More than the film and book that inspired it, Bates Motel seems mostly influenced by the sorts of shows you’d see on The CW. In fact, the media it most resembles might be Gilmore Girls. This sounds like it shouldn’t work or that these two don’t have anything in common, yet both shows focus on a mother and child relationship trying to thrive in a quaint town, while they both balance budding relationships and concerns over the child’s future. Granted, Lorelai Gilmore was more worried that Rory wouldn’t get into her first pick of colleges instead of whether or not she was spending too much time stuffing dead animals, but there are similarities.
Both shows also have created an environment of this small town and flesh it out with the characters that inhabit it. Bates Motel often is at its best when it plays like a CW show that just so happens to be following a future serial killer. Bates Motel’ strength came in the relationship between Norman and Norma Bates, but now with episodes like “Plunge,” this quality storytelling is starting to greatly seep into the rest of the Bates’ relationships, which often feel plucked out of some soapy teen drama, but nonetheless feels just right.
Most improved this season are the younger characters, now that Bradley is out of Norman’s life, where he can’t drool all over her. With her absence, we’ve seen Norman’s first true relationship with Cody, who is clearly hated by Norma, yet does have her heart in the right place. When Norman blacks out for the second time she’s seen, she warns Emma of Norman’s troubles because she needs someone else to watch over him. With this second occurrence, we see what goes through Norman’s mind when he blacks out, with the reality of what is happening almost transporting him back to past traumas. When Norman and Cody hide from her father, he recalls hidind with his mother from his father. But as we see by the end of the episode, his rage is starting to manifest itself in “normal” Norman, as well.
After Norma stops Norman’s drivers test when Emma tells her of Norman’s blackouts, Norman stomps off to go yell at Cody for telling his secret. While at her house, Cody’s father wakes up, attacks her and an already furious Norman pushes him off, knocking him down the stairs and, from what it looks like, killing the man. The closer his mother tries to hold him close and the more people who betray his trust, the more the monster comes out from out of the shadows.
This season, it’s also been great to see Emma come out of her shell more, as she has been spending much of her time with the hotel’s inhabitant/resident drug dealer, Gunner. The four teenagers accidentally end up on the same river date and start swinging off rocks. When Emma takes a chance and jumps as well, she almost drowns without her oxygen tank. While Emma does want to have more of a normal life, she’s literally and figuratively jumping in too fast.
Meanwhile, Norma is actually making a splash in the town of White Pine Bay, going for the now open council seat after Councilman Berman conveniently dies (as Nick Ford puts it). Norma severs all ties with Ford and gets some political help with George Heldens for her meeting with with the mayor. Both Ford and Heldens have called the mayor to give their recommendations for Norma in the position, yet its clear that the fear that Ford can inflict on people has clearly motivated the mayor, who gives Norma the spot on the council.
The weakest aspect of the show remains Dylan’s job in the pot business that runs the town. After leaving the hospital, he is taken by Zane’s sister to his house, where she admits that putting Zane in a position of power had been a bad idea. Later that night, she visits Dylan in bed, but that’s really all we get of this story, which the less said about, the better.
This season has been exceptionally strong, especially after last season’s unevenness. It’s great to see Bates Motel make its more minor characters almost as interesting as Norman and Norma; the expanding universe is becoming genuinely interesting. As we get deeper into the darkness that resides inside Norman, delving deeper into White Pine Bay is surprisingly becoming just as fascinating to watch.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.