Prequels are a fundamentally tricky task. Ideally, they should pay homage to the original work and have some appeal to those fans, but they also have to provide enough of an entry point for new audiences. And for the most part, prequels eventually have to sync up with a story that most people are already familiar with—which begs the question: How do you keep the story interesting for everyone while building towards the inevitable?
If “Bates Motel” didn’t reinterpret the characters from “Psycho” it probably wouldn’t have been made. People know the name Norman Bates—I heard it before I’d ever seen the 1960 film. For the majority of the show’s run, the prequel held little in common—mostly bits and pieces—with the movie and Robert Bloch’s original novel, so it wasn’t necessary to be familiar with either. “Bates Motel” promised to connect the dots from Points A to B, to show how Norman went from sweet teenage boy to sociopathic killer.
Co-creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin set the show during Norman’s high school years as he navigates adolescence and his bizarre relationship with his mother in the seedy town of White Pine Bay. The series got off to a rocky start, seemingly unsure of what direction to go in, which of its characters were interesting, and how much of “Twin Peaks” it could plausibly borrow from. The version of Norman we see at the beginning is shown to be as average and stable as possible, but obviously, this isn’t technically true. By the pilot, he’s already committed murder (his father), but he’s not aware of it. By the end of Season 1, Norma reveals that her parents were abusive and that her brother raped her, and we begin to understand her attachment to Norman in an entirely new light. Norma’s spent her whole life protecting Norman from himself, and just as her story is about the things she’ll do because of her love for her son, so much of Norman’s journey is about coming to terms with who he is because of her. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that explains all of the horrible stuff that’s followed. As the show progresses, whenever Norman kills, he transfers the blame to his mother, because he believes that a manifestation of Norma is appearing to him when he’s in trouble, all the while reinforcing and preserving his own sense of innocence.
About midway through Season 2, the show was still meandering with less interesting story threads about the town, but it started to lock into a core idea—the tragedy of the Norma/Norman relationship.
Season 4 was an impressive high point for the show and had the best batch of episodes in its entire run. While Norma finally finds true love with Sheriff Romero, she makes the difficult choice to put Norman in a mental hospital; meanwhile, Norman starts to think that all his “mother’s” actions, i.e. the murders have been done out of jealousy—and all of that would even make some sense, if we didn’t know that it was really Norman behind them all along. Surprisingly, Norman winds up killing Norma earlier than viewers thought, positioning the show’s fifth season to line up with ”Psycho.”
The series has never been so confident with the story its telling as it has been with its final 10 episodes. When the show began, everyone logically expected it to end where “Psycho” begins; but the surprising thing has been watching the story surpass the original film. The series finale, fittingly called “The Chord,” ends with Norman’s death, and in a way, it’s the ending that makes the most sense. The show’s ongoing depiction of Norman not just as a killer but as a person living with a mental illness was crystallized in this last episode. Dylan killing Norman is the ultimate mercy killing; Norman’s death will save countless other people, and in a twisted way, it’s exactly what Norman wanted. Now he can be buried next to his mother forever and won’t have to suffer by living in a world without her.
Looking back on the series as a whole, not all the individual pieces of “Bates Motel” were as interesting as its mother/son dynamic. This wasn’t a show that needed five seasons—even ones that were 10 episodes long—to tell its story. On the other hand, the series greatly benefitted from the number of hours it dedicated to Norma and Norman’s relationship.
“Bates Motel” premiered right before Netflix and other streaming services began airing original shows in earnest. It bridged the gap between two eras of television watching. If we weren’t in Peak TV, perhaps more people would be discovering it. Despite its flaws, I’m glad I stuck with it for five seasons. What made the show worth watching were the incredibly strong leading performances and the myriad ways it examined its twisted, central dynamic. For a dark tragedy with an inevitable endpoint, it still managed to be more surprising and emotional than anyone expected.