Bates Motel has always been best the more it concentrates on the relationship between Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), and thus the third-season premiere is an excellent episode because its beginning and its conclusion finds the pair in bed together.
Yes, this remains the only TV series that thrives creatively on the implications of a zesty incesty twosome, played for appalled laughs. What gave this adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho its initial energy was the willingness of producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin to address the mother obsession that eventually leads Tony Perkins’s Norman (in the movie) to assume the identity of his dead mother.
In Bates Motel, Norma is thrillingly alive, thanks to the exceptionally intense yet loose and open-throated performance given by Farmiga.
The third season commences with Norman, now 18, preparing to attend his senior year in high school. Mom, of course, drives him to school. When he expresses reluctance to begin his first day as a senior, Norma literally drags him out, yelling, “Get outta the car!”
There is, periodically, a kind of daringly reckless, Lucille Ball-like slapstick physicality that Farmiga brings to the role, and it contributes a welcome lightness to the show’s often grim proceedings. By contrast, Highmore’s exceedingly subtle, adroit work is slowly filling in the portrait of psycho-Norman at a perfect pace for a weekly television series.
Bates continues to be schizophrenic in its storytelling. In the season premiere, the Norman-Norma scenes have almost no overlap with anything to do with Norman’s half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot), the broody James Dean-wannabe who continues to get in scrapes with his father, Caleb (Kenny Johnson), and the law, particularly Nestor Carbonell’s Sheriff Romero. Indeed, except to express his disgust that Norman frequently sleeps in the same bed as Norman, Dylan shares no scenes with these two. In a different show, this would be a problem; with Bates, it’s just business as usual.
Speaking of business, Norman is promoted to motel manager this week, which puts him closer to several women, all of whom make Norma jealous. (Nepotism in the workplace cuts both ways, doesn’t it, Mom?) These women include Norman’s friend Emma (the sparkling-even-when-she’s-wheezing Olivia Cooke) and a hooker in a dress of red. She’s played by Tracy Spiridakos, making much more of a visual impression than she did in the drab future-wasteland drama Revolution. Her appeal is sufficient to compel Norman to turn peeping-tom in an extension of his motel-manager duties.
I was vastly relieved to see the Season 3 premiere pared down to the essentials — this show got entirely too busy last season with extraneous subplots. (I love Michael O’Neill and Kathleen Robertson as actors, but their characters kept us away from the damp, musty rooms of the motel.) And the more the show can bring Kenny Johnson into the same scenes as Farmiga and Highmore, the more crazily intense Bates Motel will be, and that’s a good thing.
Bates Motel airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E.