In its first season, Bates Motel had a hard time differentiating between terror and tragedy. Even in the pilot, the show tried to find fear in events that were clearly just horrible, such as the rape of Norma Bates. It was a sad event rather than the type of horror it was trying to create, and it just left everything sort of outbalanced. With the further introduction of Norma’s brother in “Caleb,” Bates Motel has found a way to do both and do it well.
In “Caleb,” the titular character is looking for Norma, who clearly doesn’t want to see him since he raped her for years as a child. However Dylan doesn’t know this and decides to hear the guy out, going to dinner with him and even giving him thousands of dollars for a place in Costa Rica. Yet the big twist in “Caleb” is that when Dylan finds out that Norma was raped, he doesn’t believe her. This causes a fight between Dylan and Norman, leading Norma to announce that not only is Caleb Dylan’s uncle, he’s also his father. Yikes.
Mostly though, “Caleb” is setting up for the rest of the season. Norma is becoming more integrated in the society of their new town. Christine, the casting director of the musical Norma tried out for, quits when they refuse to cast Norma in the lead. Christine invites Norma to a party she’s throwing, where we meet Christine’s brother, George (Michael Vartan). Norma and George hit it off, which should lead to another interesting love interest for Norma that likely will end tragically. But this also sets up Norma’s change of status in their town. Last season, she was an outcast, trying desperately to succeed in a town where the odds were already stacked against her. Now, she’s winning over crowds with her Grand Canyon death jokes and getting invited to garden parties. But Norma also finds an ally against the overpass that she believes will crush her business, a shady guy who agrees to talk to Norma about getting the road stopped.
Even though she’s gone, Norman’s story still revolves around Bradley. The town now believes she has committed suicide, so Emma Decody decides to throw a memorial service at the beach in remembrance. This turns into a party instead, with Norman’s new interest, Cody (what is it with this show and girls named Cody?), making out with her gay friend and disappointing Norman. Cody just turns out to be having fun, and with Cody working with Norman on the town musical, it seems like she’s exactly the type of girl that Norma is worried about Norman getting involved with.
If this Caleb story would have popped up last season, it surely would’ve been a disaster, with the show just not strong enough to tell this brother and sister story in a way that works. But so far this season, Bates Motel has been stronger in every conceivable way, knowing how to balance different tone and stories in a way that doesn’t disappoint.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.