On Monday night, Bates Motel will wrap up its five-season run, and it goes out strong, having proven to be one of the rare remake/sequels that can withstand comparison to the original model. When you consider the fact that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s novel, is a suspense standby that holds up well in the 21st century, the achievement of Bates is even more impressive.
Credit for this goes to two pairs of collaborators. Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse (who created the show along with Anthony Cipriano) have written the finale as well as other key episodes. They engineered the series to begin in a very different way than the movie did; this final season, the show overlapped with the film at the beginning, and then diverged once again to provide an original, concluding shock.
The other key team are co-stars Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. They’ve both given extraordinary, sustained performances with a subtlety rare for genre fare like this, and rarer still over five seasons on a network not known for prizing subtlety. This season, Highmore and Farmiga were called upon to transform the characterizations they’d worked so hard to make convincing. Farmiga spent the season dead: Whenever Norma wasn’t seen as a literal stiff (taxidermied into a trophy for Norman to hug), she had to play a figment of Norman’s imagination. Over the first four seasons Highmore slowly, steadily convinced us that Norman flickered in and out of his psychosis, but this final season compelled the rattled motel manager to have a psychotic break. The actor had to play things at least three different ways: the Norman who was outwardly sane enough to charm Madeleine (Isabelle McNally), the young women who reminded him of dear old Mother; the Norman who saw visions of his dead mommy; and Not-Norman-at-All — those times when Norman believed he was Norma, with Highmore imitating Farmiga’s mannerisms beautifully.
One element that made Bates Motel so good was that it didn’t avoid humor when it bumped up against it. Farmiga executed some wonderful physical humor over the course of the series, especially when she was murdering one character or another: She provoked laughs that got stuck in your throat. She also played Norma as a tough-talking broad with a lust for life that stood in stark contrast to the reined-in, sublimated life of her son. Highmore was equally witty in the way he heightened the mannerisms that star Anthony Perkins had in the Hitchcock film, adding his own original spin to Norman’s jittery earnestness.
The series had its share of dud subplots — half-brother Dylan’s guard work in a marijuana field — and I really wish the show hadn’t had Nestor Carbonell’s Alex Romero so blithely shoot Ryan Hurst’s Chick after Bates had so carefully built Chick into a true-crime buff/novelist who would eventually have written a new version of Psycho. But for the most part, Bates moved with sleek assurance, even when it faced the challenge of having a high-profile guest star (Rihanna) portray a key figure from the Hitchcock film (Marion Crane).
I’m not going to give anything away about the finale except to say that the mechanics of how the show arrives at a great scene involving Norman and Norma aren’t quite what I would have hoped they would be, but I respect the validity of what made Ehrin and Cuse do what they’ve done. (Vague enough for you?) More broadly speaking, Bates Motel goes out Monday night on a high note: moving and spooky and funny and sad and tragic and triumphant.
Bates Motel airs Monday night at 10 p.m. on A&E.
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