Alfred Hitchcock became the master of suspense not because of what he showed, but because of what he left to the imagination of the viewer. In Rear Window, he created a film about a man whose imagination had allowed him to believe horrible things with little evidence. Most famously, Hitchcock proved this point in his 1960 masterpiece Psycho, in which through quick cutting and shocking angles, he was able to create one of the first truly terrifying scenes in cinema history all while showing very little.
It makes sense then that Carlton Cuse, one of the showrunners of Lost, would also develop for television an origin story for Hitchcock’s most famous characters, Norman Bates and his mother. While many people had problems with Lost, the show actually did what Hitchcock did: it showed without telling. Many people complained about the lack of answers in the show, but Cuse and the writers on Lost gave viewers the evidence they needed to come to their own conclusions, because as Hitchcock proved decades before, whatever is in the viewer’s head is going to be much more fascinating than what can be captured by a camera.
“First You Dream, Then You Die,” the first episode of the Norman Bates reimagining Bates Motel gives us several of the pieces to put together how Norman might have become the way he is at the end of Psycho, but it also feels like we’re being shown too much too soon.
The first third of this premiere episode hints at something unusual under the surface of the Bates family, but it doesn’t go overboard with it. Norman and his mother Norma move to a new town and buy a motel to try and start a new life after Norman’s father is found dead. Norman and his mother’s relationship only teeters on going too far. At times, they act more like a young couple moving into a new place than a mother and son who have gone through a horrible incident together; however this could just be seen as the bond of two people who have shared a similar trauma.
There’s plenty in this first act that shows how these two big personalities clashing could end up being the destruction of both of them. Norma Bates, played by Vera Farmiga, is impulsive, making her family move to five different towns based on whims. But she also is incredibly overbearing, overprotective and jealous of her son’s time. Norma refuses to trust anyone that isn’t Norman, as she says near the episode’s end, “Everyone I’ve ever known has sucked. Except you.”
Norman Bates is more frustrated, as his mother blocks his chances to hang out with girls or have any outside experiences besides her and their new motel. Norman occasionally hints at an explosive temper and shows signs of rebelling against his mother, as he runs away to go to a party with some girls. Freddie Highmore as Norman is awkward at times, as it almost feels like he’s still trying to figure out the little peccadilloes that make Norman, but he brings a frustration and fear that redeems the character.
This first act is quiet, allowing Bates Motel to show and not tell, showing us hints of what is to come. But then as the second act starts, all of that goes right out the window.
Keith Summers, the former owner of the house that the Bates family has just moved into, is mad that the bank took his property from him and vows to take it back for his family. When Norman sneaks away to a party, Keith breaks into the house, attacks Norma and rapes her. Norman shows up just in time to knock out Keith, and when Norman leaves the room, Norma takes Keith’s knife and stabs him to death. Any hint of a slow character study explaining Norman’s future actions is now gone. It wasn’t a gradual turning of character; it all started from this moment.
The rest of the episode quickly turns into the Bates family trying to dispose of a body. Norma seems completely prepared for such an action, and it is hinted that she has killed before, while Norman is less enthusiastic about hiding his mother’s murder and rape. Bates Motel changes the tone of the show in one scene, instead of allowing the show to breathe, and it’s probably worse for it.
Bates Motel also isn’t technically a prequel to Psycho, but rather a reimagining of this story for the present day, yet so far the point of updating the story doesn’t seem to make much sense. Norman and Norma often wear clothes that seem suited for the ‘40s or ‘50s, with outdated furniture and appliances decorating the new Bates Motel, but so far the only times the modern era influences Norman are in school or out with friends. Maybe it’s to show a shift, having the ways of the newer generation destroy the ways of the older? So far though it just seems like an excuse to have newer cars and allow Norman to hear the end of OK Computer at a party.
As Norman and Norma hide the body, Norma mentions that there is a town meeting happening soon that would allow a new bypass that would make the Bates Motel completely irrelevant. “I’ll think of something,” Norma says as they toss the body.
It’s just a shame that Norma’s idea will involve plenty more killing, throwing off the tone of what this show starts off as and should be. The dynamic between Norman and Norma should be an interesting one throughout the series, and watching as Norman tries to break away from his mother while she tries to pull him in when she’s not murdering does have some possibilities.
Seeing what Hitchcock did with Norman Bates, it’s hard to believe that he would be as blunt about this character’s change at Bates Motel is. If it can balance out the tone a little better, Bates Motel has a shot at being a fascinating show. If not, it looks on its way to be just another show that uses violence to shock rather than for the sake of story, while also tainting what could have been a unique character study of one of the cinema’s most famous villains.