Warning: This interview for “The Cord,” the series finale episode of Bates Motel, contains storyline and character spoilers.
Whether he was being his charming self or offing the cheating creeper in the Bates Motel shower, admit it: You never stopped loving Norman Bates, and that’s largely because you loved the Norman Bates former child star Freddie Highmore created. And now that the Psycho-inspired Bates Motel has officially come to an end, Highmore is one of the things we’ll most miss about this quirky, tragic, intense, and funny way more often than its subject matter should have afforded series.
Highmore, who’s developing multiple new projects with Bates co-creator Kerry Ehrin, talked to Yahoo TV about the difficulty of letting go of what is now his signature (and Emmy-worthy, we’d argue) performance, about what he thinks are the biggest tragedies of the Bates family, and about the complexities of portraying a character who’s juggling multiple personas… and smashing his own head into a jailhouse toilet.
How are you feeling after portraying such an intense character and storyline for five seasons?
Good, but it’s bizarre. There’s a part of me that still thinks it’s going to come back… there’s still a hope that’s like, maybe there’s a Season 6, in Heaven. [Laughs.] Norma and Norman can just be in Hawaii as they relive their dream world.
The finale broke my heart, of course, but I think it’s the most satisfying way the story could have wrapped up.
Oh, I’m glad you think so. It felt like one of my favorite episodes. I think [showrunners] Kerry [Ehrin] and Carlton [Cuse] were so smart to bring it right back full circle with all of the references and looking back to the pilot. It certainly seemed like we were at the end of a journey that had been planned for quite some time. And I feel like it was one of the funniest episodes without a doubt. I found myself saying this more and more over the years, advocating Bates Motel as a comedy. I think the second act… and really a lot of that because of Tucker [Gates], our wonderful director who directed so many episodes over the years. He really embraces the delusion of Norman and setting up him waking up in the snow and having these visions of looking to his mother. He thinks he’s in his bedroom, and he’s obviously just in the snow, lying next to Romero and Norma’s bodies. I mean, to me it’s kind of a hilarious image.
Did you feel like this was the way this particular part of the story should have ended? Did you feel like Romero’s story ended the way it should have? Norman’s? Norman’s relationship with Dylan?
I think so yeah, I think everyone had a fitting conclusion and everyone had their own big moment as well that really wound up their character in a satisfying way. I mean, obviously, the scene between me and [Max Thieriot] at the end was so pivotal for both of us. It was one of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever done on the show. And for me, what’s interesting about Dylan at the very end is the question as to whether it was a conscious decision to kill Norman or whether it was merely instinctive or an act of self-defense. And I probably am on the side of it being something that he chose to do. That he recognized Norman’s plea, he recognized that Norman really needed to… that he could never be happy living in this world. Now that the very illusion that he was trying to hold on to had been shattered and so chose to take Norman’s life. And that’s a pretty powerful end for his character.
And of course, for Norman, it’s a nice episode because it brings us back to that question as to what extent Norman is mad. How far gone is he? How much have we lost of that original Norman? And I think this episode shows us the two sides to him. One of which is the Norman that needs to believe in this illusion, in the delusion that he’s really with his mother, that he’s back in this beautiful time, that the future looks rosy, that everything is going to be great. But deep down, the opposite side of that is that when pushed, when Dylan really confronts him about it, Norman knows the performance that he’s putting on. He knows that it’s a game. He knows he can never really have it. I think that one of my favorite lines that Norman ever had was right at the end when he says, “If you believe hard enough, you can make it that way.” I feel like that just really summed up both him, and Norma, and their attitudes over the last few years. That by sheer force of will, the two of them were always able to make it through together. And ultimately they, in a twisted, romantic way, they do end up together, but that was always their attitude. That they could… if you just ignored everyone else, things will be great.
In that final scene, the question of whether Dylan went there intending to do this, or thinking that he might have to do this… is there a part of Norman that might have drawn Dylan there to kill him, or knowing it might be something that Dylan would do? Does Norman give Dylan the chance to be the one who reunites Norman and Norma?
It’s a good question. I guess I kind of struggle to separate the two, and to reconcile, I guess, those two intentions, one of which is to have Dylan be a part of their family. And the other one being to get Dylan to kill him in order to reunite him and Norma and say goodbye to the two of them. And I feel like… in some ways it probably was a bit of a test, if he admits it to himself. That he’s trying to live this… the only way he can be happy is by living this delusion. And inviting Dylan over and sort of testing as to whether he can live in this world in this way, whether Dylan is willing to be a part of it and to accept him for who he is, and the madness that he needs to live in. And then when Dylan shakes him up and says “No, you can’t be living in this world,” that’s when I feel Norman’s attitude changes, and he says, “Well, if I can’t do it, then I’m going to have to be with her.”
And I think that’s… there is a choice in the scene of actively choosing to be with his mother, over being with Dylan. And I think Dylan’s appeal to him when Norman turns back from the sink at the very end is something along the lines of, “You know, I can help you. I can be there with you. It could be the two of us.” And Norman ultimately knows that will never work, that he has to be with Norma. I think that’s what makes the scene between the two brothers so interesting is that Dylan’s both willing to kill him and to reunite him with his mother. But that necessitates the saying of goodbye between the two of them.
You were a writer this season, a director, and as an actor, your character was at his most complicated, the performance so demanding. Aside from the general demands of wearing all those different hats at this crucial time in the series, did doing all of those different things also kind of bring you even closer to Norman? And to the story in a way that maybe benefited you as the character was at his most complicated?
I think so, yeah. I’m not sure to what extent it brought me closer to understanding Norman. But certainly in terms of feeling entirely devoted to that world, and living in the sort of state of Bates Motel was something that was truly all-encompassing. And that’s what made it such a satisfying experience for me, and I think for everyone. I mean, you know, Nestor [Carbonell] did a wonderful job directing three episodes of the series. Max directed one, and as you said, I got to write as well as direct. But I think everyone had this real desire to be a part of the show as much as possible and to contribute in every way. And that’s what made it such a special dynamic, and something that was so hard to say goodbye to. We had the most wonderful crew, who would return again and again and be there every season. And actors that wanted to be there. And writers who wanted to be there. And very much I wanted to be there as much as possible and to contribute in whatever way I could.
What was the toughest part of playing Norman in these states this season, as he himself started to understand all of these different things about his mental state? Was it the physicality of it? Or the emotions of it?
It’s sort of funny because you get to a point where you feel like you have a certain grasp of Mother as she takes over Norman and how that would look. And then in [“The Body”], potentially the most challenging scene was the one in which Mother then pretends to be Norman. And so you’ve got this weird scene, which to me was incredibly funny, where Norman has become his mother, or become Mother, and then is pretending to be himself. And so trying to throw in those Norman-isms, then at the same time starting from the point of view of Mother and being Mother was particularly fun and challenging, as she weaves her web of deception.
And then there’s Mother beating up Norman in his cell, which is, of course, Norman beating himself up, and you’re acting and directing yourself in that. Challenging, but it also must have been fun and was very, very funny to watch.
It was great fun. I think the temptation was always there to overuse, to overplay the humor of those situations. They were funny, but had to be used sparingly so as not to detract from the overall emotion that can take you out of the episode. Those moments were Norman, in reality, throwing himself onto the floor, and smashing his own head against the toilet seat. And knocking himself out. All of that is incredibly bizarre, and it would have been funny to show every single step of that, but you have to kind of play it from Norman’s head to some extent. And from his point of view. But no, they were great fun. And there were certainly many times on set where everyone would end up laughing at the end of those takes of me just throwing myself around a room.
To you, what is the biggest tragedy of this family, or of this story?
Oh, I don’t know, it’s hard to pick one out. I mean, I think Dylan articulated it so well, in that final scene when he’s talking about the future that they all could have had, the future that Dylan’s [presenting] to Norman, saying, you know, he wants Norman to have kids, and we could have all been there together… this vision, the dream that Dylan had, was the same dream really that Norma had and the same dream that Norman had. They all shared this desire to be a family, they all wanted to be together. They all wanted that to work. But even though they all wanted to be that way, they could never… it wasn’t possible, they couldn’t get there. And I think that’s what’s ultimately so tragic, is that this family who really did individually want to work things out, couldn’t do it together as a group.
I guess the other thing was that line that I said before. You know, the idea that there’s a romantic quality to the way Norman says it, “If you believe hard enough, you can make it that way.” And that’s something I think that everyone wants to believe in. It’s an idea that everyone finds appealing, that if you dream about something and if you worked as hard as you can towards getting somewhere, then ultimately you will be able to get there. And I think the tragedy of this story is that it didn’t work. In a funny way, you could say love was enough, because Norman and Norma were reunited. But ultimately was it?
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