Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bates Motel Series Finale

What better time to discuss the Bates Motel finale than Mother's Day Weekend? Snicker. This A&E series lasted for five years. It didn't overstay its welcome. It featured very intense story lines and acting by the two leads (Farmiga, Highmore). But every recurring character in this story was well written. Even the minor characters fit well into the story. This series may have started out as a prequel to the Psycho film but the producers and writers made it clear that Bates Motel was much much ambitious than a prequel. It was something that may have been inspired by Psycho but was not tied down by that film. It was a re-interpretation and reworking of the Psycho movie. Although there was the obvious bad guy the viewers also came to understand that the man, prissy Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) was not in control of himself. He was a very disturbed individual. He was capable of great kindness upon occasion. He ran into more attractive women than you would expect a weird loner to find. But Norman was never going to enjoy happiness for long because he was frequently divorced from reality. 

At the end of Season Four a depressed and angry Norman decided to kill his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) and himself in a murder-suicide. But his mother died; Norman didn't. In a stroke of luck for Norman the authorities, with Norman's connivance, assumed that the breakup note that Norma wrote for her husband Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell ) was actually a suicide note. So everyone believes that Norma was actually the crazy one who tried to kill her son via gas poisoning. Well that is everyone except Alex. He knows how dangerous Norman is. He blames Norman for his wife's death. And he intends to do something about it. He's put people in the ground before. Unfortunately for Alex, before he could make his move, the DEA gets some evidence of his corruption. Alex is arrested and later convicted.


Two years have passed. At the beginning of Season Five Alex is still in prison, doing about as well as you would expect a former law enforcement official to do in prison. Norman's half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has turned his back on Norman and Norma (who he still mistakenly believes to be alive), moved out of town and married Emma (Olivia Decody), with whom he has a daughter. But everything done in the dark eventually comes to light. Norman has gone even deeper into insanity. Whereas previously he had psychotic breaks with reality when he was extremely dangerous and a lot stronger than he looked, now, fueled by his grief for outliving his mother as well as inchoate sexual desire for and strong identification with her, Norman has split into at least two different personalities. The dominant one is of course Mother (again played by Vera Farmiga). Even Norman's "normal" personality isn't exactly safe to be around. Normal people don't dig up their mother's corpse and put it in the basement because they can't accept her death. 

Norman regularly hallucinates that he's having conversations with or doing things with his mother. Mother is the protective, paranoid, sexually aggressive, jealous and murderous side of Norman's personality. Mother comes out any time Norman gets sexually excited by women. It doesn't help that Norman's latest infatuation looks like his dead mother. Mother will take over any time Norman feels threatened. And from time to time Mother will take over whether Norman is stressed or not.  Sometimes she'll stay in charge for a long time. And since Mother is a woman who likes men this means that Norman can find himself in some bizarre circumstances. Norman finds it increasingly difficult to define boundaries on such concepts as reality and sexuality. He remembers talking to people who have been dead for a while. He found this out at the same time as the audience, which was even more of a loop for the viewer.


But by the series finale the deceptions and excuses have all come crashing down. Norman has confessed to a murder. Led by the new Sheriff Jane Greene (Brooke Smith), law enforcement is finding evidence of many more. Jane has had her eye on Norman for a while. Like any good cop she never tells Norman everything that's on her mind. Norman is shocked that there have been so many killings. Mother, as she explains to Norman, has been busy. And she hasn't always had time to stop and explain things. Alex has escaped from prison and is back in town, determined to avenge Norma's murder by killing the man who murdered her, her son Norman. And Dylan knows that his mother is dead. He'd like to believe it was suicide as Norman insists but in his heart he knows it wasn't. And he also knows that Norman murdered Emma's mother, Dylan's mother-in-law and the grandmother of his new daughter. Emma knows this too. As you might imagine this puts tremendous strain on the young marriage. Dylan knows that Norma would have wanted him to look after Norman no matter what. This could mean hiring a lawyer who can get Norman off or at the very least help him avoid the death penalty. But Dylan also has responsibilities towards his wife and daughter. Emma won't tell him what to do but would you feel warm and fuzzy if your spouse's brother had murdered your mother? Emma does tell him that it's not safe for her to see Norman. And by that Emma means safe for Norman.

This all leads towards an ending lifted directly from Of Mice and Men or less obviously Jungle Fever. Yet despite those antecedents the ending wasn't derivative. It felt right. It made sense for everyone involved. Sometimes the man who does the hard things is the only man who can. Again, all of the acting and writing for this finale and the series overall was top notch stuff. Farmiga and Highmore should win awards for their work here. Heck, Thieriot should as well.


And Nestor Carbonell as Alex Romero also really sold his role as a once self-controlled man who was determined to wreak vengeance because of the loss of the only woman he ever loved. You knew that he wasn't going to get what he wanted. You knew that it was all going to be for nought. But even as he became a mentally unhinged yet scarily rational man unfettered by moral restraints in his quest for vengeance you could still root for him. Alex's high point may well have been when he reentered his former police station seeking to kidnap Norman, found him and said "Hello Norman".  Those two words alone let everyone know the hell Alex intended to open up on Norman. This show was a good example of storytellers ending at exactly the right point. There weren't many weak spots in the finale. This entire series was worthwhile television. It was suitably macabre to watch Highmore affect Farmiga's cadence or mannerisms. The camera would show a mirror or window and we'd see Farmiga looking back, signalling that Mother was now in charge. You may think about the ideas, styles and behavior patterns you've inherited from your own opposite gender parent. Which of those things are individual and which ones are impacted by their gender or yours?

There is something sad and yet glorious about adulthood. Our responsibilities and ties shift gradually or even suddenly from our parents and siblings towards our spouses, our children and ourselves. It is a normal part of life that the close personal bonds that tie parent and child together slowly change. Norman and to a lesser degree Norma couldn't accept that. There was an elegiac feel to the finale and really the entire series. The abuse that Norman and Norma suffered, witnessed and occasionally dealt out had lasting impact even if neither of them realized it. Norman's pathetic insistence to Dylan that you can make things real by believing in them strongly enough captured the essential sadness and arrested development that defined Norman. There was some optimism and hope in the ending. As discussed elsewhere life goes on no matter what. There was a sense of nostalgia and unreality to the entire series that was intensified by the clothing and set choices. Although this took place in modern times it could have just as easily occurred in the sixties. Make no mistake though this series and this finale were not for the faint of heart. Things do get ...messy.
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