Throughout the first season, Bates Motel would make allusions to Psycho that would remind you that yes, you know exactly where the character of Norman is going to end up. A quick shot of a shower, or Norman’s newfound interest in taxidermy, or his close relationship with his mother all hinted at the story Alfred Hitchcock brought to the screen over 50 years ago.
But in its second season, Bates Motel has been far more subtle, to a point that when Norman believes himself to be his mother in “Check-Out,” it’s easy to forget that this is a large part of the Norman character from Psycho. Somehow, Bates Motel has evolved past the fan service and has figured out how to actually shock with characters and details we already know.
Instead of throwing in wacky subplots about drug wars and runaway crushes, “Check-Out” focuses on the characters and how the new people in their lives are changing them. It’s very simple, but it works so much better than crazy plot twists. Only a few episodes ago, Norma Bates realized the monster that could potentially be brewing in her son and attempted to guard him as much as possible. But now, she’s always away thanks to her new friend, Christine, and Christine’s brother, George (who clearly has a thing for Norma ), even though Norman probably needs Norma right now the most. Vera Farmiga has been pretty amazing this season, as Norma is just trying to live a life of normalcy, yet whenever the name of her rapist brother, Caleb, comes up, there is fear in her voice as she has to try to hide the emotion deep down.
“Check-Out” also finally makes Dylan an interesting character, now that he realizes his father is also his uncle. He’s conflicted about who he is and believes he was brought into this world as a tool of manipulation for Norma. The powerful scenes of Norma and Dylan fighting demonstrate a powerful tension between the two, as the substantial amount of compassion they feel toward each other is balanced by the need to keep a distance from each other as to not become too vulnerable. Plus, it gives Dylan something to do other than the shady crime deals around town that are always the weakest part of every episode.
While Norma is hiding her hurt about her brother, Norman is taking all his mother’s pain in, as he becomes more notably distressed throughout the episode. When he eavesdrops on one of Norma and Dylan’s fights about the details of her childhood rape, Norman goes into a trance, grabs a knife and heads to Uncle Caleb’s apartment. Yet when Norman claims that Caleb raped him, it is jarring and confusing until you realize, oh yeah, Norman Bates does do this. It’s a crazy trick that the show gets you to forget even for a second one of the main characteristics of one of the most popular film characters of all time, but it pulls it off nicely.
“Check-Out” even gets some nice moments with the supporting cast. Emma has finally found a guy who returns her interest, even though his focus on sex doesn’t bode to well for this character that has shown to be quite fragile. Norman’s new friend/love interest Cody is the one who has to deal with the aftermath of Norman’s outburst, making her the only person who truly realizes just how dark Norman can go. Still, anything dealing with the town’s drug problem is still weak, as Sheriff Romero threatens the town’s new drug lord, to which the sheriff finds his house in flames later that night. It feels out of place in a week that should be focusing much more on these family dynamics and those impacted by them.
“Check-Out” is able springs surprises in a show that shouldn’t be that surprising at all. By focusing on the Bates family and the emotional issues that tie them together, “Check-Out” can be checked off as yet another strong episode in Bates Motel’s improved second season.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.