Few dramas in the age of Peak TV have been as overlooked as A&E's Bates Motel, which is a damn shame. It's not perfect — and certainly not an annual Emmys snub — but the series is a thrilling prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and features one of television's most underrated lead roles in Vera Farmiga's Norma Bates. Plus, if the tense, disturbingly prophetic scenes between Norma and Norman Bates wasn't enough, the show concluded its fourth season by killing off Norma. Now she only exists as "Mother" inside the mind of Norman.
In other words, we're precipitously close to the events of Psycho — you know, where Norman dresses up as his mother, stabs women in the shower and stores his mother's corpse away in his house. The buildup to Psycho — or, at least, an entertaining spin on the original — is the main takeaway from season five. Unfortunately, the new season still has an issue that's plagued Bates Motel since its inception: dull, unnecessary subplots.
Season five takes place over a year after season four leaves off. Romero is currently serving time in jail for his involvement in last season's drug scandal in the town. Dylan and Emma are settling into their new lives in Seattle. Chick is still really weird.
Oh, and how's Norman? He's convinced himself that Norma faked her death and is still alive, but she can't leave the house. Mother is very much a chilling fixture, as evidenced by Norman keeping track of his blackouts (they happen frequently) and the constant arguments he has with her. For instance, Norman is captivated by a young, beautiful store owner in town — who happens to look like a younger Norma — as Mother disapproves of Norman interacting with any women.
Good thing someone really attractive — say, music star Rihanna — isn't going to show up at the motel, that might really rile Mother up. Oh wait!
Yes, in an amazing casting choice that feels like an act of God, Rihanna will show up this season as Marion Crane, the Psycho character made iconic for being on the wrong end of the film's infamous shower scene. But Crane isn't the only Psycho character that will show up in Bates Motel. The first character from the original movie — sans Norman — that appears is Sam Loomis, played by Walking Dead alum Austin Nichols.
This version of Loomis, based on the two episodes of season five provided to critics, is a lecherous real-estate mogul who Norman learns is cheating on his wife at the motel. Loomis' wife, Madeline, is the aforementioned store owner Norman is infatuated with. So Bates Motel's Loomis should figure into the series' ending, assuming he'll survive in the same manner as his original character.
But the real treat of season five, as is the case for Bates Motel as a whole, is the interplay between Norman and Mother (and previously, pre-corpse Norma). There's a claustrophobic tension to these scenes, now that they entirely exist within Norman's head. The viewer can't take anything seen from Norman's perspective at face value, as he perceives the home is warm and inviting. In reality, it's gloomy and disheveled, with Norma's once-pristine kitchen reduced to piles of dirty dishes and unkept counters. Norman's facade as an affable motel owner is, quite clearly, falling apart.
Where Bates Motel continues to struggle are its subplots for supporting characters who are unsubtly being phased out of the story. Dylan and Emma's life in Seattle feels completely disparate — and for fans who care about them, you'd rather they stay the hell away from the motel — while Romero brooding in jail is just the show biding time for when he gets out and takes on Norman. Chick, meanwhile, may only exist now as a helpful source of Norman's income, because he wants to sell Norman's taxidermied animals for profit.
Thankfully, Bates Motel knows what makes it an entertaining drama, and the majority of season five is poised to grapple with Norman slowly losing his grip of reality, and the body count that should result from Mother gaining more control. We certainly wouldn't want to book a room at the Bates Motel, but we can't stay away as it gradually reaches its bloody conclusion.
Bates Motel season five premieres Feb. 20 at 10 p.m. Eastern on A&E.
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