Bates Motel 3X1: ‘A Death in the Family’ review

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This review contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of Bates Motel.

The third season of A&E’s horror melodrama Bates Motel premiered tonight and the series continued to be as unsettling as ever, building the foundation for what will surely be a very twisted season. The contemporary Psycho prequel follows the Bates family, especially Norma and Norman, immediately following their purchase of the Bates Motel and relocation to White Pine Bay. This season, as Norman’s psyche and White Pine’s bay founding pot industry continues to fall to pieces, the Bates family and their cohorts must learn to adjust. New relationships are forming while others deepen, but it’s clear that everything is still not quite what it seems.

Bates Motel is one of those shows that settles deep in your gut as you watch, red flags going off everywhere, to the point where watching is almost an uncomfortable experience, but in the best way. Its unsettling nature is tied deep in its Hitchcock roots, which makes it a series that isn’t for everyone. However, if horror is in any way to your taste, it’s a unique and thrilling show.

Its greatest strength is how the series treats its characters; people like Norma, Norman, and Caleb would be easily demonized and reduced to one-dimensional caricatures in lesser series. In Bates Motel, we understand their motivations for their actions and could even see ourselves making similar decisions were we in similar circumstances, while still disagreeing with their choices from our current perspective. Norma, for example, is intensely damaged. A survivor of routine abuse and incest, she is in no way cruel to Norman despite clearly taking actions that are detrimental to him. We can understand that, because of her past, she fills many of her requirements for love and affection through her son, even when he expresses those feelings in ways that are unsettling. She brushes it off, because the alternative of being alone is too terrifying for her. She would rather hide from Norman’s glaring disturbances, because facing them is simply too difficult to bear, even if it may be what’s best for her son and that’s all that she wants. Their relationship seems destined to become even more disturbing as the season carries on. A boy’s best friend is his mother, indeed.

Characters are always more interesting and compelling when you can see their motivations for their decisions and how they feel that they are in the right, even when their actions are horrific. The first episode of the new season has established that Caleb, Norma’s brother and Dylan’s uncle and father, is likely to be around for a while. We see how despite being Norma’s abuser, he feels that his actions were justified. He’s incapable, or perhaps simply unwilling, of seeing the incredible harm he truly caused. It’s a startlingly genuine portrayal of how abusers think, and something absent from many images of those who commit sexual assault. They aren’t boogeymen hiding in the closet and they aren’t all as twisted as Norman Bates, simply pretending to be normal. Abusers can be and often are everyday people – neighbors, parents, siblings, and friends who don’t feel that they’ve truly done anything wrong and deny the repugnance of their actions.

Norman’s psychosis works as a foil to the everyday abusers of the series. Norman does not target those close to him, instead lashing out at acquaintances and strangers. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, as much as he is aware of his actions, but seems to lack a genuine remorse for them. He’s growing increasingly cool and calculated, if the final shot of this week’s premiere are any indication. It’s clear that the body count is going to continue to rise and become even harder to ignore.

Bates Motel third season premieres tonight at 9 pm on A&E.

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