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Every season, it seems, some network tries to turn a hit movie into a TV show, and the result is usually awful (Minority Report, anyone?) or at best, OK (Lethal Weapon). Rare is the movie adaptation that is not just excellent, but which becomes its own radiant achievement. It doesn’t seem too early to bestow that praise upon Bates Motel, which begins its fifth and final season on A&E Monday night.
The show, an imagining of the events that led up to Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark 1960 scary movie Psycho, has become its own distinctive creation. Developed by producers Carlton Cuse and (especially) Kerry Ehrin, and starring Freddie Highmore as troubled youth Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his domineering mother, Norma, Bates Motel is at once faithful to the Psycho mythos first conceived by novelist Robert Bloch, and a bold re-conceiving of what Bloch and Hitchcock wrought. Ehrin, who has written many of the series’ key episodes, including Monday’s season premiere, has imagined a mother-son codependency that allows for wild humor as well as tragic drama.
The new season picks up some time after the fourth-season episodes, which climaxed with Norman killing Norma. It was easy to imagine how Farmiga could remain in the series in its final season: Norman is nuts, and, as in Hitchcock’s movie, imagines that she’s still alive. And so we are treated to Farmiga’s wonderful performance as a pushy, sarcastic, sexy, needy, and ferally strong woman imposing her will on her son. In Highmore’s equally impressive performance as an intelligent, polite, devious fellow, Norman has now fully surrendered to the mental illness that’s been nibbling away at his mind.
There was a lot of publicity around the casting of Rihanna as Marion Crane, who Psycho fans know was the character played by Janet Leigh and who, in a breach of movie etiquette that shocked ticket-buyers at the time, was murdered 40 minutes into the film — an unprecedented jolt, killing off a movie star so early in the proceedings. Rihanna does not appear in the Bates season premiere, but we await her eagerly. In the meantime, there is a lot going on.
Norman has taken over as manager of the Bates Motel; Norma’s husband, Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell), is in prison on perjury charges; and we see the return of Norman’s half brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), and Emma (Olivia Cooke), who are now a couple. In the opening hour, Norman takes a shine to a new character, Madeleine Loomis (Isabelle McNally), who looks like a young Norma (uh-oh), and whose surname rings bells with Psycho scholars — Sam Loomis (played by handsome block of wood John Gavin) is the name of the guy Janet Leigh’s character was going to run off with.
There are marvelous scenes between Norman and Norma, whom Norman’s imagination has kept alive as long as she stays inside their creepy old big house. This gives Farmiga ample opportunities to whine about being trapped among the Bates dust bunnies, and to comment with aggressive rue, “I literally gave up my life for you,” lamenting their current state. “We’re a mentally ill boy and a dead mother,” she says disgustedly. I laughed out loud — Ehrin and Farmiga have collaborated in the creation of one of the most transgressive women currently on television.
The final-moments embrace between pale Norman and embalmed Norma is a queasy visual treat exceeded only by Ehrin’s script, filled with filial sentiments that would be appalling if they weren’t frequently so funny, or maybe I mean vice versa. Bring on Rihanna, bring on more madness, and let’s hope Bates can sustain its wild ride until the whole series comes to a smashing conclusion!
Bates Motel premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on A&E.