After an incredibly rocky first season, Bates Motel finally found its groove in Season Two, focusing on the relationship between Norman and his mother Norma, the connection that truly matters in this environment. The second season evolved those characters to the point where we could understand a mother keeping her son too close, and we started to believe a clingy teenager could become a lying murderer. Yet, even though the second season was a vast improvement, it only made the boring aspects stand out like a sore thumb.
While Norman’s various romantic interests did help his character grow, their troubled backgrounds never really added much to the story. But worst of all, the town’s drug trade that fueled its economy for decades just felt like a strange diversion that only disappointed. As we start the third season, Bates Motel is wiping the slate clean, getting rid of school and drugs, and keeping the story all in the family—where Norman Bates’ story has always been the most intriguing.
At the end of last season, we saw a distinct turn in Norman. He went from the kid who occasionally blacked out and maybe killed people—you know, like we all did in high school—to the kid who was able to trick his own mind to knowingly lie about his actions, and even blame others for the murders he committed. In “A Death in the Family,” we see how the summer has escalated his behavior, taking him even further down the road of the Norman we know he will eventually become. While Norman previously fought for independence from his mother, he now craves to be near her at all times. Norman is spending the night cuddled in his mother’s bed and even throws a hissy fit when she drops him off at school. To be fair, maybe he shouldn’t be at school anyways, since he’s seeing Miss Watson, one of his first victims, talking to him in the cafeteria.
Norma decides that maybe Norman should stay home from school, which isn’t a bad idea since being at school has only caused larger problems in the long run. Yet when Norma suggests that Norman get home-schooled and promotes Norman to hotel manager, not only is she giving in to his bad behavior and allowing him to be even closer, but it also feels like she’s actively setting up her own demise.
The mistakes made by Norma are going to clearly cause problems for Norman down the line, and this idea of the children dealing with the errors of their parents is a large part of “A Death in the Family.” Norma’s mother has died, which at first she doesn’t care about, but by the end of the episode, she’s crying at the idea of not having a mother anymore, regardless of having barely known her. We also learn that Dylan’s uncle/father Caleb is still in town, offering Dylan the money that his mother left him and trying to desperately connect with his nephew/son. At first, Dylan seems unsure about this, but by the end of the episode, it seems like he’s at least going to give Caleb a chance, even though he knows he probably shouldn’t.
Back at the hotel, Norman is trying to get to a sense of normalcy, even though he’s seeing his former teachers with slit throats, and is still sleeping with his mother. At this point, he is trying to balance his good natured side with the side that is quickly pushing him down a dark path. He’ll help a new tenant at the hotel pick up her things, but he will still take a chance to look down her blouse. He will try to keep the raccoons away from the hotel’s trash, but then will spy on the new tenant in the shower. He’ll help the new tenant find her way to her local job opportunity as a prostitute, but he’ll return to the hotel in her car, with her nowhere to be seen.
Even though Norman is occasionally trying to be normal, helping his mother at the hotel and finally giving in and starting to date Emma—who is now also being home-schooled with Norman as well—he still has those outbursts, tantrums and increasing blackouts that cause him to be the man he doesn’t want to be. At this point, the Norman in the show is incredibly close to the Norman we saw in Psycho, helpful at times, with a murderer brewing underneath. It doesn’t feel like we’re all that far from that, yet there’s still so much more story to go through, before we get to that Norman Bates.
Already this third season feels like it is fixing the show’s past mistakes and becoming stronger by getting the story to the more focused, bare-bones approach that it needed. Right now, almost every story in “A Death in the Family” centers around the Bates family in some way, instead of going down the distracting tangents of the first two seasons. At the moment, Bates Motel is most interested in the story of a boy and his mother, and that’s exactly where the show needs to stay.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.