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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Bates Motel, "The Man in Number 9"

Season 1, Episode 7

Grade: A

Summary: In an episode that does the inverse of last week by focusing more on character development than plot, Bates Motel once again succeeds in crafting another creepy episode.  While the developments of the previous episode could have potentially derailed the direction of this episode, the writers do a nice job of setting up all kinds of new plot threads that will be interesting to see play out.  This episode is not perfect, but it is much better than many of the other somewhat troublesome episodes that plagued the first half of this season.

On this week's Bates Motel, we finally see the fallout of Norman's brief love affair with fellow student Bradley.  As Norman attempts to work out his feelings towards the girl, Norma begins to finally take notice of her son's love life.  Meanwhile, the Bates Motel is only a week away from opening, but that does not stop a very strange man from showing up and requesting a room.

Bates Motel made a very odd move last week in making the decision to wrap up a number of the plot threads which had been dangling throughout the season.  Such a move was a bold one, with many of the expected endings to these threads happening only six episodes in.  This move could have potentially left the series with a very dry latter half of the season, but it would seem that is not the case based on the way this episode plays out.  Seemingly all of the story which had pervaded the first six episodes were tied up in a nice little bow within the first five minutes of this week, leaving the rest of the episode to forge a more fresh storyline.  Although Bates Motel does not seem to want to do too much this week, opting instead to take a step back and focus on some good old fashioned character development.  The choice to do this makes for a very strong episode, particularly due to the fact that the lead roles are played so well.

One of the more fascinating developments in the previous episode of Bates Motel was the revelation made about the character of Norman.  There has always been a sense on this show that something is not quite right about the Bates family, but such a thing is to be expected if one has seen Psycho (And, really, if you're watching this show, you have).  As much as Norman has attempted to be a regular teenage boy, he cannot seem to get past the eccentricities of his family and his character.  This episode features an extremely awkward exchange where Norman assumes that, just because Bradley slept with him once, that means they are suddenly in a relationship.  We all know this type of character, some of us may even know this type of person in real life.  This type of person is one who does not seem to have a ton of experience in the outside world, giving him little knowledge of the way that human relationships are supposed to work.  As can be expected, Norman's assumptions about his love life are inaccurate, causing his world to come crashing down around him.  This scene, and the moments which follow, are played exceptionally well by Freddie Highmore.  The one thing television Norman Bates has differed on with his cinematic counterpart is his ability to frighten the viewer.  Thus far, Anthony Perkins has been much more scary.  It can be comfortably said after this episode, however, that Highmore is more than capable of being scary.  After being rejected by Bradley, there is a short time where it is unclear if Norman will actually lash out at the girl in a murderous fashion.  This made for an exciting bit of character development that will hopefully continue to be exploited in future episodes.

As with most episodes, the other character to feature some development this week is Norma Bates.  At the risk of being repetitive, it is once again worth mentioning that Vera Farmiga does an amazing job of playing this character.  There are times when Norma is a very strong-willed character who is willing to do what she must, but there are moments where, at the drop of a hat, Norma becomes an innocent, frightened little girl who does not know how to live in the world around her.  More of the latter is seen this week when Norma begins to investigate her son's love life.  Like most mothers with a teenage son, Norma is curious about the type of girls her son is interested in.  Although this time, things are a bit different: Norma Bates is not your average mother.  Once again we see Norma taking the role of not motherly figure, but of jealous ex-girlfriend.  An awkward scene takes place in this episode where Norma imagines Norman having sex with Bradley. As the scene cuts back to Norma, we see a look on her face that shows a twinge of jealousy that Bradley is able to please her son in a way that she would (hopefully) never be able to do.  This is such a strange development that is the exact opposite of Oedipal.  It makes for a very uncomfortable scene for the viewer (especially if, like this reviewer, you are watching with your parents), but brilliantly shows the closeness between these two characters.

This episode easily features the most development of the relationship between Norman and Norma since the pilot.  It is only natural that this relationship will be the one that is explored the most as it is the crux of Norman becoming the Hitchcock character we all love.  Once again it cannot be stressed enough how wonderfully both of these parts are played by their actors.  Highmore and Farmiga have excellent chemistry that borders the line of mother-son and boyfriend-girlfriend.  There is almost a pervading sense that, eventually, we will see these two take their relationship to the next level (although such a thing may be very brief).  The major development of this relationship takes place when Norma attempts to have a sex talk with Norman at the dinner table.   Norman becomes understandably frustrated that his mother is entirely too consumed with his love life.  Of course Norman was going to react in that way, he's a teenage boy for crying out loud!  As the old adage goes, however, "mother knows best," and we see that Norma was indeed right about Bradley's feelings for Norman.  Norma being right makes for an change in Norman that comes coupled with a sudden loss in Norman's life.  While it is unclear if Norman is completely back to being the adoring son we saw in the pilot, great strides are made in this episode to refurbish that relationship.

The only real plot development in this episode is the titular use of a strange man staying in Room 9 of the Bates Motel.  It seems pretty expected that a lodging as creepy as the Bates Motel would begin its venture as a business with an equally creepy guest.  Sadly, the character comes off as little more than an archetype we have all seen before in this episode.  Creepy guy shows up, creeps everyone out, and refuses to tell anything about himself aside from his occupation in "sales."  While it is unclear how this character will be utilized in future episodes, it seems he may be a way to further the Asian sex slave arc which was almost cast aside after last week's episode.  Next week's episode appears to have more development for this character, so it is okay that he did not receive too much this week; there are more important matters to discuss.  Hopefully the future development of this character is much less expected than his mysterious appearance.

As this episode is so heavy on character development, it makes the writing incredibly important.  Despite the acting on this show being absolutely stellar each week, the writing has often floundered throughout the season.  Show producer Kerry Ehrin writes this week's episode (the second episode she has written on her own) and, fortunately, she does an excellent job.  Great actors are made even better by great writing, and Ehrin really brings her A-game this week.  There are a few things in this episode that are a bit under-developed and cliche, but overall Ehrin does an excellent job.

Overall this is a great episode of Bates Motel that is on par with both the previous week and the pilot.  It is a bit refreshing to see a show that is unwilling to draw out plot threads for an entire season when they can easily be wrapped up in just a few episodes (looking at you, Walking Dead).  This episode serves as a reminder that, more than story, the most interesting aspect of this show is the characters.  While there does need to be a bit more story development to keep the rest of the season from falling flat, it is very nice to see the show take a step back every now and then to focus on these great characters.  If only the mysterious man in Number 9 had not been so cliche this episode would have easily gotten an A+. 
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