over to fix Norma's stained glass. It's a creepy scene, and it's hard to believe that Norma's radar wouldn't go off around this guy. She's often too trusting.
Elsewhere, Alex knows that Rebecca (Jaime Ray Newman) was behind the destruction of his new home, and that she was looking for the key he stole from Bob Paris. He warns her to stay away, while also subtly alerting her that the D.A. called looking for information about her.
Meanwhile, Norman runs into a deeply sedated Julian (Marshall Allman). Is this Norman's immediate future? He goes outside to see his mother coming down the path. He runs and hugs her — a very different response from her last visit. They both look reinvigorated. Even before a patient gave him a confused look, I wondered if she was really there. They have a chat about their relationship and Norman's father; it all feels a bit repetitive. Why isn't this a more consequential scene? Norma does encourage him to get out, for what that's worth. If he can show the doctors he's okay, he'll be allowed to go home. Norman wants that more than anything.
Chick, dressed like a character from a Nick Cave song, shows up at the motel again. He drew something perfect for the window, and Norma loves it. He mentions that he knew Dylan and Caleb, and Norma reveals that Caleb was her brother. Chick realizes that Caleb is both Dylan's father and uncle. Looks like Norma and Chick may have a common enemy.
When Norman mentions seeing his mother to Dr. Edwards, he drops the bomb: "Is it possible your mother wasn't here yesterday?" (Would a therapist actually do this? Consider the mental upheaval it could possibly cause!) He knows that Norman called his mother because the calls are monitored — as are guest arrivals, and Norma wasn't there yesterday. Highmore is great here, selling the collapse: "I actually felt her. She held me. Her laugh, her voice." And then his wall crumbles. As Norman turns into "Norma," he aggressively flirts with Dr. Edwards. (The behavior is exaggerated, to be sure, but the switch needs to be clear to viewers and the good doctor alike.) He asks "her" what she thinks of Norman. "I'm his mother," she says. It's a great scene for Highmore, despite some issues with the writing.
After a transitional scene in which Rebecca reveals she still has feelings for Alex, Dylan and Emma share a few moments of domestic bliss. He doesn't officially have the job yet, but feels good about it. They're happy. She shows him her giant scar, then he shows off his, Lethal Weapon–style. They are so in love. It's cute. Of course, that means it will soon end.
Alex comes home to find Norma playing the piano in a bit of doomed domesticity. When she mentions Chick and how the break-in may have been a blessing in disguise, Alex says it's handled. She asks if he killed Bob Paris. He doesn't say no. Uh oh, now someone else knows. He says, "I had no choice." Again, we have the arc of the two protectors — Dylan and Alex — doing whatever it takes to shield those they love.
Can Alex protect Norma from her own dark desires? Chick comes to the house again and tells her the truth about his injuries — how Caleb beat him, then stole his money and family. He wants to know where Caleb is and thinks that Norma may want him dead, too. Farmiga plays overwhelmed very well here, as Norma's desires for vengeance and domesticity struggle in her own heart. Which one will win?
- I've already mentioned how the show's production design doesn't get enough attention, but check out Dr. Edwards's office. There's an awesome painting behind the couch, which depicts someone looking through multiple doors. It's a reflection of Norman's multiple personalities.
- Speaking of that office, Gupton has been an excellent addition this year, offering depth to what could have been a generic role meant to drive plot.
- "Refraction" was directed by Sarah Boyd, a regular editor on Bates Motel, and written by Erica Lipez. As gender equality becomes a vital issue in film and television, its refreshing to see a different set of sensibilities presented on this show. Keep it up, Bates Motel.