Long-time readers will know that I’m attracted to dark stuff. I’ve already made as much clear. I regard American Psycho as the great american novel, both for its satire of empty consumerism and for it’s shocking, horrifying and graphic scenes of murder. My book and movie collection, as I’ve already said, leans towards the dark and disturbing. My ideal dinner party includes such luminaries as Doctor Hannibal Lecter and The Joker. I’m in love with the madness of mankind.
So it’s weird that the show that has provoked the greatest stomach-churning and sickening moments of 2013 is Bates Motel, a program that has striking similarities to Hannibal in that much of it is slow and sedate. I should, ideally, have watched Bates Motel before Hannibal, but I didn’t actually know it had started until a week ago – syndication of American shows in the UK is complicated and often inexplicable, unless you own a Sky subscription. I’ve been playing catch-up.
Comparing Bates Motel and Hannibal leads to some conflicting comparisons. I previously wrote that Hannibal was one of the freshest and most interesting shows of the last few years, because it largely ignored the scripting rules for a police procedural drama in favour of focussing on the relationship of two characters. This brings it into striking conflict with Bates Motel, which also largely ignores the structure for a drama, but not quite in the same way. Whereas Hannibal, though largely conforming to the Thomas Harris novels on which it is based, offers up surprises and the audience can never be sure how the stories will wind up, we already know how Bates Motel will end. It will end with Marion Crane in the shower covered in blood.
Norman Bates is one of those fictional characters that is embedded in the collective consciousness: he is widely regarded as one of the scariest of the old breed of slasher villains. Norman Bates’ first movie appearance in Psycho (played by the supremely eerie Anthony Perkins) has become iconic for a number of reasons, the foremost of which is that Psycho was Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie. Psycho has its appeal in the fact that it plays on a very real (albeit subconscious) American fear: that out there in the wilderness, beyond the city, lies only death and terror. This is a fundamental aspect of the American psyche: fear of the wilderness. It’s why there’s a couple of thousand miles of dead and eerie emptiness in the middle, while eight million people live in New York. Americans fear the infinite horizon.
Norman Bates lives in that wilderness. The motel where he lives, which serves as the setting for most of Psycho and Bates Motel, is a ramshackled and ancient building outside of town (to whit, in the wilderness). Norman Bates as a character draws on a lot of gory and gruesome real-life horror: the murderer Ed Gein, who cut women up in order to make a suit, was a prime inspiration. Ed Gein lived alone with his mother outside of town. We, the city-dwellers, fear the outer darkness of the countryside. We know that weird, incestuous shit goes on out there. We cling to our street lights and our crime because it’s better than being alone. We fear the emptiness of the untamed wild. Norman Bates is the living personification of that fear. More obviously, Norman Bates is the appearance of normality disguising a vast, blank emptiness. Trying to clarify the horror that Norman Bates represents, I remembered Sherlock Holmes saying this in The Copper Beeches:
“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
“You horrify me!”
“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
The setting of Bates Motel is largely anachronistic: for the first ten minutes I was sure it was set in the fifties, which would make sense (Psycho is set in 1960) and then Norman Bates whips out an iPod. What is weird is that there are very few computers about, and the only TV in the Bates Motel is a black & white model. Bates Motel is weirdly out-of-place: characters dress like people did in the fifties, then go to strip-clubs and all-night raves. If anything, this is a smart move on the part of the director: it gives it both a timeless quality and a disconcerting sense of limbo. Whereas Hannibal relies on being stylish, abstruse and cold (which is why I like it), Bates Motel gets by on being homely and old-fashioned, which starts off annoying but quickly grows on you.
The appearance of normality disguising madness runs deep in Bates Motel, and it’s typified by the quasi-incestuous relationship Norman has with his mother. I’ve already said that this show is more stomach churning than Hannibal, which last week featured a woman being burned alive in a high-oxygen environment (and that was before the titles rolled). I could sit through that with barely a squirm. Bates Motel sickens me on a more fundamental level.
It comes down to the strength of the two main actors, of course. Norma Bates is portrayed more-or-less perfectly by Vera Farmiga, who mixes the over-bearing and caring to near-perfect pitch. I’m only a couple of episodes in, so I can’t say whether this continues, but there is enough about her to be irritating as only mothers can be, tempered by the fact that she obviously cares about her son. Her behaviour at certain points is reminiscent of Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 : all hurt feelings and ass-kicking, looking out for her son while keeping him on a short leash. We, the audience, get that she’s had a hard life. We get that she has to make it on her own. We get that she has to look after a boy who is naive to the point of idiocy.
Freddy Highmore (last seen, if memory serves, in 2005’s nightmarish Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) provides naivety and innocence in spades. The young Norman Bates is a boy with two flaws: a total lack of insight into other people, and a complete faith in his mother. His opinion of her is creepy enough on its own. At the end of the first episode, while he helps her drop a dead body into a lake, he actually uses the phrase “you’re my everything, mom”, a line that could only have been cribbed from a late-night TV movie. I nearly puked into my glass of wine. Norman is much less than the boy next door: he is more or less an empty vessel being filled with all sorts of horrible stuff. In the absence of outside influences, the empty vessel will fill itself with more and more of its mother. This, I guess, is the point: as in Psycho, where Norman assumes the personality of his mother’s at the expense of his own, in Bates Motel Norman is more or less the willing accomplice his mother needs. He’s right: his mother is his everything. Norman Bates never really existed in the first place. Only occasionally do we see glimmers of his independence: sneaking out of the house to go to a party, etcetera. These sparks of individual thought are ruthlessly stamped upon, if not by his mother than by fate. Her control of his is all the more insidious for the fact that he is willing to be dominated.
We the audience know that the Bates’ are bound together by a shared secret, and as we know where this will end up we know what we’re looking for. Actions and phrases we would regard as fairly innocuous in real life become heightened. We see the danger signs. We have inside knowledge, and that by itself is frightening.
The theme of normality disguising a raging madness runs deeper than this: the motel they have bought has its own story, and exploring this forms much of the later story. The motel, and the surrounding countryside, are steeped in mystery. A town that should be dying through lack of industry is booming, and the how and why of its people’s relative wealth is a key plot point. Some very shady dealings occur in White Pines, only revealing themselves when something astonishing happens, like a man being burned to death crashes his car right outside the motel. Bates Motel is a story of hidden depths, if anything, and the sheen of normality that hides a darker reality. Us suburbanites and city dwellers, like Sherlock Holmes said, will always suspect that the countryside is rife with death, corruption and horror. It is this fear, as I’ve already mentioned, that Bates Motel plays upon. We have a sense that Norma and Norman’s flight from the dark secrets of their past are doomed: they end up in a place already bursting at the seams with nightmares. What Norma wants is a fresh start: as Norman says in a moment of uncanny clarity, “maybe some people don’t get to make fresh starts”. There’s almost a supernatural air to some parts of Bates Motel that plays on the “Indian burial ground” trope of The Shining and Poltergeist , as if the very land is cursed. Or maybe the Bates are good people living in a bad world. The instigation of Norman’s metamorphosis from well-meaning schoolboy to something darker may be motivated by more than his innocent love of his mother. It may be motivated by the time and place he lives in that forces him to adapt to survive.
Bates Motel could definitely be characterized as a story of metamorphosis or, to be more spiritual, transcendence. We are watching Norman’s metamorphosis from naive young man to cross-dressing serial killer. He will transcend the meagerness of his own personality as his mother’s begins to take hold. He will, in fact, transcend the physical world entirely, becoming both of them. She will inhabit Norman in a way that cheats death. Like the path that the Tooth Fairy takes in the course of Red Dragon, Norman Bates will transcend the confines of his own narrow personality and become a family of two on his own. Bates Motel is showing us the birth of a monster.
That incurs a certain limitation on the narrative. All stories need a protagonist to ensnare the audience. The young Norman Bates seems like a pretty okay guy, you know? We want him to do well. Then we see him entranced by a book of pornographic drawings he found under the carpet. Our esteem of him is reduced. We sympathize with his mother as she fends off a would-be rapist. Then she stabs him to death multiple times, hides the body and lies about it. As the audience, how can we empathize with these perverse human wrecks? There are no easy answers in this series.
I think, if we can at all, it’s because of the prefiguring of their doom. Norma and Norman seem doomed from the very start. Doomed by the past they are trying to escape, doomed by their relationship with each other, doomed by their inability to connect to the world and join a community. As Bates Motel is a story of transformation, it is also a story of inescapable destiny. If we like Norman at all, it’s because the cards are all stacked against him. I’ve mentioned before the streak of infracaninophilia that runs through humans: if we empathize with the Bates’ at all, it’s because we pity them.