“I’m Norma Bates. I own the Bates Motel.” If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) this statement will likely send chills up and down your spine. Spoken by a younger, very much alive, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) in the season two premiere of A&E’s Bates Motel, the sentence triggers the imagination, opening a world of possibility about what might happen with Norma and son, Norman (Freddie Highmore), between now and the story’s inevitable conclusion.
Season one of Bates Motel convinced audiences that an ongoing series about the teenage years of notorious serial killer Norman Bates was not an ill-conceived concept. It did this primarily through the stellar performances of Farmiga and Highmore. She earned rave reviews, culminating in an Emmy nomination, while he eerily channeled Anthony Perkins in a fresh, exciting performance.
The two leads remain the best thing about Bates Motel in the first episode of season two, “Gone but Not Forgotten”. Their scenes together are simultaneously delicious and uncomfortable, as we’ve come to expect. When the plot strays to peripheral characters, though, I found myself growing a little antsy, anticipating their return to the spotlight. This is where the show has not quite realized its potential, resulting in a “Twin Peaks-Lite” vibe.
On the other hand, one of the surprises of season one was the character of Norman’s half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot). Dylan started as a sane counterpart for an unravelling Norman, and a voice of reason for a neurotic Norma, but soon became nearly as interesting, if not as complex, as they were. Sadly, Dylan is barely present in this episode, and when he is, it’s as a sounding board for other characters, rather than with any advancements of his own story. (Likewise, another season one favorite, Emma, played by Olivia Cooke, also has very little screen time.)
The episode begins where season one ended, with the murder of Miss Watson. However, after a quick funeral, the action jumps to four months later. The jump seems odd, as if the show’s creators decided it was a storyline they weren’t going to pursue. Before long, though, the murder comes back as one of the primary plots. The mystery of Miss Watson and her previously-unknown relationships with other townsfolk steers our suspicion away from Norman.
I assume the jump in time was made to accommodate the other main plot of the season. During the unseen four months, the motel has become thriving and is regularly sold out. Lest things go too well for poor Norma, though, we learn that the highway bypass project that was stalled at the end of season one, is now imminent. The best scene in this episode is Norma’s appearance at a city council meeting. After being ignored with the kind, thoughtful approach, she unleashes a scathing monologue that threatens to expose the seedy underbelly of White Pine Bay.
Another apparent storyline for the season, interwoven with the others, involves the character of Bradley (Nicola Peltz). You’ll recall that Norman ended a one-sided romance with her in season one just as Dylan began a two-sided one. After a desperate act in the first few moments of this episode, we learn that she’s spent the last four months in a mental institution. Her release and subsequent actions hint that she may be the key to at least one of the town’s ongoing mysteries.
While the secondary storylines are sometimes “meh”, it’s surprising to me how they ultimately contribute to the overall enjoyment of the series. What I mean is, I complained last season that the subplots were sometimes not fully realized, yet here I sit in season two acknowledging how successfully they’ve added up to create a layered setting and compelling mythology. In this respect, Bates Motel is greater than the sum of its parts. However, when Farmiga and Highmore are together, that part is greater than the sum of the entire show.