Bates Motel

Started by scenicdesign71, Feb 25, 2018, 02:24 pm

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Feb 25, 2018, 02:24 pm Last Edit: Nov 11, 2018, 02:14 pm by scenicdesign71
SUBTLE SPOILERS, MAYBE, if you're super-sensitive about knowing anything at ALL in advance.

And one PERHAPS-SLIGHTLY-LESS-SUBTLE SPOILER, marked below, though even it doesn't explicitly reveal any specific plot points.

So, just as I was about to give in and pay to watch it on Amazon or iTunes, Bates Motel's fifth (and final) season arrived at last on Netflix, where I'd been catching previous seasons as they became available there (usually sooner than this; presumably some algorithm decreed that the final season of a largely-suspense-based series could be milked on pricier streaming outlets for a bit longer than previous seasons had been; all the more so when the penultimate season had been so riveting, and more still with a specific premise like that of Bates Motel, where the tease of what will happen isn't even so much the point, or so tantalizing, as that of how).  With Season 4's last two episodes depositing us at Psycho's threshold in devastating high style,  I can't be the only viewer for whom the long wait for Season 5 to make it to Netflix was an impatient one.

To be honest, I might not have cared so much if Season 4, as a whole, hadn't abruptly ratcheted up the show's game. From the beginning, Bates Motel had been a sumptuously-produced showcase for a game and talented cast, but no great shakes in the writing department -- especially in Seasons 2 and 3, when it may have become dauntingly clear to the creators just how much time they had to kill (pun intended) before funneling their meandering story into some recognizable semblance of Bloch/Stefano/Hitchcock's.  Human trafficking and the (then-still-)illegal-pot industry may have provided a suitably bleak backdrop for the 21st-century Bates family's domestic woes -- and expanded the writers' options by turning the entire town into a handy source of dark secrets and proliferating storylines, however questionably relevant.  But for a while there, the show's appeal lay mainly in its velvety retro-inspired design and in watching Vera Farmiga and, increasingly, Freddie Highmore rise above indifferent material: her Norma, despite a maddening penchant for making forehead-smackingly awful, unwise, counterintuitive and sometimes flat-out implausible decisions, was never less than intriguing to watch; and his Norman grew -- in the final seasons especially -- from a clever riff on Anthony Perkins's into a fascinatingly layered creation all his own.

All the more gratifying, then, when in Season 4 the writers began tightening the screws with startling skill and assurance, building to a can't-look-away climax that was all the more wrenching for being a foregone conclusion.  And Season 5 -- which I just binged this weekend -- continues that upward trend, in some ways even topping it.  The Psycho thread itself -- episodes 5.5 "Dreams Die First," and 5.6 "Marion"  -- deliciously knits together various strands of Hitchcock's film with those of the series, building and then slyly subverting expectations, even as it keeps the show's own storyline barreling forward into inescapable tragedy.  (About Rihanna's Marion Crane, I'll just say: she's no Janet Leigh, and she's not at all meant to be, but she acquits herself gracefully). 
Spoiler: ShowHide
Appropriately to a story so rife with mirror images, twinning and split personalities, [OKAY, HONEST-TO-GOD SPOILER - highlight the following to read:  ...the shower scene is wickedly well-staged -- twice! ]; think of it as Leigh's revenge against her real-life prank-callers -- or as the revenge of female audiences against the entire genre spawned by Psycho: Marion's minor-ish role here still serves as an unwitting pivot-point in Norman's rapidly-unraveling life -- and he in hers, in a manner of speaking -- just not in the quite the way we expect. 

(Likewise, the show manages to deal satisfyingly, for 2017, with the tricky issue of Norman's sexuality -- in part by presenting most of its handful of gay supporting and background roles as apparently perfectly well-functioning and decent people -- even after initially teasing them, in some cases, as potential threats).

I'm actually tempted to compare the latter two seasons to Sweeney Todd -- not because Bates Motel is a masterpiece; it's not; but because it does succeed in harnessing horror, melodrama, and black humor-verging-on-camp in the service of what ultimately feels a bit like capital-T Tragedy.  The series may not have any more to say about the real realities of mental illness than Sweeney does about those of modernity's baked-in social injustices.  (My psychotherapist roommate could undoubtedly pick apart Bates Motel's depiction of psychosis, or dissociative identity disorder, or whatever it is that supposedly afflicts Norman, in a matter of minutes.  But the show at least manages to plot his descent into madness -- with far more time to do so, and no structural need to withhold information and explain everything after the fact -- in a way that feels less transparently ersatz than Stefano's creaky expository epilogue, which struck even the film's admirers in 1960 as lame).  Still, like Sondheim and Wheeler, the series creators have managed to weave their wildly lurid source material into a surprisingly humane and affecting pop-art meditation on themes much closer to "normal" human scale than they might at first appear -- in this case, family dysfunction and the mind-altering effects of unbearable loss.

Chris L

I think you may have sold me on it, Dave. @AmyG and I saw the pilot in a theatrical screening, but haven't watched since. If we didn't have so much already in the to-be-binged list (I really want to see Halt and Catch Fire, partly because it covers a period of microcomputer history that I followed intensely in the computer magazines of the period), I'd go for it now.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?


Agreed on all counts!

Much like I felt about The Leftovers, I thought the final season of Bates Motel was BRILLIANT.  I also felt the same way about Carrie Coon's and Vera Farmiga's astonishing leading lady turns in both series, respectively.
I chose, and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not.


Mar 10, 2018, 09:11 pm #3 Last Edit: Jun 07, 2018, 11:28 pm by scenicdesign71
Random thoughts:

In both the film and the series, Marion arrives at the motel believing that she's "the star of her own movie," in much the same way we all go through life assuming our own centrality to a narrative which, after all, we can only discern from our own (de-facto "central," to oneself) perspective.

"Her own movie," at this juncture in her life, happens to be a shabby little soap opera involving stolen money and a frustratingly-unavailable boyfriend; but, in both versions of the story, a chance conversation with the forlorn young proprietor of the fleabag motel where she's hiding out inspires her to turn around, head back to the city and piece her life back together.  In neither version does this plan actually come to fruition.  Neither Marion (Leigh's or Rihanna's) has time -- or enough info -- to form more than the gauziest idea, if even that, of her own role in what turns out to be Norman's story, in her alarming final moments before exiting it.

But the series (by its nature as, among other things, a sort of elaborate 40-hour fan-fiction reboot of the movie, and a Wicked-esque recasting of it from the "villain"'s perspective) features a Marion who (by her nature, as a guest-star introduced around Hour 35 or so) can't be the central focus of the story.  Given her positioning in the long arc of the series, we can't even mistakenly imagine her as its late-arriving heroine -- no matter how compelling her troubles, or how breathlessly-anticipated her appearance in the narrative by viewers with even a passing knowledge of the movie.

The writers have great fun batting around this problem of centering-vs.-decentering a well-known character whose film-historical fame rests squarely on Hitchcock and Stefano's own strategy, along those lines, of abruptly demoting her midstream from the presumptive leading-lady role to that of a cruelly-disposable cameo: a shocking, all-but-unprecedented gambit in 1960 -- and an iconic, indeed universally-known and much-imitated one ever since.  Nevertheless, Bates Motel's writers have found some clever ways to keep us interested in Marion given our understanding, from the get-go, that the elaborately-plotted "private trap" she's struggling to escape is really just a temporary distraction from the much worse one she's unwittingly diving straight into.

Knowledge of the film isn't strictly required in order for her story arc in the series to be effective, but it does give the writers' sometimes-subtle twists and reconfigurations a whole additional layer of enjoyment: even Psycho-fanatics are being kept expertly off-balance throughout Marion's arc (to the annoyance, it should be said, of some purists who apparently couldn't tolerate the idea of their disruptive, mould-breaking icon having its own now-approaching-60-year-old, long-since-petrified mould messed-with).

Indeed, I might actually recommend seeing the film again before watching Season 5.  For me, at least, a detailed beat-by-beat understanding of the predestined shitshow barreling down the pike toward Norman and Marion (mutually, as it were: not for nothing is one episode titled "The Convergence of the Twain") was half the grim fun -- even, or perhaps especially, when the show departs from "canon" entirely on a number of not-inconsequential points.

Chris L

Mar 11, 2018, 04:07 pm #4 Last Edit: Mar 11, 2018, 10:55 pm by Chris L
I've been fascinated with your analysis of Bates Motel, Dave, and have been reading far more of it than I probably should before seeing the show. I knew it was reminding me of something, though, and I finally realized what it was -- Bryan Fuller's show Hannibal.

Fuller's career had been growing weirder and weirder throughout his previous shows -- Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies -- but with Hannibal he took on what was both his weirdest and most ambitious project, adapting three of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels to television while lacking the rights to the one book that made them famous: The Silence of the Lambs. Instead Fuller drew material from Harris's other three Lecter novels -- Red Dragon, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, only the first of which is actually a good book -- to create a portrait of Lecter that's far more faithful to the one in the books than Anthony Hopkins' version ever was. He replaced Clarice Starling, who appears in two of the books (including the forbidden Silence of the Lambs), with a psychiatrist played by Gillian Anderson. (It's probably no accident that Anderson's X-Files character, Dana Scully, had been based on Clarice Starling in the first place, something I'm sure Fuller was aware of.)

I'm a huge fan of Harris's first two Lecter novels and was fascinated by the way Fuller cannibalized -- pun intended -- the other novels to create a version of Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who comes remarkably close to Harris's. He's eastern European, as is the Lecter of the novels (a point brought out in Harris's largely unreadable Hannibal Rising, about the character's childhood). He has a strange morality of his own, unrelated to any ordinary human conception of morality but internally consistent. He has a deeply psychosexual relationship with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the protagonist of Red Dragon.

I have yet to watch the show's third season, but I know that partway through filming it, Fuller learned that the show was being canceled and jumped ahead to do what he'd planned to do in the fourth season: introduce Francis Dolarhyde, who is to Red Dragon what Norman Bates is to Psycho -- a psychotic killer warped by events from his childhood who is heterosexual but unable to form a normal sexual relationship with a woman. The introduction of Dolarhyde is what I look forward to seeing when I finally get around to watching the third season, because he's as iconic to Harris fans as Norman Bates is to Hitchcock fans. (I'm a fan of both.)

Given as I am to reading spoilers, I also know that the show's finale goes full out in bringing the relationship between Lecter and Graham to a climax -- pun also intended.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?


Apr 08, 2018, 08:12 am #5 Last Edit: Sep 03, 2018, 01:16 pm by scenicdesign71
I don't really know Harris except via the film version of Silence of the Lambs, which I saw first-run back when I was in college.  I thought it remarkably overrated then, and its phenomenal success still mystifies me somewhat; if I cared more about the crime genre overall, I'd probably be deeply dismayed by that film having spawned a template -- a rather narrow one, whatever its merits -- which has so thoroughly, almost exclusively, dominated the genre ever since.  What actually did dismay me was its Oscar sweep that year, while the IMO-superior Thelma and Louise won only for Original Screenplay.  (Nor did Jodie Foster -- who I generally admire a lot -- help matters with her tin-eared acceptance speech exalting Clarice Starling as a "feminist heroine").

But between all the raves and recommendations for Hannibal over the past few years; and a recent conversation (inspired by this thread, and your post, @Chris L) with my roommate, who likewise knows a bit about the Harris novels and their various screen versions; and, not least of all, an enjoyable dinner a few months ago with an actor friend who had a recurring role on the show ... I guess it's time for me to finally bite the bullet and watch it.

So it's on my short list to binge sometime over hiatus -- after Alternating Currents has somehow staggered to its feet with something vaguely resembling a set, so May-June-ish.  That list also includes The Leftovers S3, btw; apropos of @nulipp having mentioned it upthread.


Since starting this thread, I've been having fun trying to write around any outright-spoilerish "hard" plot information about Bates Motel, notwithstanding the few coy semi-exceptions in my first post -- but better safe than sorry, so, sure, SPOILERS AHEAD, possibly, I guess, for those who mind more than Chris.

At some point it occurred to me that the series' writers themselves seem to have likewise embraced "writing around the spoiler" -- that is, around the open secret of where Norman's story, as well as Marion's, is heading.  While knowledge of the film isn't required, they've written the show, in effect, toward the feeling one gets as a second-time viewer of the movie: knowing what's to come, and on one level ghoulishly anticipating it, it's still hard not to dread it or even to wish the story could turn out differently.  In particular, Perkins and Leigh's intimate conversation in the motel parlor packs a quiet melodramatic charge where, as much as the second-time viewer wants to yell at the screen for Marion to run away!!, we may also find ourselves wishing for Norman to somehow actually be the sweet, melancholy, slightly- but not monstrously-damaged young man he appears to be, rather than the profoundly-ill, dangerously-messed-up loose cannon we know he's already long-since become.

To this end, the series -- echoing the strategy of at least the first of the movie's several sequels -- generates a great deal of tension and suspense by playing our voyeuristic wish to watch Norman become (or in the sequels, resume being) the deranged killer we met in Psycho against our countervailing desire to rehabilitate or "save" him. When not entirely distracted by the drug-smuggling and sex-slavery rackets which apparently form the backbone of White Pine Bay's local economy, Bates Motel's first three seasons manage to patch together a series of nasty traumas, a claustrophobic but inescapable bond with Norma, and what may be a chemical or genetic predisposition to dangerous psychosis which, taken together, form a plausible-enough "explanation" for Norman's behavior in genre-storytelling terms.  But the writers also dangle the hope of "recovery" -- whether by therapeutic, psychopharmaceutical, or other means -- from very early on until quite late in the game.

They're aided in this by the societal shift, over the decades since Psycho's release, from baroque, often pessimistic pop-Freudian understandings of mental illness toward more overtly (if prematurely) triumphalist neuro-technical ones.  While Bates Motel considers the downsides of 21st-century therapy, medication and institutionalization (after comparing the show to Sweeney and Wicked, I might as well throw Next To Normal into the pot too), from certain wistful angles they can still seem like a tantalizing silver bullet for at least the worst of what ails Norman (not to mention his unlucky victims, who could be forgiven for wishing he'd been sent, as a young child, to someplace resembling Sweeney's Bedlam -- and stayed there for good).

Even setting aside the specific issue of violent psychopathy and its treatability (or not), the writers present both Norman and Norma as surprisingly sympathetic figures from the start.  His mama's-boy delicacy and awkwardness, even when suggesting real maladjustment, become weirdly endearing; and Norma -- a hot mess throughout, but not at all the gothic monster-mother suggested or assumed by previous versions of the story -- is even more relatable: in fact, she seems almost startlingly well-adjusted, given some of the shit she's been through.  Mother and son each make some highly questionable choices (to put it mildly), but we find ourselves rooting for them both, even when they seem to be operating at irreconcilable cross-purposes.  Indeed, some of the episodes when they're at loggerheads -- including substantial chunks of S4, with the too-tight mother/son bond alternately fraying and tightening even further, to ominous effect in either case -- are among the show's most heartbreaking.

Chris L

About Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lecter: My introduction to Harris was Michael Mann's 1987 film Manhunter, which was the first movie adaptation of Red Dragon. Lecter is a minor character in that and much less complex than he becomes in Silence of the Lambs, but he's still fascinating and when I rented the tape of Manhunter I was so riveted by Lecter's one big scene that I immediately rewound the tape when I reached the end and rewatched it up through that scene just to see Lecter again. (He was played by Brian Cox in that film.)

That was about when Silence of the Lambs was released as a novel and after reading a rave review of it that emphasized what a large role Lecter had in it I immediately bought it and finished it in a couple of days. I was stunned by it. In that novel Lecter had developed into something extraordinary, one of the greatest characters I've ever seen in popular literature. I went to see the movie the night it opened, but I hated what Anthony Hopkins had done with the character. I once read an interview with Hopkins where he called the role one of the easiest he'd ever had, that on reading the book he immediately saw how Lecter should be played, but I don't think he read deeply enough. His Lecter is a superficial, scenery-chewing villain, with none of the depth that Lecter has in that novel.

I'm not sure that Mads Mikkelsen's Lecter on Hannibal is a great deal more nuanced than Hopkins' -- Mikkelsen is a rather wooden, if charismatic, actor -- but he has the right Eastern European background for the role and the suave, magnetic personality. More importantly, Fuller as a writer and showrunner seems to understand Lecter a great deal better than Jonathan Demme did. (For one thing, Lecter is not someone who should be played as obviously insane. I can't imagine what patient wouldn't have been frightened away by Hopkins if he was their psychiatrist.)

Unfortunately Fuller wasn't able to do his take on Silence of the Lambs, but he uses the material from the other three books to flesh out Lecter, and particularly Lecter's relationship with FBI agent Will Graham, in ways that the films never were able to. Graham was really the main character of Red Dragon, not Lecter, and its his relationship with Lecter, which Fuller explores in even more detail than Harris did, that makes the show work. Graham is a serial-killer profiler who does his job well because he has the personality of a serial killer (something that Mann did an excellent job of capturing in Manhunter), and the more he gets sucked into Lecter's orbit, the more that side of him is drawn out. Lecter understands this about Graham well enough to manipulate him, which creates the dynamic that the entire show is focused on.

Silence of the Lamb's main influence on subsequent movies and TV shows seems to be the idea of the killer who's so brilliantly manipulative that he's more dangerous in captivity than on the loose. (See, for instance, the TV show The Blacklist.) Yet I was surprised several years ago when I saw the 1953 western The Naked Spur, directed by Michael Mann's father Anthony Mann, in which Robert Ryan essentially plays the Hannibal Lecter character, a killer captured by bounty hunter Jimmy Stewart who plays exactly the same sort of mind games on his captors that Lecter would, so the idea isn't new. Lecter just gave it new popularity.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?