“Unfaithful” is the best episode of the season, and one of the best Bates Motel has ever done. It comes courtesy of star Freddie Highmore, who wrote this episode, garnering the first screenwriting credit of his career. Hopefully, it won’t be his last. Who could possibly know Norman Bates better than the young actor who has played him for almost four seasons? Highmore knows a thing or two about Norma Bates as well, and “Unfaithful” offers a fascinating take on a woman now tired of being torn between the men in her life. She’s finally ready to seek her own happiness … if her son will let her.
As the episode opens, Norma (Vera Farmiga) is anxious. I would be, too, now that Norman’s back in the house. She wakes up shivering in the middle of the night, only to discover that the heater is broken. (Sidenote: Even Norma’s pajamas are classy — further props to one of the best costume-design teams on TV.) Anyone who’s been watching Bates Motel for four years has to wonder if Norman didn’t break it himself, especially since the sudden freeze allows this mama’s boy to snuggle in Norma’s bed “for warmth.” Before that, Norman makes some passive-aggressive comments about the new TV that Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) bought. Any sign of change in the Bates house will be a problem. Especially the new stepfather.
Speaking of “new daddy,” Alex has gone back to his place until Norman is ready to find out about his love for Norma. She hides in the bathroom to take his call, afraid to reveal the truth to her unstable son. The pained look on Alex’s face when he hears her flush the toilet — thereby revealing her deception — is a fantastically subtle beat in an episode full of them.
Though he struggles to admit it, a part of Norman is honestly grateful to Alex for what he did. He’s happy to be home, even if “so much has changed while I was gone.” He knows that Norma would do anything for him, and he’s only worried that she was forced to have sex with Alex in exchange for health insurance. In Norman’s mind, his mother made a great sacrifice. It probably doesn’t even dawn on him that she may be in love with Alex. He takes his morning medicine, smiles, and says “all fixed now.” Sure, kid.
Poor Rebecca (Jaime Ray Newman) is trying to escape with Bob Paris’s money and fly to Indianapolis to see her sick mother. She’s stopped at the boarding desk by two DEA agents, shortly before the hammer falls. They know that she helped Paris launder money through the bank. They also suspect that Alex was involved. And so, they make her an offer: Sell him out and help save herself. We all saw this coming. It will be interesting to see how the show weaves this story line into the twisted love triangle at the Bates abode.
Norman goes to talk to Alex at work. At first, he wants to thank him, but that quickly curdles into a menacing confrontation. He talks about how certain things between Norman and his mother will never change, and those things don’t include a stepfather. He demands that they get divorced. It’s not open for debate. Knowing that he can’t tell Norman how much he’s really in love with Norma (and her with him), Alex is speechless.
Norma spots Dylan (Max Thieriot) in town, asking him to come over with Emma (Olivia Cooke) to say good-bye before they leave town. She also tells him that Norman has come home. Dylan isn’t happy. She assures her “good son” that Norman is on meds, continuing with therapy, and doing much better. Could she really tell her son that he couldn’t come home when he was trying so hard?
After Norma learns that Norman confronted Alex at work, the stage is set for an awkward family evening. Dylan and Emma come over to pick them up to go out; it’s still freezing inside, since the heater can’t be fixed until after the weekend. They’re going to go Christmas tree shopping. First, there’s a great scene between Norman and Emma, which revisits a dynamic that defined the first two seasons of the show, but has since been lost. It’s been a strong season, but I miss Cooke’s presence. Highmore gives her a really nice moment here. Norman seems truly happy that Emma has found her bliss with Dylan.
Meanwhile, Norma is moody. She’s on edge, and finally blurts out her feelings: She’s upset that she’s been torn between the two men in her life. Dylan feels the tension too, but he’s ready to leave his troubled family behind. Norman and Norma fight. He reveals that he thinks that Alex and Norma were just sleeping together for the insurance. (What a horrible thought: Imagine if you believed your mother had to do such a thing to get you help.) He sees Alex and the whole relationship as a burden. She breaks the truth to him: “He’s a good man. And I like him.” Norman vomits. Norma thinks he’s “still acclimating to the meds.” Uh huh.
They head home and decide to sleep in the motel, since the heater still works there. Norman and Norma take separate rooms. Norman is lying awake when he hears Alex pull up. We cut to Alex and Norma, as she reveals that she told Norman what’s going on. (Did she, though? She said “like,” not love.) She looks heartbroken; he touches her face. Norman, outside, moves towards her room. Norma says that Alex has a magical ability to make her feel calm, which is really what we’ve wanted for Norma for years — calmness, happiness. As she laughs, we see Norman go into her office. Anyone who’s seen Psycho knows what’s next. We have reached a critical moment in the tragedy of Norman Bates.
Norman pulls a painting off the wall. He digs the nail out and chisels away until he creates a peephole. We see a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic shot: Light streams through the peephole onto Norman’s eye, as he watches his mother and his new stepfather have sex. This is the moment that pushes him to forever associate sexuality with pain — and inevitably, violence. It’s an amazing sequence, a perfect tie from the series to the Hitchcock film.
We learn that the furnace had a crack in the firebox. (Norman probably did it, although the damage also symbolizes the explosion about to occur.) Norma asks Norman to make an effort and Alex is invited for dinner. Norman claims he’s glad, but just like his earlier scene with Alex, the tension builds quickly. He gets it from both sides. When he yet again suggests that nothing will change, Norma fights back, arguing that “there’s room in the human heart for more than one person.” Norman takes it to an extreme. Who would get in the lifeboat if it only holds two?
This scene is remarkably well-written because it offers insight into Norman’s psyche without letting Norma off the hook. He accuses her. For his entire life, she’s kept him close. There were no girlfriends allowed. There were no good times. In many ways, Norma created Norman. There’s a part of him that knows that, especially as he’s getting better. “Now there’s room for someone else,” he spits. How is he supposed to accept that?
He flees outside, chopping wood angrily when Alex approaches. Fans everywhere hold their breaths. Will Norman drive an axe into Alex’s head? He lifts the blade. He can’t do it — yet. Instead, he smashes the axe into the house while yelling, “I hate you!” Alex isn’t leaving that night. He’ll get his stuff in the morning. If he makes it that far.
- It’s amazing how much I still root for Norman to be happy. Any sort of redemption is impossible in the long-term. We all know where he’s headed. It’s a testament to Highmore’s performance that hope still exists for this character, despite everything he’s done and everything we know he will do.
- This has been Farmiga’s best run of performances since season one, when she got her Emmy nomination. She plays the unexpected happiness that Norma has found with Alex in such brilliant ways.
- Highmore may be a rookie writer, but “Unfaithful” was surely helped by veteran director Stephen Surjik, the man behind several episodes of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
- Wouldn’t Norma fear for Alex? She knows what Norman has done in the past when he felt threatened. The final shot of anxiety on Farmiga’s face makes this clear: She’s finally realizing that her new husband may meet the same fate as her last.