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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Bates Motel, "A Boy and His Dog"

Season 1, Episode 8

Grade: C+

Verdict:  In easily its most boring episode to date, Bates Motel attempts to jolt some life into a few stories for the remainder of the season.  While one of the stories in particular succeeds, the rest just feel like something which was only concocted to serve as filler until Season One ends.  There is a small promise that things may improve in the final two episodes, but this one feels somewhat useless most of the time.  Some of the characters who had, until this point, been deeply fascinating become annoying and the writing as a whole is very sub-par.  Perhaps it was a bad decision to end so many storylines two weeks ago.

This week on Bates Motel sees Norma attempting to find out more about the strange man staying in room 9.  As Norma investigates this man's motivations, she is met with a surprise recommendation from Norman's school that he begin going to therapy for his emotional outbursts.  Norman, on the other hand, discovers a way to find inner peace from all of his turmoil in the form of a new hobby.  Meanwhile, Dylan's boring story arc involving the pot field makes a strange diversion when Dylan and Remo are sent to pick up a group of hippies for some reason.

Two weeks ago the writers at Bates Motel made a bold decision by having the episode in question effectively wrap up most of the stories which had been driving the first half of this season.  It was not only a bold move, but, at the time, it really seemed to work in the show's favor.  With so many other series wasting time by focusing on a boring plot for far too long, it was a bit refreshing to see that Bates Motel was willing to do something a bit different.  Last week, the show took a break from story to focus more on character development and was once again successful.  The writing of last week's episode meshed perfectly with the fantastic acting from the show's two leads and it made for one of the better episodes of the series thus far.  This week's episode made the understandable decision to go back to telling a story as only three more episodes remained in the season.  Unfortunately, almost all of the stories which either began or pulled more focus this week were either boring, annoying, or seemed plain unnecessary.  It was a bit hard watching Bates Motel stumble so much this week after such great highs throughout the previous two episodes.  Only one story thread this week proved somewhat interesting.  Discussion on that thread will be saved for last as it is about the only completely redeeming quality of this episode.

In easily the most throw away story of this entire season, this week's episode returned to Dylan's involvement with the town's drug trafficking through the use of a giant pot field.  Recently assigned a new co-worker named Remo, Dylan is still very much so figuring out what his place really is within this organization.  This is much to the ire of Remo as he has been told by a higher authority that Dylan is his boss.  It is a bit confusing as to what is really going on this week with this story.  Dylan and Remo are going to go pick up some individuals who are going to be doing something with the plentiful amounts of marijuana they guard, but, upon picking up the group, these people appear to be hippies who may have already had too much pot to begin with.  Dylan is usually a pretty interesting character on this show, and he is played very well by Max Thieriot.  While it is nice to see Dylan attempting to make a living for himself in this strange town, he is ultimately a much more interesting character when he is interacting with Norman and Norma.  As Dylan is obviously meant to be so much of a foil to both characters, showing the alternative life Norman could be living, it makes the character very stale when he is not able to play that role in the story.  There is definitely a sense of foreboding with this drug trafficking story, but its feeling of utter disconnect from the rest of the over-arching plot makes it feel very boring and useless.  

Despite Dylan's sub-plot getting a bit more focus this week, the main character really driving this episode is Norma.  Before this episode, such an idea would not be a bad one by any means.  Norma Bates is a pretty fascinating character on her own (as was discussed in last week's review), but something was very off this week.  We get a sneak preview of the kind of stressful life Norma will be having once the Bates Motel officially opens as she seems to be serving the role of both manager and housekeeper.  Apparently there is some unwritten rule that hotel housekeepers have to wear a Brady Bunch-esque uniform as that is exactly the attire donned by Norma twice in this episode while she is cleaning a room.  It is mentioned towards the end of the episode that Norma is the type of person who really likes to have control over other people due to her feeling a lack of control in her own life.  Norma's control appears to be the main theme of this episode as we see her balancing roles at the motel, playing detective into the life of her suspicious guest, and also butting into Norman's life at every opportunity.  This seems like a very fine investigation of character, but it is just not pulled off as strongly as perhaps it could have been.  Vera Farmiga has done an excellent job of playing Norma in every episode up to this point.  Farmiga cannot do much in terms of acting, however, to save this script and the character ultimately comes off as extremely annoying for most of the episode.  Although perhaps this was the idea of the episode as her annoyance further demonstrates her desire for control.  We have all had experience with mothers who want to have some control over their child's life, after all.

A story thread which began last week with little development, but is given much more focus this week is that of the mysterious man staying in room 9.  It was mentioned in last week's review that the character, while certainly creepy, mostly felt like an expected cliche for a show such as this one.  With the character receiving a bit more focus this week, it gave the writers a chance to perhaps explore his nuances and flesh him out more.  Unfortunately, this makes for yet another disappointment this week as the mysterious man continues to fulfill every horror movie cliche.  Norma follows the spooky man to a spooky boat where he searches for spooky things after doing equally spooky things at the motel.  Sure, the sequence of Norma following and spying on the stranger made for one of the better moments from this episode, but none of it was exactly new territory for the show or the genre.  There is still a ton of mystery about this character being left for the final two episodes.  The man obviously has connections to Deputy Shelby and Keith Summers, but it is still not clear in what capacity that is.  Throughout this episode the man makes a big scene about looking for something, presumably the sketch book Norman toted around with him for much of the first half of the season, but even that answer is not certain.  Perhaps it would have been a bit smarter if the writers gave us as an audience a little bit more about this character as he feels like too much of a mystery at this point as well as being completely cliche.  There is one brief scare which takes place at the end of this episode that is seemingly connected to the mysterious man.  This final moment is actually quite nice and should make for an interesting beginning to next week's episode.

The other main story which Norma is a part of this week is the demand from Norman's school that he see a therapist to deal with his emotional outbursts.  As most parents would, Norma is very dubious about having her son speak to a strange man about his problems.  Although, admittedly, Norma does have a lot to be worried about when one remembers the things her son has done.  This development of the investigation of what really makes Norman tick began as a very intriguing plot thread.  Norman is quickly becoming the most interesting character on this show (as he should be) and there seems to be a lot of great promise in having the future serial killer seek therapy.  Surprisingly there are no jokes made in this episode about therapists often having their patients talk about their mothers.  Despite this being a plot development which holds interest, it is made annoying by the intrusion of Norma's character.  We all know by this point that Norma is very close to her son and likes to hover over his life, but the writers went a bit overboard this week and it makes for an incredibly awkward first visit to the therapist.

Luckily, since Farmiga was having a very terrible episode, Freddie Highmore continued to play Norman Bates excellently.  As this season has continued, Highmore has evolved quite well into a Norman that is ever closer to being the mad man we all know him to be.  Another big step towards becoming the Hitchcock character is taken this week as Norman begins learning taxidermy from Emma's father.  While this is a bit of an obvious nod to where Norman will eventually end up, it is played off rather well in this episode.  After tragically losing his dog in a car accident last week, this episode hit all the right creepy, yet relaxing tones as we were able to see the dog become a stuffed figure throughout the episode.  Norman was in a state of shock at the end of the previous episode, blaming himself for his dog's death as well as dealing with the emotions of unrequited love.  This week, however, Norman is much more relaxed and we begin to see how this strange hobby could actually help him to work through his pain.  While the Norman of this week's episode seems very at odds with the Norman we saw last week, this only helps to heighten the unpredictable nature of the character.  Hopefully we will see Norman take up taxidermy more and more as it will surely add another fascinating layer to him as a person.

There are definitely a few interesting things going on in this episode, and some small moments that are quite nice, but this episode ultimately falls flat.  After two weeks of solid pacing, Bates Motel seriously stumbles this week and it is not pretty.  Almost none of the story threads being picked up for the remainder of the season are particularly interesting, and there are numerous times where this episode gets boring.  Fortunately, the season is not over yet and the show has two more episodes with which to improve.  How these currently boring stories develop will be somewhat interesting to see.  Tonight's episode was credited as being written by Bill Balas, his first time writing for the series, and we can only pray we will never see his name in the opening credits again as this episode is largely a mess.
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