Bates Motel is an A&E channel original series. The second season premiered on March 3rd, 2014 and ran for ten hour-length episodes. The series stars Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as her son, Norman Bates. As with all my later season reviews, spoilers are unavoidable so continue reading at your own risk.
The season two opening of Bates Motel takes place immediately after the events of the first season, with the funeral of Norman's school teacher and a suitably awkward response from Norman during it. We also see Norman's classmate Bradley make a couple of ultimately unsuccessful suicide attempts. From this starting point the story jumps forward four months. While the initial season of Bates Motel focused entirely upon maintaining a steady level of tension, the second season eschews some of this for more character and location development. While I was not terribly fond of Bradley from the first season, she is written out of the series in an amazingly strong scene where she kills the guy who runs the marijuana farm, who was responsible for her father's death. This event sets up one of the major story lines for the second season as he is replaced by Zane Carpenter (Michael Eklund) the ex-con brother of the farm's owner. Zane is a loose cannon, intent on wiping out the competing operation. In addition to this, Norma learns that construction has begun on the bypass that threatens to destroy her now successful hotel, and the local sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is investigating the murder of the teacher.
This season is one of growth for all three members of the Bates family. Alex Romero also takes on a more prominent role, which I enjoyed, because I find him to be a particularly intriguing character. Norma auditions for a local theater company and ends up making friends with a local socialite named Christine Heldens, who is played by Rebecca Creskoff. I was really happy to see this as I loved Ms. Creskoff's character Lenore from the cut short HBO sitcom Hung. Through Christine, Norma ends up hooking up with the owner of the other pot farm, Nick Ford, who has a vested interest in seeing the bypass fail as well. Norma ends up making a deal with the devil before realizing who exactly she is dealing with.
Meanwhile, Zane, who is now the head of the other operation that Dylan works for, wants to flex his muscles by going after Nick's cartel, who he believes killed his predecessor. This plan runs afoul of Romero, who is aware of the operations but tolerates them as long as there is no open conflict. Zane, after being confronted with this ultimatum directly by Romero, makes the mistake of trying to show Alex that he is really the boss. This sets up a good portion of the tension for the season as, based upon what we saw in the first season, we know that Alex is not to be trifled with, as he is unafraid to use force to have things go his way. This storyline is where Bates Motel begins to really show its Twin Peaks inspiration. The difference is that the characters are all much more understated and have sound economic reasons for their actions, which makes the overall story much less surreal. In addition to all this, Dylan, as well as Norma, have the added surprise of Dylan's biological father returning to town.
Flowing throughout all this is Norman's story, as he learns over the course of the season that his blackouts are not as benign as he had been previously led to believe. He ends up learning this through a convoluted path of friends that ultimately leads him to his mother which adds considerably to the strain of the situation. After his moment of discovery, he becomes set on taking his own life to avoid hurting anyone else in the future. This leads to a darkly humorous set of scenes as Norman fastidiously, to the point of having a list, takes care of all his loose threads before the final act. It was a nice bit of development that I found to be totally in character with what I would expect from Norman Bates. Ultimately, he is prevented from following through with the act, which ends on a scene that parallels the iconic shot at the end of Psycho. These sort of attempts are always risky, but I felt that both Freddie Highmore's acting and the direction proved up to the task. While there was no way for it to be as creepy as the movie, they still pulled it off well enough to be an effective season closer.
Sophomore seasons are always tricky for a series. You have to capture the same "lightning in a bottle" that drew your initial audience to build more viewers while at the same time introduce enough new elements to keep the first season viewers tuning in. Bates Motel might have failed to some extent on the former by focusing too heavily on the latter. I, personally, was okay with it, but I tend to be a more forgiving watcher when it comes to series taking chances than your more casual viewer. Overall, the story was engaging enough that I found myself really looking forward to the final two episodes of the season.
By Nick Sauer
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