When Bates Motel returns for its fourth season, it’s blasting off to crazytown, full speed ahead. Coming off of Norman’s murderous outburst in the Season 3 finale, which saw Norman fully inhabited by his Mother Norma persona at the cost of poor Bradley’s pretty little head, the fourth season picks up in the aftermath of the homicide and Norman is more dangerous, unhinged, and well, psycho than ever.
On a recent visit to the Vancouver set, I joined a small group of journalists in touring the impressive standing sets (which are also huge – the Bates House gives the TARDIS a run for its money as the reigning “bigger on the inside” champ), scouring them for hints of what’s to come, and chatting with the cast about
If there’s one thing that’s obvious, and perhaps inherent in the show’s design, its that as the series approaches Norman’s inevitable fate, the influence of Psycho looms ever larger. Or, the “impending doom” as Freddie Highmore called it. Because we all know that ultimately Norman must kill Norma (probably in a super squicky pseudosexual way) and become the killer motel manager compelled by his twisted mental portrait of her, and given that the series’ fifth season will be its last, that endgame is rapidly approaching.
“We are definitely going to see a transition in Norman this season,” promised Nestor Carbonell. “We’re building up to the film in essence, or an element of the film. I don’t know how close we’re going to get to that. I think certainly in terms of the persona of Norman Bates, we’re seeing him grow up from a young boy troubled, completely unaware of his blackouts, of his tendency he has, to a young man. Who knows? Maybe at some point, we’ll see him become a man. We’ll see whether it becomes more calculating or not, whether he’s now fully aware of what he’s capable of or what he has done and whether or not he starts to manipulate. He’s incredibly bright, whether he uses his smarts to get around things…that’ll be the fun part.”
For Highmore, who revisits Psycho between every season to keep his performance on track, that predetermined endgame makes it all the more fun to subvert audience expectations. “It is great as an actor to have that sense of impending doom because you can play against it, and that’s what the writing is so clever as doing as well,” said Highmore. “You can set Norman up to be the nicest guy possible because in the back of people’s minds as they watch is the sense of, ‘we know what is really going to happen.’ So it is fun to make him as charming and as lovable as possible, and so far it is possible, and then eventually the rug will be ripped away from beneath the audience’s feet.”
Highmore also says the fourth season, which finds Norman on a journey of self-discovery after Norma finally owns up to her son’s mental illness, will dig into the nitty gritty of the iconic killer’s pathology. “Kerry [Ehrin, series co-creator] in particular has been very methodical and in-depth in her analysis of what Norman’s particular problem could be. That is something that is revealed over the course of the season. There’s been an attempt to suggest what real-life problem Norman could be dealing with in this world of Bates Motel. And it’s not conclusive and it’s not this simple solution.”
And more crazy Norman means more of his survival instincts in Mother’s clothing – Norman’s projected image of the bad Mother Norma, who urges him to take violent recourse. Highmore continued, “There’s a Machiavellian side to Norman that we will see developing this year which is all about sort of self-preservation, making sure that Norman is the one who will survive — as we know he must — and that side of him is very much brought out with the development of this Mother character who appears to him more and more, this imaginary version of her, and she will do sort of whatever it takes to make sure that Norman will be around forever.”
As for the real Norma, who finds herself in a position to be truly afraid of her son for the first time, she finds that the stronger Mother Norma’s influence becomes in Norman’s mind, the less she can control him in reality. For Mama Bates herself, Vera Farmiga, it’s that that growing rift between mother and son that sets season four apart from its predecessors. “The thing about them, and I think what really is going to separate this season from all of the rest, is up until now they’ve been so interconnected. What I think is what we’re going to be seeing is autonomy this year and separation and a disconnectedness. It’s reached that boiling point by episode two.”
“Year after year she just lassos him with her umbilical cord,” she continued, “and I think that cord is frayed at this point, and it breaks, and he is released. What you see between them is they’re lost in this labyrinth, this maze — this murky, murky maze of strife and guilty and torture and sadness and grief and instability, so much so that they’ve even lost track of each other trying to find their way out now.”
While Psycho begins to manifest itself in broad strokes through characters and their outcomes, you can also look for more subtle, specific Easter Eggs. The premiere episode features a stuffed bunny identical to one seen in the film and Highmore promises another nod in the Season 4 episode he scripted. “I like these little moments that ultimately culminate into creating the world of Psycho. There is a sense this season of more of those objects or artifactual places over even people that you know you’re going to meet one day in Psycho, and you start to recognize from that world, as the end draws nearer.”
As that end approaches, the question becomes which of Norman’s friends and loved ones will get sucked down in the madness along with him? Of course, it is and always has been too late for dear Norma, whose devotion to and intimacy with her son demand that she sticks by him to the bitter end, even if her demise wasn’t a foregone conclusion thanks to the source material. But what of the other White Pine Bay residents – the original character creations we’ve come to know and love whose fates aren’t foretold by the film?
If there’s hope for escape or a happy ending, if such things exist in the Bates universe, it’s best found in Dylan, Norma’s first son, and criminal element turned voice of reason. He’s come to be her rock as Norman’s fragile mental state unravels but thanks to a new perspective inspired by his burgeoning relationship with Emma, and her new lease on life thanks to the Dylan-funded lung transplant, the oldest Bates boy (well, an honorary Bates at least) is finally starting to see a future past his desire to win his mother’s love.
“I think because of [Emma’s] new situation, it starts to put Dylan and Emma in a position of wondering if there’s other things they can do now. Other places they can go, other places they can see, other things they can do,” Said Max Thieriot, “While she’s recovering, there’s obviously also hope now because she has been given this second chance.”
But does that mean Dylan would be willing to leave his family behind, despite his brother’s worsening condition? Thieriot continued, “He really obviously feels sorry for [Norman], and he feels sorry for his mom. At the same time, I think Dylan is starting to reach a point in his life that he can only do so much. At some point he has to live his life. We get to see him start to deal with that inner battle that he has to face.”
However, if the possibility of starting a healthy new life is good news for Dylan and Emma, it’s going to come as a blow to Norma, whose abandonment issues keep her from seeing what’s best for her son.
“She doesn’t like to be left alone, and I think Dylan is sort of discovering and working towards autonomy and creating his own life, and creating a version of a life and a family that works for him. And what does that mean for Norma potentially? It means that she’s being left again and she’s being abandoned,” explained Farmiga. “She interprets it more as betrayal and aloneness, so that’s going to be an interesting relationship to watch unfold.”
If Dylan and Emma have a chance at a happy ending, things aren’t looking so good for Alex Romero, the White Pine Bay sheriff whose appearance of righteousness was ultimately a mask for a much darker truth. And who also happens to be dangerously head over heels for the Bates matriarch. Sheriff Romero revealed just how far he was willing to go for that love when he decided to become judge, jury and executioner in his pursuit to protect Norma. The new season will find him proving that dedication once more in new and unexpected ways — ways that bring him closer than ever to Norma, and find him ever more entangled in the twisted affairs of the Bateses.
“I think it’s safe to say that he’s obviously been smitten for a while, and she’s either incapable of going there or resisted whatever connection we might he had because it’s too vulnerable for her to open herself up,” said Carbonell. “And obviously she has to think about her dynamic with her son, so there’s that little thing.”
But he also teased a bit of progress in the relationship, just not in the way you might expect. “This year the writers came up with an incredible device by which we’re sort of forced to be together, and then we’ll see if forcing us to be together in an unconventional way to be together will pave the way for something more emotional.”
And yet, Farmiga cautions tempered expectations. After all, this is Norma Bates we’re talking about, which means a healthy dose of poor judgment and intimacy issues, and Romero certainly isn’t a white knight himself. “Everyone expects a certain thing,” said Farmiga I just have to keep reminding people that Norma has not had the best taste in men, and she’s in a pattern. We don’t know that much about Romero. We know what we want to believe about him, we know what we yearn for them as a couple, but we’re going to investigate that. We’ll see it. It is pretty complicated.”
Perhaps most dangerous of all, Romero’s newfound connection to Norma puts him into direct conflict with Norman, and that’s never a good place for anyone to be in the world of Bates Motel. Highmore teased the inevitable conflict, “Norman’s attitude towards Sheriff Romero will pit the two of them against each other as the season draws to a close.”
Ultimately, there’s no other way it could be, because Bates Motel, drug rings, lung transplants, mysterious sheriffs and all has always been about the great, twisted love at the heart of the show: Norma and Norman. “That is the real romance of Bates Motel,” said Highmore. “It always has been Norma and Norman, and as the season develops, it’s just the realization dawns that the two of them will always have to be together and have to rely on each other.”
Bates Motel returns on A&E Monday, March 7th at 9/8c; you can read Allison Keene’s review here.