First Impressions Close Reading of A&E’s Bates Motel pilot, “First You Dream, Then You Die”
On March 18, 2013, cable network A&E threw its hat into the horror drama genre with its stylish revision of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 thriller Psycho. Aptly named Bates Motel, A&E’s promises a show about a movie, er, an extended foray into cinematic history revised into an elongated world with the promise of three dimensional characters. By updating a horror “classic”, this TV series offers a familiar “brand” of horror. Specifically, a brand of horror that evokes iconicity of an era of cinema and perhaps an era of America.
Oedipus [Wrecks] – Bates Motel immediately recalls the psycho-sexual oedipal relationship between mother-son and amps it up. The pilot binds the two together in murder, the quintessential televisual American value. Murder is the inescapable go-to plot driver for most TV narratives. Love and death, and Bates Motel encompasses and promises both albeit in twisted fashion.
On Bates Motel, retro period set design blends with dreary Northwest mise en scene. Viewers familiar with the original film(s) may as well have stepped back and through time. Thus, Bates Motel offers a televisual temporal elasticity. You can “stay” at the hotel horror for extended periods, weekly checkins, or prolonged binges (via Netflix, DVD, et al.).
Bates Motel is elastic in its quaint coastal small town setting that justifies the existence of a family-run and run-down motel. Yet Norman and Norma are a modern update of the postmodern condition. They both use iPhones and represent the new Norm(an) of familial fragmentation, where the nuclear family has eroded into radioactive hybrids. The elasticity allows for “timeless” cinematography but time-ly storytelling, relatable woes and tropes congruent with post-Network era tastes and edgy gratuitous suggestions.
Bates Motel (in)appropriately places the Oedipal relationship above all else. Mother and son flee a dead father to start over. Mother and son embark on a new (ad)venture together. “Mother” responds with jealousy as Norman is invited by his overtly Hitchcockian and covertly hyper-sexualized younger female teacher to join the track team. “Mother” is further agitated by a group of female visitors that want to “study” [with] Norman. Mother laments when track causes Norman to arrive to her candlelit dinner for two late, and she rages when he protests her denial to attend the study session. His youthful disobedience leads to a rare escape. However, Norman’s rebellious act and subsequent absence consequently results in an act that tethers the Oedipal relationship into an inevitable destiny.
The Bates Motel pilot “First You Dream, Then You Die” features the age-old rationalization for justified murder, rape. In the pilot Norman sneaks out to attend a study session. Little does he know that the girls interested in his company are headed to a party. As Norman basks in the techno-lighting of youth debauchery, the evicted former owner of their house breaks back in, terrorizes, and rapes Norma. The trigger comes through via the return of former proprietor, current drunk, and an identifiable lowlife named “Keith”. The drunken beast of a man overcomes Norma and handcuffs her to the kitchen table, the mecca representation of domestic space. As the large man then uses his carpenter’s razor to slice off Norma’s panties, a close up shows her hand clinging to the table’s edge as the table thrusts with the motion of his penetration. In essence, the man has evoked the patriarchal hegemony of rape threefold. First, he pierces the glass window as he breaks into the sanctuary of the Bates home. Second, he infiltrates the domestic space of the kitchen, before thirdly penetrating Norma’s body. The dutifully awkward Norman arrives in time to knock the man out with an antique cast iron, but not before the damage is done. Whether or not Norma faced such egregious life acts before, there is a decided determination in her response now. When Norman fetches the first aid kit to mend his mother’s wounded hand, she retrieves her iconic butcher’s knife as the man regains consciousness. His eyes center with anger and he prepares a retort. Yet before the drunken rapist makes it off his knees, Norma thrusts the kitchen knife into his stomach and chest, again and again, until Norman returns and calls her off. AV Club’s Todd Van Der Werff appropriately critiques invasive dramatic ploys like sexual assault:
“Now, obviously, any show that depicts the adolescence of Norman Bates is going to have some dark, icky stuff in it, and there’s going to be a need for some sort of compulsion to commit violence against sexually attractive women to sneak in there at some point. But this puts the series in a bit of a bind. Violence against women is one of TV’s most predictable, least dramatically needed crutches. It drives far too many procedurals and horror shows, because there’s something primal about seeing an attractive woman in danger. At a certain point, it becomes degrading and offensive.”
Norman rationalizes they call the police but Norman, in a panic, rebukes his suggestion. She warns such action would “ruin” their life, that their business would be “known as the rape-murder hotel”. Instead the scramble to begin a long-term cover up. The cover up adds narrative action and dramatic tension with short-term and long-term ramifications. The local Sheriff and Deputy show up and ratchet the angst that the couple will get caught. Narrowly, their secret survives the encounter. They move the body to a motel bathroom, but blood soaked into the carpet leads them to begin tearing out each room with coordinates carpet colors.Norman finds a diary of some sort with etchings that suggest child abuse and worse. The end teaser of the pilot suggests these diary sketches may not be as old as the hotel.
Another trope indicative of the original film and a critical social commentary is the motel location. While gathering groceries, Norma notices a city council meeting advertisement. The note is lengthy and includes the “Bypass Route” meeting agenda: “Details: Impact of the White Pine Bay Highway BB Bypass. How will it affect our community, growth, spirit, commerce, economy and safety. Will it change the way we life?” The message is too long to read in the 3.5 seconds it appears on screen. The detailed message is a signifier of the post-Network program and the era of minutia, HD production values, and the Internet. Viewers can rewind their LIVE program, pause their DVRs, or post still frames online for discussion and speculation. Little nuggets like these are signature markers from Bates Motel co-creator, co-executive producer Carlton Cuse. Cuse is famous for the intimate details or easter eggs that he helped plant on ABC’s cult-hit drama Lost, while his co-executive producer Kerry Ehrin sports genre legitimacy with running NBC’s Friday Night Lights. Yet more important than finding and reading the sign is identifying the socioeconomic message embedded in Bates Motel. Through this secret message, the show purports a liminal text that again challenges the cultural epoch between public and private America, between corporate cities and intimate small towns, between airports and hotels that operate like shopping malls and the dwindling small business indicative of rural highway motels and small town diners. Thus, I might argue Bates Motel asks its audience to “root” for its antagonistic protagonists for their representation of the quintessential Middle America values of redemptive vigilante violence, familial omnipresence, and rural business models.
The final scenes bind the Oedipal relationship through shared secrecy. Dutiful Norman sails his mother offshore where they dump Keith’s body. The normative calmness of their actions suggests this is not the last time they [or the audience] will participate in such negative** human behavior. What remains to be seen is how and in what ways audiences and critics will embrace or reject Norma and Norman’s neo-normative values.
Norma hugs her son as they peer out the rainy window onto their newly lit retro neon sign. Mother beams idyllically as she assures her son, “You know what, you know that new bypass? They’re not going to build it.” Norman inquires, “How did that happen?” to which Mother confidently prognosticates, “It didn’t, yet. I’ll think of something… What’s important is that we’re together. And as long as we’re together, nothing bad can happen.” Of course, given that this family [and cable TV] lives in the negative, “nothing bad” means that everything bad can and will happen. Thus for Norma Bates at least, a mother’s love is (also) like a rose.