Bates Motel: Season Two [Blu-ray]

Bates Motel: Season Two [Blu-ray]
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In theory, Bates Motel shouldn't work. Unlike many programs that are pitched by people passionate about a project, this was conceived by Universal executives and assigned to writers they gathered from other, mostly successful, television gigs (Carlton Cuse of Lost and Kerry Ehrin of Friday Night Lights) after newcomer Anthony Cipriano penned the pilot. It also had the misfortune of being compared to its source inspiration, Psycho, which is a rather daunting endeavour unto itself.

Fortunately, Vera Farmiga signed on to play Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore was perfectly cast as the notorious Norman. Even though the first season was a tad uneven and really struggled to make secondary storylines about drug money and small town corruption work, the performances from Farmiga and Highmore were consistently astonishing. Similarly, the writing team really embraced the awkward and discomforting Freudian subtext about mother-son relationships, making Norma a moderately identifiable and exceedingly strong character whose motivations for being so overprotective of her son are murky. While it would be easy for them to rehash familiar misogynist tropes, implying that Norman's instability stemmed specifically from having only an unstable female role model — reiterating conservative anxieties about the death of the nuclear family — there's a sense in Bates Motel that her overprotectiveness might stem from Norman's inherently aberrant behaviour. She's a mother that would do anything to protect her son from a world that likely won't understand his particular mental ailments.

In season two, which starts just after the events in the first season finale when Norman killed his sexually salacious teacher, their bond is tested by notions of identity and unavoidable external forces. Norman, coming of age and developing a conflicted interest in the opposite sex, starts to test the boundaries his mother has set for him. Despite Norma's disapproval, he flirts with heteronormativity by dating the rebellious outsider — another dominant female force — Cody (Paloma Kwiatkowski), while pushing away the safer, more sincere Emma (Olivia Cooke). And while Norman struggles with the notion of normalcy, trying to do standard teenage things while battling his psyche — he never really becomes conscious of whether or not he murdered his teacher until the end of the season — Norma and Emma start to define themselves in their own way. Norma, conscious of the divide growing between her and her sons, tries to get involved in community theatre and local politics, learning about herself and about the level of corruption within the local industry. Emma also acknowledges the inherent shadiness of her surroundings, sparking up a romance with a local drug dealer in an effort to understand her own sexuality and to detach herself from the Bates family, who are becoming increasingly distant.

With each of the characters developing more of an identity and the series finding a more cohesive footing in thematic and narrative structure, this second season is consistently compelling. Where the first season focused on defining everyone and how they connect to each other, this season is interested in exploring how individual members of a family define themselves outside of their unit and cope with a world unfamiliar with their specificities and idiosyncrasies.

Farmiga's performance, in particular, is some of the most layered and complex work within the lexicon of serialized entertainment. She manages to make Norma a highly intelligent and extremely strong force to be reckoned with without sacrificing fragility and inherent faultiness in emotional overreaction and a casual frankness that's often inappropriate. While her acting is reason enough to watch on its own, this season is anchored by a strong story and an increasingly ambiguous thematic tapestry that delves into the nature of mental instability and maternal loyalty headfirst, setting up what should be a very intense third season.

The Blu-ray set isn't exactly loaded with special features, however. It has two episodes of the Bates Motel: After Hours show, in which the actors and show-runners answer idiotic questions from Twitter trolls, and a special feature about the intention of season two. This latter feature is moderately interesting, albeit brief, being little more than a tightly edited sequence of talking points from on-set interviews. (Universal)