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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: Bates Motel, "Midnight"

Season 1, Episode 10

Grade: B-

Verdict: This episode of Bates Motel was in big danger of being just as mediocre, if not worse, than the past few weeks have been.  Until the last quarter or so, the entire episode was incredibly dull, with almost nothing of note occurring.  A few characters which had, until now, been under-developed suddenly received some attention, but their motivations were still quite unclear as they still feel like strangers to us as an audience.  While we get another piece of the "what makes Norma tick" puzzle this week, it really does not do much to further the character or explain her behavior.  Even Norman, the only character to remain interesting throughout the entire season, threatened to become boring this week until a final 10 minutes which helped to bring him back to his place as most fascinating character.

After being told by Abernathy to have his Asian sex slave money ready by midnight that evening, a frantic Norma once again seeks aid from Sheriff Romero, who begrudgingly agrees to "take care of it."  Unsure of what this means, Norma attempts to take matters into her own hands to prepare for the meeting with Abernathy.  While preparing to take Emma to a school dance, Norman discovers a few secrets regarding Dylan as well as Norma which could threaten to throw him over the edge once more.

What is it with television series with teenagers and having season finales on the night of school dances?  Smallville and Buffy are two shows in particular which come to mind that almost always used a school dance to serve as a backdrop to the more important plot developments of the series.  With Bates Motel, as Norman is the only major character currently in high school, we only get to see the worn out cliche of a school dance finale for a fraction of the episode.  This episode does not shy away one bit from all of the awkwardness entailed with school dances.  Feeling sorry for her, Norman hastily agrees to take Emma to the dance, but he never feels 100% committed to the idea.  Upon arrival at the dance, we see that Norman clearly still holds on to some kind of romantic feelings for Bradley, the girl who has proven time and again that she is not worth his time. These unrequited feelings are obvious to Emma as well, who has yet another emotional outburst, telling Norman that she has been wishing all along that he would eventually feel that way towards her.  Olivia Cooke is a very nice actress and has done a good job playing Emma thus far on this series, but it has to be said that the writers seem to have no idea what to do with her.  While this outburst with Norman is fine as it helps end the awkward slow dance that was occurring, it only furthers the fact that Emma is nothing more than a boring disabled character who is trotted out any time we need to be reminded Norman has a friend outside from his mother.  Aside from Norman being punched by Bradley's date outside of the school, this entire school dance subplot was one which felt more cliche than important, only leading to further questions about whether this was really the necessary plot device for these character moments to happen.

This episode makes a rather jarring move in that it seeks to develop two characters who had, before hand, been majority background players: Sheriff Romero and Miss Watson.  Sheriff Romero is a character who has really done absolutely nothing throughout this season.  Throughout the first half of the season, he seemed like your average sheriff character: looking to enforce the law in his town and always showing up at the little "boo" moments to show that he may or may not be watching what the main characters are up to.  In the latter half of the season, Romero became a character Norma desperately sought out every single week as her plight seemed to become more and more desperate.  This was when we got more of a taste of what kind of town Romero was running has he seemed pretty apathetic to Norma's situation (understandable considering how annoying the character became by the end of the season) as well as a hint that Romero allowed some shady practices in his town (he says nothing to a few potheads smoking a joint in public).  Overall, however, Romero had mostly been a character so flat that he may have been more ably played by a piece of paper than Nestor Carbonell.  Carbonell is a fine actor, but he always seemed just as bored as the audience throughout this season.  In this episode, the writers attempt to show us Romero in a different light as we see the way he handles the situation with Abernathy.  The way the situation is resolved, however, ultimately leaves more questions than answers....and Romero is still a very vague character, which is not necessarily a bad thing if he is examined more thoroughly next season.

Our other featured background character this week is Miss Watson, Norman's English teacher. Miss Watson received a slight bit of development last week when she urged Norman to publish a short story we had never seen him write or heard about him writing.  Nevertheless, the character ultimately felt like nothing more than a demonstration of Norman's strange relationships with women.  With Miss Watson, Norman had yet another forbidden fruit situation in terms of his temptation.  While Norman clearly loves his mother, he cannot be with her as he might want to.  The same goes for Miss Watson, despite the fact that she appears to make a number of advances on the boy.  What is truly unclear is whether or not these advances were imagined by Norman, or if they were genuine ways of this teacher showing her very close relationship with a student.  If the latter is true, then Miss Watson just may be the most morally corrupt person on this series....which is saying a lot when seemingly half the cast as killed someone at some point this season.  Though the character is featured more this episode, the only real development we have with Miss Watson is a half-conversation Norman overhears wherein Miss Watson is screaming at some man over the phone.  We have had no prior reason to believe Miss Watson was in a relationship (unless this reviewer is forgetting some small detail from an earlier episode), so this last ditch effort at development feels quite odd.  Keegan Connor Tracy has done an adequate job of playing the character, but her true purpose on the series was quite unclear until the final minutes of this episode.  Although these final minutes serve to develop Norman's character much more than they do Miss Watson's.

It has been mentioned in seemingly every review for this show here on Geek Rex that Norman Bates is the most interesting character on Bates Motel.  This seems pretty apt as the show is, ultimately, about his rise (fall?) to becoming the serial killer we all know and love.  Freddie Highmore is a fantastic actor and does an incredible job of playing Norman while also being helped out by a writing staff that, some weeks, gives him the only interesting thing to do.  That being said, it is a bit disappointing that Norman is pretty much the only fascinating character left on the series.  Norman's intrigue was threatened with this finale, however, as Norman had very little to do aside from inviting Emma to a dance.  75% of the episode was incredibly slow due to the fact that not one character, not even Norman, had something intriguing going on.  Fortunately, Norman once again rose to interesting in one of the final scenes of the episode.  While visiting Miss Watson's house after the dance (she had cleaned up Norman's wounds from being beaten up earlier), we have a very awkward scene where Norman watches Miss Watson undress.  The scene is uncomfortable for the audience, but it becomes abundantly clear that Norman is unequipped to handle the temptation right in front of him.  How Norman deals with this temptation is by conjuring up an imaginary version of his mother.  Norma tells her son that this is not right, it is very odd for a grown woman to ask a teenager to her house and then undress herself where he can see her.  Highmore's acting is stellar in this sequence as we see him struggle with his temptation versus his "mother's" words.  When "Norma" tells him, "you know what you need to do," there is a chilling moment where the audience realizes that Norman Bates may have just plunged off the deep end...and it makes for an even more fantastic character.

The only other character receiving development this week is, fittingly, Norma.  Unlike her son, however, Norma's development this episode feels very unnatural and, frankly, does not make a lot of sense.  In addition to being stressed over the impending conflict with Abernathy, we begin to get the sense that Norma is hiding some kind of secret.  This seems a bit strange as it had seemed all of Norma's secrets had been revealed throughout the season, or at least any secrets that had any bearing on the plot.  After visiting Norman's therapist, Norma realizes that there is something in her past which she must confess to her son: she was raped as a child by her brother.  Such a development is one which helps to throw a small amount of sympathy Norma's way, but it ultimately seems like such an unnecessary move on the part of the writers.  Okay, so Norma was raped as a child and raped again in the pilot, so this somehow is the entire reason she is the irrational, crazy woman we see now?  This math does not add up very well.  We know that Norma is not completely sane, but this seems like a very flimsy culprit for her insanity.  While this development would explain Norma's habit of reverting to childish behavior at times, it does not explain the seemingly genetic mental issues she passed on to her son.  Despite Vera Farmiga trying as hard as she can to make something out of this part, Norma has sadly devolved into an utter mess of a character and it remains to be seen if things will improve next year.

So, when everything boils down, was this short, ten episode journey with Bates Motel worth it?  The series started off with quite a bit of promise as the pilot was quite excellent, but the show really became very hit and miss throughout.  Mid-season looked promising with two fantastic episodes one right after the other, but they only led into a latter-half of a season which was more miss than hit.  That being said, it is hard to say that the entire season was not worth the time spent watching...although that does not mean there are not improvements to be made.  At the very end of this episode, we get a taste of what happened to Miss Watson after Norman left.  It is unclear if Norman had any part in her messy end, but, for the sake of the show, it would be best if he did.  By having Norman kill again, things are changed significantly as it has been well established that leaving this town will not be easy for the Bates family.  The reason this point is brought up is that, were the second season of this show to examine more thoroughly Norman's descent into madness, it just might make the show a must-watch.  One can only hope the show takes more advantage of its more interesting aspects in its sophomore endeavor, but, for now, we can only wait and see.  In the mean time, if you have been meaning to check out Bates Motel, do not worry about rushing out to buy the DVD/Blu-Ray when it releases.  Instead, opt to stream the series through Netflix or Amazon as, despite three great episodes, this season was ultimately too mediocre to be worth purchasing by anyone not a huge fan.
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