The Fall Of Norman (And Norma) Bates

We know the story of Norman Bates:

Norman had been excessively dominated by his mother since childhood, and when she took a lover, he became insanely jealous that she had “replaced” him, then murdered his mother and her lover. Later, he developed a split personality to erase the crime of matricide from his memory and “immortalize” his mother by stealing and “preserving” her corpse. When he feels any sexual attraction towards someone, as was the case with Marion [Crane], the “Mother” side of his mind becomes jealous and enraged. At times, he is able to function as Norman but other times, the “Mother” personality completely dominates him….Norman, in his “Mother” state, had killed two missing girls prior to Marion [Crane].

Sometimes you can know the ending, and not worry about spoilers. This is certainly the case when watching Bates Motel–the television series which supplies a prequel to Psycho. We are well aware we are about to view the descent into madness, into full-blown psychosis, of a young man who, well before we came to know him as a cross-dressing, knife-wielding, homicidal maniac, was a sweet and shy young man. This knowledge, this dissipation of suspense, does not diminish the tragedy unfolding before us; it makes it all the more tragic because we see the characters inexorably moving toward their pre-determined fates. (This fact, this eventual degradation and decline, one in part caused by the psychological trauma our personal relationships can inflict on us, makes for difficult watching at times; I suspect some of my sensitivities are particularly acute because I’m a parent now.)

Bates Motel is not an ordinary prequel; it is a reboot, for it displaces the original Psycho in both space and time (from California to Oregon, and from the 1960s to the present era). But by retaining its central characters and pathologies, it ensures it does not stray too far from the original’s creepiness. And indeed, it might be that it supplies what was always the most intriguing and understated aspect of the original, one only touched upon briefly in its resolution: How did Norman become Norman? What was his relationship with his mother like? Who was his mother? What was she like?

Psycho is sometimes described as the first psychoanalytical thriller; fittingly, Bates Motel‘s primary virtue is that it enables an archaeology of its story. It fills out and makes available for inspection, the contours of Norman and Norma’s pre-history; it tells the story that Norman might have recounted on a therapist’s couch. Bates Motel clearly considers the task of supplying a full-blown causal story to account for Norman’s psychosis a task that is lies beyond its competence, for its writers assume some pre-existent pathology, but even then, we are promised some development and ‘progression’–hopefully, an artful blend of responses to both innate dysfunction and environmental abuse.

Bates Motel can only end with Marion Crane’s car pulling into the parking-lot. In this series at least, we know what the finale will be; we can now get back to clucking over the details that get us there.

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