Tonight’s fantastic episode of Bates Motel builds perfectly on the climax of season four, capturing the deepening emotional rupture that allows Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) to “live with” his dead mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). The two leads have never been better, and showrunner/episode writer Kerry Ehrin sets the stage for the final arc of this classic mother-and-son duo as she links Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to her vision of Bates Motel. It’s going to be a fun season.
It may not have been completely intentional, but “Dark Paradise” includes the kind of bait-and-switch that Hitchcock would have loved. For weeks now, A&E has been advertising the arrival of Rihanna as Marion Crane, the doomed traveler played by Janet Leigh in the classic film. She’s nowhere to be found in this premiere, but fans of the film likely perked up at the mention of another name: Loomis. We may not be getting the Bates Motel iteration of Marion quite yet, but we are getting its bizarre take on Marion’s lover, Sam Loomis. In Psycho, Sam was a divorced hardware-store owner played by John Gavin. In Bates Motel, we meet a paint-store owner named Madeleine Loomis (Isabelle McNally), who looks an awful lot like Norma. The fun-house mirror version of the Loomis name is clever, taking something familiar and spinning it off in a new direction. Instead of just a new character, Madeleine Loomis reminds us of the film, keeping us further on edge. Bates Motel is turning up the dial on references to the film that spawned it, and it does so brilliantly.
“Dark Paradise” plays with perception and reality in its very first shot, as a pair of hands start up a record player (“You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” by Bing Crosby) and then we cut to Norman in bed, “waking up.” Of course, we know Norma is dead, so Norman must have started the record himself. He’s the only one living in the house. Although not in his mind. He sees flowers by his bed, women’s clothing drying in the bathroom, and goes downstairs to see Norma tying a green bow behind her back, cooking fresh muffins, eggs, and bacon. Norma is apparently an even better housekeeper now that she’s dead, although I love that she’s not just a “dream version” of Norman’s mother. She’s already complaining about not being allowed out of the house. She’s trapped there. When he leaves to go manage the motel, she literally disappears, and the camera pans to a kitchen full of dirty dishes in total disarray.
While the Bates house falls apart, Alex (Nestor Carbonell) is bulking up behind bars. A quick reminder: He got busted for being a crooked cop, and now spends his days planning his revenge on Norman for killing Norma. When he’s not taking out his rage on a punching bag, he makes a collect call that’s not answered. Who’s he trying to contact?
Meanwhile, Norman meets Madeleine at the store she runs. When he takes out his wallet to pay for the paint he’s picking for the motel, he discovers it’s not his own, but that of Jim Blackwell. Highmore expertly sells the confusion: Whose wallet is this? Why does he have it? He doesn’t remember checking this Blackwell person in. The look on Norma’s face when he tells her makes it clear that she does. She tells him to put the wallet in the safe and forget about it.
In other news, Dylan (Max Thieriot) and Emma (Olivia Cooke) are still characters on Bates Motel! I suspected that their arc might have ended with their move to Seattle, but no. In fact, they’re parents now, which means Caleb (Kenny Johnson) is a grandpa. He shows up on their doorstep and needs a place to crash for a few days, but Emma soon recognizes that this is not a tenable situation for her husband and her family, especially as they look for a fresh start. Caleb will only remind Dylan of his dark past with his mother and brother, whom he hasn’t spoken to. Caleb agrees and leaves, likely headed to Norma’s, where he could become quite a problem.
Meanwhile, Norman is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery wallet when a gentleman comes in wanting a room for a few hours. Norman declines, saying that they’re not that kind of establishment, but “David Davidson” pays for a whole night anyway and takes his key. When David goes to the room with his lady of the moment, Norman pulls a painting down in his office and spies on the couple. As things get hot and heavy, Norman even looks like he’s getting a little, well, physical himself, if you know what I mean. There’s a wonderful close-up on Norman’s eye that calls back to the Hitchcock film. Suddenly, the phone rings and Norman buckles his pants. It’s Norma. His conscience is literally calling him in the middle of masturbating.
Norman and Norma fight over dinner. He hates having blackouts, but refuses to take his medication. They talk a little about Madeleine, with Norma still playing that passive-aggressive game that she did when she was alive. Norman really does know his mother better than anyone, amplifying her jealous, Puritanical side that smothered him. Farmiga is fantastic in this scene. “You can’t have other people in your life,” she says. “What are you gonna do? Bring her over? Where am I gonna go? In the closet?” In essence, Norman is fighting with himself. He knows that he can’t be normal. Norma reminds Norman that she is there to protect him. This half of his personality has always existed as a form of self-protection. Later, Norman goes to cuddle with the “real Norma,” the stuffed, propped-in-a-chair body of his mother in the basement.
The next night, Norman wants to go to a meeting to which he was invited by Madeleine. Norma insists that he shouldn’t because of his blackouts, but actually because she needs the car to dump Jim Blackwell’s body. She drags him inside by his ear, all the way to the basement, where the body chills in a freezer. We flash back to Blackwell’s arrival, when he pulled a gun on Norman and Norma stabbed him to death with a box cutter. It’s all dreamlike imagery, atypical for Bates Motel but a great new touch. Someone came to kill Norman and Norma saved him. They work together to dump the body when Blackwell’s phone rings. Norman grabs it and answers. It’s Alex, calling from prison. He tried to have Norman killed.
• On a show that plays wonderfully with time and anachronism, the music choices seem to be getting older (Bing Crosby, Frank Fafara’s “Only in My Dreams,” Etta James’s “At Last”), bringing us back into the era of the Hitchcock film. It’s a subtle reminder of Norman’s stunted existence.
• Madeline Loomis says the house reminds her of “that Hopper painting.” She means this one. And, yep.
• What kind of assassin asks your name before shooting you? Wouldn’t you just say, “Nope, not me?” Perhaps the encounter didn’t play out exactly as Norman remembers it.
• Total passive-aggressive Norma is a work of art, and I’m willing to bet Farmiga will make it one of the year’s most memorable performances. I can’t wait.