A&E’s new drama series, Bates Motel, is another entry in the already overpopulated serial-killer genre, but it tries to do a bit more than just invent new ways to show gore and cruelty. It is, as one would guess, based on the book Psycho, by Robert Bloch, and Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of the same name. These two works pretty much set the standard for the genre in their respective media, although there were others before them. (Such predecessors include Jim Thompson’s novels and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the latter by only three months before Hitchcock’s film. Other films, such as Fritz Lang’s M and John Brahm’s The Lodger depicted such killers but did not show their murders in the explicit way films would after Peeping Tom and Psycho.)
Both Bloch’s novel and Hitchcock’s film are examples of brilliant storytelling techniques, transforming exceedingly quotidian settings into places of horror and unspectacular people into terrifying agents of destruction. They also took great pains to try to explain how such a monster as Norman Bates came to be (although not convincingly in the case of the Hitchcock film). This new version of the story likewise attempts to create a strong sense of everyday normality continually disturbed by eruptions of evil.
Set in the current day in a small town in Oregon, episode 1 (“First You Dream, Then You Die,” a title lifted from Francis M. Nevins’s biography of the suspense writer Cornell Woolrich) immediately captures very well the sexual tension between Norman (Freddie Highmore), age 17, and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), which she initiates apparently without realizing it. In addition to his mother, nearly every female he meets seems to come on to him in the early scenes.
These scenes between Norman and his mother are clearly intended to make the viewer sympathize with Norman, even though we know he will become a serial killer. Norman’s mother is strong-willed, impulsive, emotionally demanding, and selfish. These early scenes also establish Norman’s high intellect and thoughtful nature. Actor Freddie Highmore looks like he could be a younger Anthony Perkins. He does an especially good job of emulating Perkins’s posture and gait.
Mother refuses to involve the police, because the ensuing publicity would ruin the motel’s chance of success: “Who is going to book a room in the rape-slash-murder hotel?” she asks. In addition, the dead rapist has close friends among the police. Instead, she enlists Norman in helping dispose of the body. In the process of doing so, Norman uncovers a handmade book full of weird illustrations including strange sexual behavior and images of bondage and possibly torture. Norman keeps the book and subsequently looks at it regularly.
As they dispose of the body, Norma reveals that the motel is doomed because the nearby state highway is going to be made obsolete by a new bypass. She is given a more sympathetic portrayal in this scene, showing emotional vulnerability and a real fondness for Norman.
In episode 2 (“Nice Town You Picked, Norma…”) we meet Norman’s half-brother, Dylan, who has been estranged from the family. Indeed, Norma tells Dylan she hates him, and he continually addresses her by her first name. His phone displays her name as “The Whore” when Norma calls him. Their conversations indicate Dylan’s suspicions that Norma killed her husband. Given what we’ve seen of her so far, this comes as no surprise.
A discussion between Norman and a classmate, of Blake’s poem “The Tiger,” brings out the showmakers’ evident intentions: to explore the basic causes of evil. The first two episodes suggest that Norman’s unusual family life is the prime source of his eventual descent into murderous perversity, though the narratives also indicate that the generally dissolute character of the culture surrounding him also plays a part—the girl with whom he discusses “The Tiger” discovers his artsy torture-porn book and remarks that she has read many mangas worse than it. Later she translates the book’s text passages and determines that they tell a possibly true story of Chinese girls having been sold into sex slavery in their town. She and Norman decide to investigate and find out whether the story is true.
In addition, the economy of the town where they live appears to be based on very strange and oddly New-Age Economy premises– making unexplained fortunes through ventures such as artisanal cheese production. The logging industry used to support the town but was driven out by “the tree huggers,” a sympathetic character notes. Later we see the likely explanation for the strange prosperity: nearby marijuana fields.
So far, then, the people behind Bates Motel have done a fine job of fashioning a compelling story that tries to do more than just add to the infamies depicted in the countless serial killer dramas of recent years. Of course, in seeking to explain the reasons behind a person’s misdeeds, there is always the risk of explaining away evil. It’s not yet clear whether the makers of Bates Motel will avoid that trap, but at present they have managed to create a convincing picture of a disturbed world that looks all too much like the one we Americans have made for ourselves in recent decades. That this scenario leads to multiple murders is a rather chilling thought indeed.