How 'Bates Motel' Won Me Over

A&E's truly strange drama/mystery/thriller/horror series Bates Motel finished its first season last night, in typically bizarre and gruesome fashion. With the doldrums of summer television almost upon us, why not spend a couple weeks catching up with this masterfully wacky show?

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A&E's truly strange drama/mystery/thriller/horror series Bates Motel finished its first season last night, in typically bizarre and gruesome fashion. The evolution of Norman Bates: Psycho Killer continues apace, while his mother Norma, played with insane gusto by Vera Farmiga, remains one of the greatest and weirdest television creations in recent memory. Yes, Norma Bates, specifically Norma Bates as played by Farmiga, is one of the wildest, kookiest, and most delightfully unpredictable characters I've encountered in at least a few years. It's hard to even come up with a comparison. She's utterly unique. The whole show is, and I'd urge you to watch it. The doldrums of summer television are almost upon us, so why not spend a couple weeks catching up with this masterfully wacky show.

As a caveat: I'm not sure that Bates Motel is good, exactly. What started out as an effectively moody chamber piece about an ominously close mother and son quickly ballooned into a look at a mysterious Oregon town overrun with villains and secrets. The surprising sprawl of the show didn't derail its core mission — we're still investigating the origins of Norman Bates, mother-obsessed killer of Marion Crane et al — but it does turn the series into a curious something else. It's hard not to wonder about this show's beginnings, who thought up the idea of melding the Psycho narrative with a gothic version of Justified. The variance in tone doesn't always work, sometimes the shifts from horror to comedy to incest panic are way too abrupt, but the changes are also so frequent that you don't have to suffer a discordant note for too long. What's the old joke about the weather in New England? It's the same with this. If you don't like Bates Motel, just wait five minutes. It'll be a completely different show by the next scene.

And yes, it is in some ways worth watching solely for Farmiga's wackadoo performance. The character is written strangely, for sure. Norma is fiercely protective of her son (well, one of her sons; the older, ne'er-do-well kid is another story) but also hectoring, manipulative, cruel. Then she's a silly, frazzled career gal, wackily trying to drum up business for the motel she just bought on a strange whim. Then she's a wronged woman on a quest for empowerment. She's eighteen different people in each episode; beguilingly, bizarrely. So the character is odd, but what Farmiga brings to the role is what truly distinguishes her.

Despite the silliness and excesses of the show, Farmiga remains fiercely committed, running with every stormy change in Norma's mood with the utmost urgency. If there's any teasing self-awareness here it's masked very well; she appears wholly and sincerely dedicated to the task set before her. She's so fully immersed that watching her you begin to suspect that she knows something about the show that we don't, that she gets it on some deeper level. Because why else would she apparently care so much? If this was just a weird little basic cable genre mashup why would Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga put so much focus and manic energy into the job? There must be more, Vera Farmiga knows what it is, and her performance demands that we follow her down the well to find out what's at the bottom. She's the show's best sales pitch, its true raison d'être.

Which isn't to say that Norman doesn't matter. The other completely boggling, and yet most obvious, aspect of Bates Motel is that we're being asked to watch our hero become a serial killer. I don't want to spoil anything about last night's finale in case I've convinced you to give the show a whirl, but Norman has already trod into some pretty dark territory and, based on what we know of his future, he's not likely to retreat back into the light. So the protagonist on this show, this nutty little creepfest, is a deeply troubled and dangerous teenage psychopath. One who may have romantic feelings for his mother. Lying underneath all of Bates Motel's cloudy kitsch is a stark and unsettling psychological profile of a killer in bloom.

Are we supposed to watch this for entertainment? For titillation? For terror? The show's tone fluctuates so much it's hard to tell. But the writers clearly do intend to "go there," regardless of how atonally it happens. And, it's important to note, this isn't the oddly forgivable avenging serial killer of Dexter we're talking about. This is a budding sexual sadist. (I suppose the show does give him outs in the form of his weird blackouts and the domineering mother, but still.) It's as yet unclear if we should praise the series for not flinching in the face of mental illness or if we should condemn it for treating the subject in such sensational fashion. Right now my instinct is to do both. I'm really scratching my head trying to figure out how this incredibly bleak endeavor ended up on A&E in the first place. Seriously, give us the minutes from the pitch meeting. Because I just don't understand how it exists.

Nevertheless, I'm glad it does. For all its curiosities and gnarly pathology — Norma's revelation scene with Norman last night was brutal and scary and sad and strange — Bates Motel is, I must guiltily admit, a lot of fun. When a show is this out of the ordinary, and when a performance is as jaw-droppingly committed and peculiar as Farmiga's, all the unpleasantness gets muted by an overarching sense of surprise. Bates Motel has so far not gone the expected route in any instance, always veering down a dark hallway or marijuana-filled forest path (yeah, weed growing is a major plot line) when I think I've got it figured out. How can I say no to that? The second season frankly can't come fast enough. You should catch up with this creepy, startlingly funny show. If nothing else, it's like nothing else.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.