By Paula Hendrickson
For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed A&E’s original series, Bates Motel. While the first three seasons occasionally had uneven storylines and meandered a bit thanks to less-than-thrilling B-stories, this fourth season has really honed in on Norman’s mental illness, which is one of the driving forces of the series (the other is his relationship with his usually well-meaning but totally screwed up mom, Norma, which may or may not have contributed to his psychological distress). The fourth season has also been a showcase for the British actor who plays him, Freddie Highmore.
It had to be a daunting task to take on such an iconic character, but without copying Anthony Perkins memorable portrayal of a slightly older Norman Bates in the 1960 film, Psycho, Highmore’s mannerisms and expressions subtlety echo Perkins’ embodiment of the classic character. But it’s in Norman’s hallucinations and blackouts – when his mind is taken over by his internalized version of his mother – that Highmore’s work really shines. It’s as if a series of micro expressions wash over his face to transform him from Norman into Norma (Vera Farmiga). Before he speaks a word you know Mother has taken over.
At the start of this season, the line between Norman and Norma’s psyches blurred so much that when lucid, Norman truly thought his mother was a killer. It was impossible not to feel his desperation, or hers as she finally realizes her son needs help she can’t provide.
This season began with Norman being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where it took some time for him to stop resisting and begin to open up to his psychiatrist, Dr. Edwards (Damon Gupton). Not unlike Norma, I found myself hoping that somehow, someway Norman would get better, but I’ve seen the movie so I know that’s not in the cards. Norman’s progress is thwarted when he sees a newspaper clipping saying his mother wed Sheriff Romano (Nestor Carbonell). He immediately starts manipulating his way to an early release.
Norman’s self-awareness steadily grew this season, too, culminating in a pivotal scene where he finds a suitcase containing his most recent victim’s belongings. He doesn’t remember killing her, but knows if he isn’t a killer his mother is. At that instant, Normal seems to realize he’s broken. Highmore conveys all that, and more, without a word.
Even more impressive? Highmore wrote the May 2 episode in which Norman’s jealousy of Romano explodes in near homicidal rage – which Norma later downplays as a bad reaction – insinuating that her axe-wielding son didn’t mean to kill her husband, since he was still alive.
Despite everything Norman has done – including a murder-suicide attempt in last week’s episode, which was his warped way of protecting and preserving the bond between mother and son – he’s still a very sympathetic (albeit appropriately creepy) and gentle character. That’s due partly to the writing, but mostly to Highmore’s chilling and surprisingly heartfelt performance.
While I can’t wait for the season finale, I dread having to wait until 2017 for the next new episode.
Bates Motel season finale airs Monday at 8 p.m. on A&E.