'Bates Motel' Is The 'Twin Peaks' We Never Got
I binged on 'Bates Motel' and it is equal parts hatewatch and genius.
I’m an annoying Twin Peaks fan. I’ve wasted so much of my life revisiting this series and showing up to live events. I even booked a comedy tour around filming locations from the show. I love it, even though I know it’s deeply flawed — especially the second season, which proved to be its downfall.
After becoming a sensation with the mystery of Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks, kicked that second go-round with the best episodes of the series, and then co-showrunner Mark Frost disappeared for a few weeks to work on a film project. Without the Lennon to his McCartney, David Lynch took the show OFF THE RAILS, and it never recovered. During this stretch, Lynch takes a weird-but-structured) soap opera and simultaneously stretches it in three tonal directions — including a bizarre sex noir sub-plot that, alone, practically dooms the show.
While Twin Peaks never fully delivered, the beginning of season two laid the groundwork (perhaps accidentally) for genuine insanity — and that’s what Bates Motel is, almost right out of the gate.
This is either a huge disappointment or a huge selling point, depending on what you’re looking for. Sure, there’s a new Twin Peaks headed our way, but it probably couldn’t hit this tonal ambiguity if it tried.
Over the last week, I’ve marathoned through the first three seasons of the show (three? really? that fast? Okay.) Here are my findings and my predictions for the new season.
Bates Motel (under showrunners Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin) starts off with a mix of prestige TV and character-based mystery. There’s a dead body in an opening dream sequence, and a swift change of scenery, followed by the introduction of the clumsiest antagonist in TV history. The pilot is structurally imposing — it sets up generations of emotional damage in the first few scenes — but that good writing immediately rams the show up against The Prequel Problem.
The Prequel Problem is what we encounter in TV series intended to supply a backstory for narratives we already know. Gotham, for instance, is a mess, since it has already introduced most of Bruce Wayne’s rogues gallery before Bruce has even lost his virginity (as far as we know). But Bates Motel is special.
We know, from one of the most famous movies ever, that Norman Bates’s mom is dead and that he has some serious kinks by the time this story wraps. Unfortunately, we could cut this show at the pilot and have every inch of that road pre-paved. Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) controls Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) in the wake of his father’s sudden passing. From their first exchange of dialogue, it’s clear that we’re going to keep these two locked in emotional battles over even the smallest detail until the show concludes.
What the pilot sets up as a moody (if emotionally heightened) mystery story with some visceral casualties shifts entirely by the third episode, becoming a lunatic twist on textbook family shows like Picket Fences or Northern Exposure. These are just the tribulations of a family trying to do right — except they keep accidentally killing people.
Three seasons in, I still struggle to explain exactly what Bates Motel is. The pilot features a brutal rape that a woman then apologizes for (which was almost where I bailed), but it established a convex lens of human struggle without any shades of redemption or heroism. And there’s more: it simultaneously stages a coming-of-age tale for a boy that typifies toxic masculinity’s inverted arrested development?
This show could be anything. But what it chooses to be is the lost episodes of Twin Peaks.
Highmore’s version of Norman Bates seems to be constantly struggling to overcome a British accent, which makes every line (usually shouted in conjunction with hilariously overplayed Crazy Eyes) all the more unearthly. Add that 60% of his lines start with “… Mother!” and you’ve got this weird mix of tribute to a culturally recognized, yet fully formed character, who is, ostensibly, a few decades out from becoming the troubled serial killer we know as Norman Bates. This makes his arc of psychological decay into the biggest joke on the show, especially when we learn that he is the impetus for pilot’s triggering events. No one is watching Norman Bates become a monster here — if anything, we’re watching better characters walk him backwards.
This gets to the matriarch Norma Bates, played lead actress/producer Vera Farmiga — who is doing, hands down, the weirdest thing I have ever seen on television. After three seasons, this is the only summary I can hope to offer: Norma enters every single scene, anew, like a baby, without any knowledge of what came before. The moment you figure this out is the moment Bates Motel shifts from mystery without a mystery into Peak hatewatch TV.
Norman is written and devised as some bizarre tool in this narrative space — while it is supposed to be his show, there are entire arcs where he could be replaced by a garden gnome — or even a stapler. This is clearly Norma Bates’s show. And in that respect, you have to adjust your expectations. Farmiga’s Bates is the most binary character I have ever seen on television. She has no understanding of the community or setting of the show, and approaches each fragmented moment with a childlike excitement that always ends in disappointment. For example, just after a terrible series of events, a stranger shows up with a flower delivery for Norma. “For me?” she squeals, grinning from ear to hear. “Oh. I wonder who they’re from!” She reads the card, which is a threat against her life, and immediately throws a tantrum and trashes the flowers. This single 10 second burst recalls most of the show, and its hilarity.
The town and side characters become far more important to the story than Norma or Norman, which is perhaps the last thing that kicks it over into the full-on Twin Peaks realm. This sleepy berg in the pacific northwest is brimming with secret criminals, sex slavery, drug rings, and just an unreasonable number of very beautiful women that throw themselves at a teenage boy with some overt mommy issues. Nestor Carbonell is in the show as a town sheriff, who keeps linking murders to the Bates family and then saying “eh, whatever” at the last second — as if his character knows the show is called Bates Motel and therefore would cease to exist if he arrested a lead.
It’s a baffling, logic-less pile of moody nonsense that is both too little and far too much in each episode. It’s a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from, because at some point you’ve just got to laugh. It’s Bates Motel and we live in a world where this gets four seasons — so like, life is pretty okay.