Published Oct 13, 2015In the sole special feature — save some deleted scenes — included with the season three box set of Bates Motel, "A Broken Psyche: Creating Norma-n," series co-creator Carlton Cuse describes the season as one of transition. In the first two seasons, the basic dynamic between Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) is established, as is Norman's basic predilection for blacking out and either murdering or threatening people.
Though we're all familiar with how their mother-son relationship ultimately ends, there's a sense of optimism in the first two seasons. Norma is, despite being a tad overprotective and affectionate, a very concerned and well-intentioned mother. She's aware that her son is different, and many of the plotlines stem from her astonishing creativity and resilience in convincing the world (and herself) that her son is normal.
In season three, things start to take a darker — and more dramatically substantial — turn. Before a dead sex worker and a bloody flash drive embroil Norma in an underground criminal conspiracy (that should attempts to profit from through bribery), she catches her son peeping in the windows of their motel guests. It's a telling step towards what is to come, addressing his gaze and moral indifference towards those being objectified.
There's also more honesty this season. Norma, who has built up a thick skin, is forced to deal with what her son is. In addition to sexually manipulating a local psychiatrist (Joshua Leonard) for his expertise, her reliance on the local Sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) comes to its inevitable climax with him forcing her to verbalize and admit the truth behind all of the secrecy and bizarre behaviour. Norman, who is rapidly approaching manhood, is becoming more defensive and hostile towards his mother, ignoring her demands that he avoid situations that could expose him. Norma even gets to a point where she openly tells her son what he is in a last ditch effort to control him and his impulses. This thorny and well-handled narrative arc is juxtaposed with our "psycho's" increasingly erratic sense of reality, jumping in and out of delusions that involve an ex-crush (Nicola Peltz) and his mother, who he has a tendency to dress up as.
While this storyline and its gradual development is consistently compelling and heightened by fascinating, disturbing and complex performances from both Highmore and Farmiga, Bates Motel still struggles to create a world external to them. Since the first season, the politics of the surrounding town and its weed empire has always felt strained, and though Season Three does improve on these problems, there's still something tepid and unremarkable about the journey of Norma's older son Dylan (Max Thieriot). The writers to attempt to give him something to work with by connecting him to his uncle/father (Kenny Johnson), but there's something very cheap about their engagement with the criminal underworld and efforts to raise money for Emma's (Olivia Cooke) impending lung transplant surgery. Resultantly, Cooke has virtually nothing to work with, being mostly a sidebar character saddled with revealing information through exposition.
Thematically, these secondary storylines make sense; like the main plot, they all address the basic trajectory of exposing the truth and dealing with issues that people deliberately try to ignore (for Emma, it's her illness, and with Dylan it's the fact that he's the result of incest), but it never quite gets to where it's attempting to go.
Still, once Season Three reaches its rather tense conclusion, the anticipation for what will come next is palpable. Bates Motel isn't afraid to touch on taboo subjects and explore darkness, which means that seasons four and five should be quite disturbing. And, since every season seems to improve on the problems of those previous, they should be expertly made, too.