Series finales often feel desperate to please, rushing to a finish line in a way that leaves audiences dissatisfied. As they have so many times in the last two seasons of Bates Motel, which were easily the series’ best, the writers of this underrated program took their time in their final episode. They produced an hour that was more melancholy than action-packed, reminding us that this is a tragedy more than anything else. We saw how much Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) has changed over the course of the show, and were reminded just how much has been lost. Think of the carnage left behind: Caleb, Chick, Romero, and both Norman and Norma Bates are dead. Ultimately, it is Dylan and Emma who escape, free to start their own family away from the nightmare of White Pine Bay.
It starts with a reminder of collateral damage. The office manager that Alex (Nestor Carbonell) kidnapped along with Norman Bates is crying. She’s understandably worried that an obviously unstable Alex is going to kill her, but he has enough remaining humanity to let her go before his final showdown with the stepson who killed the only woman he ever loved.
As Greene (Brooke Smith) gets every cop in the county after Alex and Norman, the pair get closer to their inevitable end game, set in the woods with the body of Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga). After battering Norman around a bit and pointing a gun at his head, they reach the spot in the woods where Norman left his mother. Alex is crushed to see his wife’s mummified body in the snow. Norman tries to apologize, and Alex just starts pummeling him. He lets up long enough to let Norman get the jump on him, smashing his stepfather with a rock. And then Norman grabs Alex’s gun and shoots him twice. Alex’s last words are crucial: “You killed your own mother. You can’t hide from it.” In many ways, that’s what this season has been about: a young man unable to hide from his horrible crime. Before the scene ends, Norman sees a vision of Norma, and she’s saying good-bye. Perhaps with Alex dead, she knows there’s no more need to protect him. Or she knows that her son is now too far gone to save.
What happens to a Norman Bates who no longer has Alex Romero coming after him and no longer has his mother speaking to him in his subconscious? He totally breaks from reality. He is still lying in the snow, having a mix of dreams and flashbacks to happier times when he first moved to White Pine Bay with Norma Bates. We see visions of the day that Norma said they were moving to Oregon, but he’s really bloody and battered in the snow. As he takes his mother’s body home, he remembers the days when they first got to the motel, when a safe and happy future seemed possible for them. It’s remarkably tragic, reminding us that Norman and Norma were fleeing a violent home and hoping to start a new life.
The only person left who can save or stop Norman Bates is his brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), whom we see getting a gun from an old buddy. Their thematically relevant conversation reveals just how much times have changed. What was once a criminal enterprise is now a business specializing in artisanal weed. Bates Motel has had an undercurrent for five seasons about how Norman and Norma weren’t really of the present day. They listened to old music and dressed more in the style of the era of the Hitchcock film. The world is passing them by and they can no longer survive in it.
One small question: Wouldn’t Greene have staked out the Bates’ home, presuming Alex and/or Norman would come there eventually? Probably, but let’s allow the creative license that essentially allows Norman to go back to work. He checks in a mother with her sons, including a boy named Dylan. It’s a melancholy reminder of what once was for the Bates family, as well as a tension builder because there are innocent people back in the sphere of a very dangerous man. It’s both a bit scary and darkly humorous when the mother says, “I mean, it’s safe here, right?”
After checking in his only clients, Norman calls his brother. He wants to get the family back together over dinner. The series has to end with the two brothers. Norman denies even knowing Alex Romero, and we see him set the table to “Que Sera Sera,” a wonderful choice not just for the oddly upbeat tone of the song but because it’s a Hitchcock reference, as it premiered in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Perhaps knowing his life could be in danger, Dylan calls Emma (Olivia Cooke) when he gets to the house. His wife encourages him to call Greene, but Dylan knows that would likely mean the death of his brother. It’s an emotional scene, in which Emma reminds Dylan to think of his new family as much as his old one. Dylan clears out the family who had just checked in, warning them about Norman’s mental issues, and he takes the stairs for a final time.
Norman hugs Dylan as “You Belong to Me” plays in the background — another perfect choice in terms of era and lyrical relevance about the connection between Norman and Norma. (They must have been planning the song choices in this episode for years.) Dylan comes around the corner to see Norma’s body at the table. He pukes. Norman is trying to pretend like nothing is unusual. Dylan is heartbreaking. “What I really want is something that can never happen,” he says. “I want you to be happy. I want you to be well.” And then we get the key line for the entire series as Norman says, “If you believe hard enough, you can make it that way.” Of course, that’s not true, but it’s the blind hope that has driven Norman and Norma since episode one.
And then Norman and his brother reach the end of their road. Norman pauses and seems to realize the truth of his situation. He grabs a big knife and sees Dylan’s gun. There’s a silent exchange between them in which it feels like Norman’s intent is clear. He wants Dylan to kill him. He can’t kill himself and Dylan is the only one who can really reunite Norman with their mother. Norman charges, and Dylan shoots, his brother collapsing in his arms. We see Norman running through the woods, finding Norma in a clearing. He runs to her like a little boy, safe in his mother’s arms again. It is the only place he ever really felt safe and sane. We’re pulled back to reality again — a man holding his brother’s dead body, while the corpse of their mother sits at the dinner table.
In the epilogue of Bates Motel, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” plays over visions of Norman’s body being taken away, Alex’s being found, and Dylan waiting for his family. Emma and their daughter arrive. They’re happy. Norman’s name is now on the headstone, next to his mother. He has his version of “sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you.” Good-bye, Norman.
• Bates Motel ended with the most important element of its entire run: family. I’m happy they didn’t let Greene factor into the climax and even left Romero in the woods — this was about Norman, Norma, and Dylan, the centerpieces of the show from the very beginning.
• Few shows are better in their second half than their first, but there’s no question that seasons four and five of Bates Motel were superior to two and three. Everyone’s work, including the writers, directors, and actors, felt elevated as the show confidently moved through its closing chapters.
• On that note, I’ll miss this show way more than I would have thought a few years ago. One hopes all the major players, especially Highmore and Thieriot (who had their best seasons to date), and the always-great Farmiga, find new work as soon as possible. The TV landscape won’t be the same without them.
• Thanks for joining me on this journey. It’s been a surprisingly rewarding and fun program to watch, and I hope it has been the same for you.