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Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore in ‘Bates Motel’ (Bettina Strauss/A&E)
As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs through June 27 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Season 4 of Bates Motel.
Shocking: those final two episodes of Bates Motel’s fourth season, in which mama Norma Bates not only died but also remained dead (no small thing this TV season). Also shocking: that viewers have long known Bates Motel is more than a genre series, It’s simply one of the best dramas on TV — and never more so than with the recently completed fourth season — yet the show has received just one Emmy nomination so far (lead actress Vera Farmiga for Season 1).
The series’ penultimate year included Norma Bates finally finding true love with Sheriff Romero, Norman finally getting (ultimately unsuccessful) treatment, and other Norma offspring, Dylan, breaking free of his family’s madness to pursue a happy, healthy relationship with Emma. And there were those last two installments (following an also stellar Episode 8, which marked the writing debut of Bates star Freddie Highmore), which featured a heartbreaking confrontation in which Norman forced his mother to acknowledge that a happy ending wasn’t in the cards for them.
The season-enders were written by Emmy-worthy series creators and showrunners Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse, who talked to Yahoo TV about getting Norma and Norman (and their loved ones) to this place, how beautifully their five-year plot plan for the show has unfolded, the surprises that have popped up along the way, and why finding humor in this often dark Bates universe is so important to them. And yes, they tease Season 5, the “orgasm” of the series, as Ehrin puts it, which will include, Cuse promises, things “you will not see coming.”
Yahoo TV: Carlton, you tweeted last month that you thought the final two episodes of the season measure up against anything on TV this season, and I completely agree. What was the toughest part of getting the story to this place in those episodes?
Carlton Cuse: Waiting. The fact that they were the 39th and 40th episodes of the show. The long-term plan was to really make the audience fall in love with and care deeply about Norma and Norman, so that when this event happened, you were really invested in those characters. Right from the very beginning, one of the first things Kerry and I talked about was how when you watch Psycho, when Arbogast, the detective, shows up and starts questioning Norman Bates, you’re kind of rooting for Norman not to give himself up, even though you know that he’s…
Kerry Ehrin: Somehow nefarious.
Cuse: Nefarious, yes. So we thought, “Wow, this is one of those kind of critical elements of the DNA that we need to really make prominent in our version of the show.” We really wanted to make the audience invested in Norman, and I think in some ways it’s been a little frustrating because the sort of pulpy crime drama has been kind of a critical way to drive story until such point as Norman became…
Ehrin: Fully psycho.
Cuse: Fully psycho, that he was able to drive story himself. It was all kind of part of the great conception of the show, and it was so exciting for us, but also a long-simmering plan to get us to these few episodes.
Ehrin: A bit like waiting for Christmas. Just because, from day one when you look at the story, you’re going to extract the mythology from Psycho, if you look at the essential oedipal story and where it ends. As a storyteller, that’s an amazing part of the story, and it’s been very interesting to take the time to do what we wanted to do and to tell the story of the characters before we got to that. But it is greatly rewarding to finally be able to get to that part of the story and also have it be received so well.
Was this always the place that you planned to get to by the end of Season 4?
Cuse: Yes, it was.
Ehrin: Yes, it always felt right.
Cuse: We kind of wanted one final season of Norman really in the mode of the character in the movie. Of course, our version of it will be wildly different than what happens in the movie, but this was always our demarcation point, where we felt that we would transition from Norma as a living, breathing character to just being the character that lives in Norman’s brain that the audience is most familiar with from the movie.
Were you concerned at all about unfolding the act that leads to Norma’s death? These characters have not only been sympathetic all along, we love them. I think we still do. But maybe some viewers have lost a little bit of that love for Norman. So was there any concern on your part that this would become an act where we start to lose sympathy for him?
Ehrin: Yes. Definitely, we took all that into account in figuring out how to tell the story. You say that you love the characters, as do we. It was not easy to do. It was not easy to kill Norma. And then talking about how Norman would do that — there were all kinds of different ideas of how that would happen. Would it happen out of rage? Would it happen out of violence? If you really know the character Norman, he wouldn’t ever hurt his mother on purpose, and I think that is his saving grace, that he actually, in his twisted brain, believed he was doing the right thing for her. It’s hard to not have some sympathy for that. He’s a mentally ill person.
And he did intend to kill himself as well.
Ehrin: Yes. That was the point.
I’ve talked to both of you about this before, but I think you just can’t overestimate how big a role humor has played in the show, and specifically in keeping the characters sympathetic and likable. I think few other shows with subject matter this dark have injected the story with humor the way you have consistently and so successfully. It is part of what has added a hopefulness to a story where there otherwise might not be any. Given what we know about these characters in the Psycho universe, how much was that part of your original plan for the show? How important was that?
Ehrin: It’s always been just part of Carlton’s and my DNA, but we sort of approach a lot of problems with humor in real life. Dysfunction definitely has its funny parts. You grow up in that, and there’s a lot of dark comedy in it, and I think that’s just part of coping. I think humor is a gift that helps us all cope with darkness, so it seems completely natural to have it in a dark subject story. It makes it real.
Cuse: One of the filmmakers I most admire is Jim Brooks, who throughout his career has done a brilliant job of mixing humor and pathos. Kerry is absolutely wonderful at doing the same, and I try to put humor in everything I do. It feels like it’s true to humanity. In fact, I get really annoyed at shows that are sort of pretentiously just straight drama. I feel like that’s not how life works, and we thought it was also kind of great that we subverted [people’s expectation of what the show would be]. In some ways, people want to stick this show into the sort of serial killer genre, but the thing that differentiates Bates Motel is, I think, the level of heart and humor in the way that we tell our stories.
Ehrin: Which is also Hitchcockian. His movies are full of humor. I can’t think of a single movie of his that is just straight 100 percent dark drama. It seemed appropriate in that sense as well.
How important a factor did that become in, for instance, casting? Because this cast understands their characters so well, and it’s obvious that they love the characters and the story so much. That would be necessary to successfully play off that kind of humor.
Cuse: We’re the beneficiary of actors who can do anything, and that’s really our situation in television.
Ehrin: And the greatest gift, in terms of writing material for them.
Cuse: Yes. I think sometimes in television you have to write a little bit protectively for actors, shining a light on their strengths and avoiding the things that they don’t do well. But every single person in our cast can do really great drama, but they’re all also really funny. In fact, I think we’ve never actually fully seen the comic potential of Max Thieriot’s character.
Ehrin: No, and Max is hilarious as a human being.
Cuse: In person, he is so freaking funny. He kind of comes across often as being more sincere and earnest in our show, and yet he has, as a person, this really, really funny side. One of our goals is trying to get a little bit more of that into the show before it ends.
Dylan is as smart and funny and clever as Norma and Norman, certainly.
Ehrin: Yes. Sometimes we just have to restrain ourselves from writing things because there’s just so much great humor in this world. We have to walk the line all the time of, “OK, is this too funny? Do we need to pull it back a little bit?” So it doesn’t fall into camp.
Cuse: To me, the way in which Kerry executed the scene that we had for Norman in the funeral home, when he’s having the funeral for Norma all by himself, it’s a really funny idea, and I think there’s a lot of humor in that, but it’s played straight. So you have this great collision of these two different narrative forces — the sort of seriousness of the funeral, but with the kind of comedic setup of the weirdest funeral ever, with these bizarre funeral home members. That to me was like, “Oh, this is when we get it exactly right.” I was so proud of that scene, because I felt like this is exactly what we’re striving for on this show. This is the mix that I think makes Bates special and unique. When Kerry and I first sat down and started talking about it, we [said], “Well, where’s this show going? What’s the game plan?” It was one of the very first things that we started honing in on, that we were really telling a tragedy. A tragedy is a storytelling form where you hope that, where it’s successful, the audience is hoping against hope that the characters don’t meet their inevitable fate.
Ehrin: But they know they will.
Cuse: If you’re watching Titanic, you know that at a certain point the ship is going to sink, but you’re hoping against hope that Leo and Kate survive that. For us, we started just talking about seasons, and this was a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It felt like it would be a lesser version of the show if Norman Bates was just out there in turpitude, if the audience wanted to ultimately find out what happens to Norman, so Kerry and I just went back and forth on it, and then we sort of came up with these demarcation points of, OK, this is when Norman starts…
Ehrin: Knowing that he was involved with this murder…
Cuse: Blacking out, and when he started losing control over his own reality.
Ehrin: It was very much about being on the ride with him. In many ways, I think we view Norman as a victim in this. We are on the ride with him, and he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and we wanted to peel that away slowly so that it stayed real, so that it didn’t get hyperbolic, and that takes time. Also, that was set against Norma’s arc, which was all about her growth. In the first season, she’s just out of this terrifying marriage, and her son killed the husband, and she’s trying to hide that, so she’s very much about hiding in the first season. The second season is about her getting out more. It’s like, every season she grows a little bit more. The third season is about her taking the reins with some of the crime stuff that’s happening around her, and the fourth season is about her actual true growth, where she stops hiding, and she has a pure connection with a guy, and it is actually a good, healthy relationship. We wanted to get her there before the inevitable happened.
Nestor Carbonell and Farmiga (Cate Cameron/A&E)
Was the relationship between Norma and Romero something that you always had in mind?
Ehrin: The idea of her finding love before she died and getting to a place of strength before she died, yes. Did we know it was going to be Romero?
Cuse: No, not initially. When we first started conceiving the show, and we started talking about the importance of the sheriff character, Nestor [Carbonell] immediately popped into my brain from Lost, but there was no way that Kerry or I knew that he would work so well romantically with Vera until they started doing scenes together. That’s the organic quality of television, that you have intensions, but then your collaborators speak to you, and particularly actors. The symbiotic relationship between actors and writers on a long-term television show is one of the coolest parts of the whole process. We watch relationships unfold. We see what kind of chemistry is between the characters.
Ehrin: Then you get to play with it.
Cuse: Then you sort of write to the truth of that. It took a while for us to get to the place where we put Emma and Dylan together. It required both of those characters to evolve across the first two seasons of the show, and then suddenly it felt to us like organically there was an opening for the two of them to find romance. It wouldn’t have been possible or believable for us to do that in the first season of the show.
Olivia Cooke and Max Thieriot (Sergei Bachlakov/A&E)
You planned the show as a five-year story from the beginning. That could have been limiting, but it sounds like it’s been the opposite with this show, that it put in place a framework from the beginning that’s allowing you to hit all the notes you want to before next season’s series finale.
Ehrin: Yes, and structure is never limiting. Knowing what you are writing to is a positive. It’s much more limiting to be writing in a vacuum where you’re like, “This could end this year, or it could end in two years.” You can’t build an ending that way.
Cuse: If you think about some of the really great accomplishments on television in the last two years, the one common element is that they’re all stories that have ended. Whether it’s Breaking Bad or The People v. O.J. or the first season of True Detective or either season of Fargo, all of those were closed-ended stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and the audience was engaged by the fact that they got to see the end of those stories.
As a writer, for so long television was really about just writing the first two letters of the alphabet … it goes from A to B and then resets to A. The audience wants to see the XYZ of storytelling. They want to see how stories culminate, and they want to find out where characters end, and they want to see their narratives come to a conclusion, and that’s something that’s really changed over the last few years and come to really benefit the television landscape. Bates, while it’s a longer story — it’s a 50-hour story — the fact that we’re now getting to write the end of our story is incredibly exciting and really…
Ehrin: Meaningful. From a writing perspective, the ending is the orgasm. That’s where you’re heading. That’s what you’re doing all this work for. It’s exciting to get to know that you have an ending, and that you can do it right, and you can take everyone on the ride with you.
Given that this event, Norma’s death and Norman’s full-on descent, happened in Season 4, it’s exciting to think about what you’re going to do with a whole season beyond that, what we’re going to see from all of these characters now.
Ehrin: We are really excited about it, and it is going to be a wild ride.
Cuse: I think if we do our job right, there will definitely be stuff in Season 5 that you will not see coming.
You’re in the writers’ room for Season 5 now. Is it tougher to write than you thought it would be?
Ehrin: No. I knew it would be tough. This show, I have to say, in my experience, has been a really difficult show to write, because it’s two characters essentially that everything in this story has to filter through … and at the same time, you’re telling a story of people who are all psychologically bent, so no one means anything that’s coming out of their mouth. It’s a very complicated equation in general.
Cuse: I agree. I think it’s easier in the sense that there’s more internal narrative momentum because Norman is driving the storytelling as opposed to earlier in the show when Norman was a little bit more of a normal character. We had to kind of come up with external narrative story engine stuff. I’m giving you a technical answer, but that actually, practically and pragmatically, was a little bit challenging. It’s certainly more emotional writing this final season of the show because it feels like the characters are really moving into this end game, and it’s been exciting, but the show’s more sort of emotionally pitched.
Ehrin: Everyone’s off the leash. First season, you’re dealing with the main characters who are hiding. They’re hiding, hiding, hiding. I think that’s partly also what has made it a harder show, just in terms of structuring stories and stuff. Neither one of them actively is trying to do anything. Norman just wants to f***ing run a hotel; it’s not like he wants to go to college and become a lawyer. It’s just a different sort of wrangling of stories, certainly, than I’ve ever experienced on a show.
Bates Motel Season 4 is available on Amazon Video and iTunes.
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