Behind Monday Night’s Tragic Episode of Bates Motel, ‘Forever’

Photo: James Dittiger/A&E Networks

Spoilers ahead for Monday night’s episode of Bates Motel, "Forever."

We all knew we would get here eventually. When you start watching a show about Norman Bates, you know his mother has to end up murdered. And yet Bates Motel has carved out its own path creatively enough that the arrival of tonight’s tragic death of Norma Bates still left most of us emotionally spent. How did we get here? And where are we going? I spoke with the show’s creators, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, and the show’s star, Freddie Highmore, to get some of the answers.

We all knew we had to get here, but when did you know we were going to get here now? How long ago was 409 the crucial episode, and how far out do you have planned?

Carlton Cuse: Kerry and I, when we first sat down and started talking about the show, we felt it was really important to talk about the overall architecture of the series, and it became pretty clear to us that the show had about 50 episodes in it. We started talking about demarcation points, particularly in terms of Norman’s pathology. We felt that at the end of season four was where we wanted to make this seismic turn into our endgame. Episodes 409 and 410 really do that.

We’ve always felt like our goal has been to take certain elements from the mythology of Psycho, but then tell an original story. Season five is really going to move Norman closer to the character we know from the movie, and his path will cross through events from the movie, but it will be decidedly our own version of the story. We wanted to give ourselves time to really see the final iteration of that character in what would be the final season of the show.

That makes me wonder how much you guys go back to the source material. Am I crazy or have you had more visual tie-ins lately? How often do you go back to the source, and how important are those connections without overdoing them?

Kerry Ehrin: It’s a really good question. I wouldn’t say we go back to the source material in the sense that we review it, but there’s something so beautiful and elegant about the movie Psycho that it really does stick with you once you’ve seen it three times. A lot of the iconic details in it. Those sort of live in us. But we never want those things to lead the story. We always wanted the story to come from the characters, and be real human stories. But when we do get to use those Easter eggs from Psycho it’s a lot of fun, and you’re not wrong that there have been more of them this season.

Freddie, a lot of what you do is very internal. I’m wondering how much internal monologue you do as an actor. For example, in tonight’s episode, as you walk around the house closing the vents, how much are you thinking about why Norman is doing this so it’s not just going through the motions?

Freddie Highmore: “Internal monologue” is an interesting phrase that I’ve never really heard. You’re living in the moment and you have to understand motivation from one point to another. Otherwise, the whole thing would collapse. It seems to be such an intrinsic part of creating a character — to know what is driving them and what is underneath every action. Also, playing against it, which is the way Kerry and Carlton brilliantly wrote the scene in the bedroom. Underneath there’s what Norman is really feeling and you have that and you carry it with you. It becomes about trying to make the happiest of that situation and having this loving last minute between them. Even though you know what Norman’s about to do. I think it’s more effective if it’s internal. And then those external moments become incredibly powerful when used correctly. Like Romero at the end of 409 — because we’re so used to seeing him so internal, when he breaks down over Norma’s body it’s so heartfelt and real because he’s not like that all the time.

You talk about the journey. I’ve spoken to actors on dark shows, on Hannibal for example, who spoke about the difficulty of letting these kind of characters go. You’ve done Norman for four years now. Is it ever hard to leave Norman and his psychology at work?

FH: No. Everyone always says that it must follow me home. Honestly, I just go home and watch football and talk to my family. (Laughs.) I guess the only way it does stay with me is a desire to be involved in the show. Which is what writing this season was born out of. After four or five months in Vancouver and being on set every day, I just felt this desire to continue to be involved instead of let it all go and come back five months later. So, I’m so grateful that Kerry and Carlton allowed me to be a part of the writing team this past season and in season five. I guess maybe that’s the way it stays with me, but it doesn’t mean I want to kill people.

Kerry and Carlton, I want to talk about the design team for a minute. The costume design for Norma constantly blows me away, and the production design is the most underrated on TV. How important are they to you, and why do you think more people aren’t writing about them or mentioning them?

CC: Look, Mark Freeborn, our lead production designer, did Breaking Bad, and nobody ever asks about it. Clearly, everyone remarked how great the production design was on Breaking Bad. I think in Bates Motel his work is equally as good. It so reflects the narrative and the psychology of the show. There’s this idea of a kind of timelessness when you’re in the Bates house. Production design and wardrobe are meant to [enhance] this idea that Norma and Norman are out of time. It’s the collision between these characters and the modern world that catalyzes a lot of the events in the series.

On a writing level, how much of the Rebecca/DEA plot line was a red herring to distract from what would happen with the Bateses? Sort of a trick where if we watch the right hand, we won’t see what the left hand is doing?

KE: I feel like all the plots on this show play off each other, against each other, do some sleight of hand. And then at the ending you lower the boom. In that sense, yes, but I don’t think it’s the only plot that did that. Sometimes you do that with emotional plots like between Norma and Norman. Then you go down this other road.

CC: And there’s more to come with the plot with Rebecca in episode ten. It has profound consequences for season five.

Can you give us a tease for the finale?

CC: I will say Kerry wrote a brilliant script. It picks up right where the events of nine left off. The hope is that people come out of nine emotionally shocked, but with a lot of questions. Ten answers those questions, and, more importantly, provides a level of emotional catharsis for the audience to process the events of episode nine.