Just because I nearly threw something at my laptop while watching the season finale doesn’t mean you will too!
First I’m going to briefly defend Bates Motel and then I’m going to tear this second season, and the finale especially, apart, and maybe somewhere in here I’ll say why you should still care, but in case I don’t let me just recommend binge-watching both seasons when you have a little free time. They’re ten episodes each and feature some real nice acting and a smattering of pretty awesome things happening. In fact, every time something happens in this series it is pretty awesome.
The problem, if you follow my belabored sentence structure, is so little happens so much of the time. What were interesting character moments and a creeping sense of dread in season one have become repetitive and empty in season two. So many plots get raised and then dropped that the broad strokes of the interwoven power plays get forgotten, and the details (if they’re there) never land, wasting too many interesting actors doing interesting things. Many shows on TV these days are messes – incomplete messes, interesting messes (The Blacklist), delightful messes – but A&E’s Bates Motel is a meandering mess, and that I will not stand for.1
Bear this in mind: in only ten episodes, the show sends Norman’s first crush away on a bus (with a fake suicide note to cover her escape), introduces a different damsel in a different sort of distress, has her become the only one of his peers who knows what, specifically, is wrong with Norman, disappears her by episode 7, and relegates his season 1 sidekick to the motel office for almost the entirety of season 2. Oh, plus his dead teacher from season 1 begins filtering back into the picture. And that’s just one set of through lines with Norman’s psyche and motivations – we’re not even talking about Norma’s attempts to social climb, her relationships – business or personal – her relationship with Norman, or anything with Dylan and the crime families.
In ten. Freaking. Episodes. And sidekick and different damsel were both damn good performances!
There’s a moment2 later in the season finale that underscore everything right and wrong and doubly wrong because the series gets the right stuff wrong sometimes about Bates Motel. Romero3 pulls Dylan aside following the last gunfight, not to get their stories straight but to point out there’s now a power vacuum, and matter-of-factly tell Dylan he needs him, needs someone who understands what can and can’t be done, to take over the area’s drug trade. The freaking sheriff is saying this, adding a great layer to his character and doing more to suggest the barely-held-together community than anything else that happened this season.
And there’s the issue. Lines or exchanges land beautifully, but emptily, adrift from the steps that had led to their existence. Here, we’ve had a season that included the introductions4 of not one, not two, but three different crime bosses each played very differently and very well, by Michael Eklund, Kathleen Robertson, and Michael O’Neill. We just saw two of them three minutes before Romero makes his play. And I’d already forgotten all about the three and the impacts they’d had on said play.
With the plot/scripts too thin or too entangled, the show de facto relies on its look and feel to drive emotion. The problem here is an odd one: They’re too ‘realistic’ in their shot selection, too monotone in color saturation or the like, and completely underusing the variety of tactics they pulled out (still too sparingly) in season one – flashbacks that don’t spell everything out, artsy stuff like Norman’s fantasy about his teacher. It becomes – and maybe it isn’t actually this, but it sure feels this way – a series of scenes that begin and end with moody music, panning shots of vistas, slow pull outs on faces, and otherwise silence from the characters. I lost more and more sense of time, place, and – worst of all – stakes as the season ‘progressed’.
You know what I did immediately after the interminably long last eight minutes of this episode? Went to Netflix and watched an episode of Flashpoint. It’s a good palette cleanser since something frikkin’ happens every three minutes, even if three of the latter minutes are always a music video.
Bates Motel was supposed to be a crime-less5 dark crime show. With all its wanderings, though, it’s no longer nicely dark, just dull grey. I’m disappointed. But I will see what the first episode of season 3 brings before declaring Bates Motel dead and mummified on an upstairs bed.
- Here’s to you, Bill McNeal. ↵
- I’ll only pick apart one, but the other two for those nodding their heads at home were Norma trying to convince herself and everyone else that Everything is Fine but knowing it isn’t over dinner with Norman after he’s come back from the hospital; and Dylan’s small, sensitive reaction to Norma (“You bought me a ticket?’) before he convinces her not to run. ↵
- Back to talking through closed lips, by the way… ↵
- But far too sporadic and disconnected appearances ↵
- Certainly procedural-less ↵