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'Bates Motel' Shaped a Classic Horror Film into an Emotional Drama Series

A tightly plotted Hitchcock masterpiece became an incredibly powerful tragedy.

It is evident straight from its pilot episode that something is amiss with Norman Bates with the death of his father causing immediate audience speculation as this tragic event sends our protagonists to the eponymous location infamous for the murderous treachery that happens within the film and begins immediately as the series begins. This is the main pitfall of the series as throughout the first season (and to a lesser extent the second and third) the various subplots (involving crime, territory wars and sex rings) that stretch the runtime—often needlessly—far over the hour and forty minutes with which the film runs for. These elements can become tedious mainly due to when they detract from the fascinating relationship between the dual protagonists—Norma and Norman—as they often serve the character of Norman’s brother Dylan who proves most essential to the drama when placed within the Bates household rather than elsewhere as a force who drives so much tension out of the mother and son through their rather realistically played jealousy. Norma as an incredibly motivated matriarch is endlessly compelling in her tragic failed attempts to protect her son and thrive in her new life in White Pine Bay. Norman in a lot of ways is so unwittingly like his mother in that he too tries to intervene in her romantic life whilst trying to bitterly prove that he can maintain his own individuality when in fact he is so dependent on her that his ill-mind subconsciously believes it would be best if a manifestation of his mother were present all the time.

This is where the tragedy stems from as Norman and Norma’s dependency on each other comes from their own instinctive need to heal and to be healed and this is where Norman becomes trapped in his own coping mechanism. Through all their spiteful arguments and intimate reconciliations (the lines become blurred throughout the series on the level of taboo in the relationship) it’s clear that each Bates would be lost without the other as both are incredibly isolated in their environment. In fact, each member of the small ensemble struggles with loneliness with issues surrounding familial and romantic relationships, the most compelling aspects of the series’ overarching narrative (even Norman’s closest friend and Norma’s surrogate daughter Emma struggles with her want to be a part of their troubled family). Norman’s distorted view of his “mother” identity encapsulates her at her most protective and so at her most dangerous as ever since he was a child she has been an unstoppable maternal force and the tragic irony of her fate that is recreated from the film serves to evoke more emotion from the audience as we have witnessed her as a fully-fledged strong female character who we can empathise and sympathise with. Norma constantly dominates the narrative with her often eccentric but deeply flawed and human character with a give-all performance of sparkling intensity from Vera Farmiga whose abilities as an actress are enough to make the series a recommendation. Gradually Freddie Highmore as Norman matches her level of screen presence and arguably overtakes in the two final seasons as their relationship becomes its most dangerous as Norman’s grip on reality wavers with the arrival of Norma’s new husband—Alex Romero. The chemistry between Alex and Norma has been evident throughout the series but as a character Romero has often been side-lined in unnecessary subplots that nowhere near come to the intensity of Norman’s jealousy of him. A plot like this can look absurd and melodramatic but knowing what the mother and son have been through and their questionable intimacy make both of their reactions seem so understandable as Norma’s fierce defensiveness at her eventual happiness in a relationship is matched by Norman’s resentment at her sudden betrayal of how things have always been between them and how it’s always been them relying on each other.

This sets up for an emotionally resonant climax and denouement with each character’s flawed behaviour and actions causes them ultimate tragedy as the series provides believable closure to a disturbed yet completely human family that while providing homage to its classic inspiration creates its own emotive narrative by allowing greater depth in its study of its two unforgettable protagonists.

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'Bates Motel' Shaped a Classic Horror Film into an Emotional Drama Series
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