When it comes to Bates Motel, my go-to praise has always been for Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates. For four seasons now, Farmiga has portrayed Norma in a way that’s both strong and fragile, grounded yet hypnotic. In the early seasons, Norma was really the show’s anchor, frantically holding everything together as her world appeared to be falling apart again and again. Freddie Highmore, as her son Norman, was an interesting presence, but one that didn’t really come into his own until these last two seasons, and this fourth season in particular.
The development of Norman into the character we know from Psycho has been a slow burn. His violent acts happen offscreen, visually mirroring what Norman himself experiences. He blacks out and doesn’t remember, while his “mother” commits the act. He has no recollection of it, save some occasional flashes. Viewers are also left in the dark, but we suspect — as Norma, Dylan, and others also do — that Norman is secretly a brutal killer.
But since we don’t see it, and Norman denies it, Highmore’s performance is often left as seeming fairly muted. He’s creepy in that what he’s done is a suggestion about who he really is, but that mere suggestion can take away from what is actually an incredibly layered performance. And, it’s become increasingly so as Norman succumbs more and more to becoming Norma. It’s a testament to Farmiga’s distinct performance that we can tell Norman is being Norma instantly when he mimics her style, but credit where it is due: Highmore captures it with haunting accuracy.
Norman didn’t turn into Norma in “Unfaithful” — at least, not overtly — but he went just about everywhere else emotionally. He was passive aggressive with his mother about her marriage to Romero and what it really meant, and then was pompous and dismissive with Romero later, telling him he could get a divorce now. He was contrite when asking his mother to share a bed, but petulant when finding a Christmas Tree, and sarcastic at dinner. Later, his emotional outburst that spilled out into the yard led to a queasy moment with an ax that briefly left Romero’s life in question.
What doesn’t get mentioned enough is how Highmore walks a tightrope with all of this. How aware is Norman of his manipulations? In early seasons he remained likable and even sympathetic. But in the last few episodes of Season 4, he’s become very pointed in his desire to control his mother and their situation. He lies, he scams, he’s aggressive and yes, he’s creepy. But when he becomes Norma, and his primary self is shut away, Norman becomes fragile again. As Norma in “Lights of Winter,” he was extremely vulnerable. Highmore’s Norman is often buttoned-up and easily agitated, but recently, he’s starting to project out his inner Norma, and that has changed him fundamentally. He’s a villain of sorts, yet after slapping him in the face you might feel compelled to give him a hug.
Bates Motel has been incredibly smart in the way it has teased out Norman’s killer tendencies. Though it had some dips and dives with its subplots early on, Season 4 has gone back to focusing primarily on Norma and Norman’s relationship. By removing Norman from the house for a time and having him work with a therapist — one who rightly identifies his disorder, if not the extent of it — the show has allowed both Norman and Norma to grow independently of one another. It’s softened Norma, but it’s hardened Norman. Now, that clash is pushing Norman further into instability than ever.
Highmore, now in his mid-20s, still has the naturally innocent look of a child. In 2004’s Finding Neverland, he was an impossibly cute youngster who less than a decade later became an inspired choice for young Norman Bates. It helps that Highmore just looks sweet, which adds visually to both the confusion about Norman’s true nature and ups his creep factor immensely, as he channels the spirit of something like a killer doll. His button eyes are either about to well with tears or lure to your death, it’s difficult to tell.
Norman can, however, truly be sweet and caring and kind. In earlier seasons he was a little bit of a geek, always trying to be helpful. He was essentially a goody-two-shoes, but in a believable way. He wanted to be the stable one, the one to please mother. The desire, coupled with early childhood trauma, has turned murderous, and continues steadily to be so. And Highmore’s transformation through the war between his two selves — from that fragile Norman to where we see him now — has been spellbinding.
Bates Motel airs Monday nights on A&E. You can read about past TV Performers of the Week here.