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Bates Motel: First You Dream, Then You Die (Pilot)

Lost producer Carlton Cuse has picked the perfect next project: with Bates Motel, at least we all know how it will end. But despite that certainty, I spent most of the pilot episode of this modern-day Psycho prequel wondering if Cuse and co-developer Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) know where they’re going.

Psycho was the second horror movie I ever watched (The Birds was the first), and it made a lasting impression—and not just on me; it’s surely on many top ten lists. Psycho’s greatest strength, though, isn’t its score or its gore or its surprises, and we don’t call Hitchcock the master of suspense because he enjoys dapper braces. It’s the pacing, the tone, the ineffable mood that stick with us, long after we’ve watched it.

In contrast, Bates Motel barely compares. And it shouldn’t: a decent Psycho re-tread is as impossible as Pierre Menard’s version of the Quixote. But 20 minutes into Psycho, you feel the tension rising and suspense building. 20 minutes into Bates Motel, I started to wonder what sort of show it was supposed to be.

Then there was a brutal, unnecessary rape scene. And I had my answer.

“First You Dream, Then You Die” switches between tones. Sometimes it is funny enough to remind me of how my mother used to joke that I should save up all my material on her for a book of “mom-oirs” (the trauma of not being allowed to stay up ‘til 2am on a school night could have gotten an entire chapter). Norma Bates is laughably, grossly, attached to her son—and if Norma were played by anyone other than the delightful Vera Farmiga, this would have turned into a wacky sitcom. Freddy Highmore’s Norman Bates is more of a wildcard: he’s 17 going on 5 going on 30, with the mixture of maturity and naiveté that many children who have bonded only with adults have.

But Bates Motel is also a cable show that could be subtitled “Bildungsroman of an Oedipal Psychopath,” and that—apparently—means rape. I don’t like rape on TV. Deaths don’t bother me too much, as a character dying only reminds me that this is fiction. Rape seems like a nasty trick: cause pain and physical suffering to the characters, horrify some viewers, titillate the prurient others, bring it up when convenient later on. If character deaths remind me of fictionality, rape reminds me that I’m meant to believe these characters are real. And I don’t understand why so many TV writers have felt the desire to rape their characters lately, why they think it’s “necessary,” why they think we want to watch it happen.

So there’s painful realism and minor gore. There’s a young man struggling to find his way, and a mother with an inappropriate attachment to him. There’s also a sheriff who seems to know more than he’s saying, played by Nestor Carbonell. (I didn’t know he would be in this show, so that was a lovely surprise.) There’s the possibility that the town of White Pine Bay will become a major character in the show, especially given both Ehrin’s and Cuse’s penchants for creating dynamic places with a vivid internal life.

There is, in other words, potential. The last scene of the pilot is utterly mysterious and apparently disconnected to everything else—I can’t tell yet if that’s a cheap trick to get us to tune in next week, or a hint of a fun mysterious backstory to the creepy setting. And that's it: underwhelming, potentially better, maybe not, who knows.

Two out of four best friends.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. Never in my life have I seen a more welcoming bunch of teenagers. Maybe I'm just not handsome enough to have experienced the sort of female welcome Norman got. Which makes me sad.

    I'm not trying to be crude, but I could have sworn that Norma said "fresh panties" at 4:50. At first, I thought it was some sort of incestuous marker cluing us in to Norman's mom-loving mental state. On listening further, I think she may have said "paintings". Is it just an accent thing? Or are they going to slip in a not-so-subtle underwear reference every week?

    Like you Josie, I'm not sure what their vision for this show is. It's hard to imagine the series having legs.

    Oh, and I just have to mention the dumb-ass rapist. You half-rape someone, they clock you over the head with an iron, cuff you, and end up stood over you with a whopping great knife, the last thing you do is tell them that they "liked it". The power's totally with them. That was dreadful dialogue which served nothing more than to get him killed. He got killed. Good.

  2. Why the jarring rape scene? I think it was because they needed to start with a violent death to set the tone, and that's what they came up with. As Paul said, the girls all being so welcoming toward the nerdy Norman didn't work, either; it was almost as jarring as the rape scene because it was so unbelievable.

    And I'm having sequel issues, too. Knowing what's going to happen to these characters makes it difficult to like or identify with them, and they're our main characters, so I consider that an insurmountable problem. At least in Revenge of the Sith, we had someone to root for. I honestly don't want to see Norman's descent into ick, so I'm not planning to watch another episode.

    Great review, Josie.

  3. @Billie,

    FWIW, the showrunners have said that the movies are not canon. So, the show may not end in the same place.

  4. I enjoyed the first episode.

    I love that the "Heathers*" were nice to Norman and weren't setting him up (as far as we know) for any type of big embarrassing moment. They seemed to be genuinely nice and wanted him to fit in.

    I also loved the girl with the oxygen who spoke to him.

    They could have done without the rape scene. During that segment, I kept thinking Norma should have been able to fight back more. She comes across a tough and resourceful, so for that guy to get the drop on her the way he did, didn't work for me.

    I don't know if we really know where this will all go or how it will all end.

    Yes, this is "BATES MOTEL" and we're watching Young Norman Bates, but it's clearly in a different continuity and PSYCHO doesn't necessarily have to be the ultimate result.

    *I watched HEATHERS a couple of times over the weekend and the film is on my mind.

  5. If it's not a prequel, if it's not going to end up where the movie was, then what's the point? Is it a reimagining, with the same two sick characters possibly turning out differently? If I end up liking the young Norman, it's only going to make me ill to watch his mother twist him, or try to twist him. I can't imagine liking Norma, no matter what.

    I suppose that it could turn out amazing and brilliant and it could become my favorite show. Stranger things have happened. But it doesn't seem likely.

  6. I was thinking that, Billie. Even a re-imagining can't mess with the characters too much, surely? If both Norma and Norman end up conquering their demons and living happily ever after, then why call it Bates Motel? They may as well have given the show a different name, the characters different names, and made it its own thing. It's like remaking Dexter, but making him a non-violent civil servant with an ingrowing toenail... who never killed anyone ever.

  7. If it's not a prequel, if it's not going to end up where the movie was, then what's the point?

    Telling different stories about already established characters?

    Is it a reimagining, with the same two sick characters possibly turning out differently?


    You never know where a story will go as you're writing, even if you have a set ending in mind.

    The show runners and writers for this series may see something different blossoming in Norman as the series progresses.

  8. If it's not a prequel, if it's not going to end up where the movie was, then what's the point?

    Telling different stories about already established characters?

    But they're not established, if they don't turn into the Norma and Norman that we know. Right?

    This is starting to veer into a Lostian meditation on the nature of fictional determinalism. :-) I'm not sure if I'm happy about that or not.

    Yeah, I was astonished at the friendly Heathers, too. And I love that name for them, HBR.

  9. I watched this and could not for the life of me write my little blurb about it as I wasn't sure why it didn't work for me.

    I thought parts of it were good and Freddy Highmore reminded me of Anthony Perkins. Vera Farmiga was excellent and, as you say, managed to save the show from devolving into farce.

    On the other hand, the violence went a step far for me, especially the rape. I found it really disturbing and unnecessary. Then, the ending seemed to involve yet another woman in extreme peril.

    Not one that I will continue to watch, but it did have an effect.

  10. I have my doubts too about this show, but I must admit I was a bit intrigued by this pilot. I thought the house, the atmosphere, the whole setting was wonderfully done with lots of tributes to Hitchcock's original movie.
    But where will they go from here? Will they be true to the movie? I was all the time expecting some blond girl turning up, checking in at the motel, and having a bad shower. But they didn't go there. Instead, they had this other shower scene, with the rapist guy.
    If they make a slight U-turn from the original story there's a lot of potential here. They might explore the creepy Oedipus story between Norma and Norman. Who is Norma? Who killed her husband? Was it her? Or was it Norman? This could become really interesting. I was thinking that if OUAT can do it, making a whole new story out of well-known old ones, then maybe Bates Motel can too, if they choose to go that way.
    Now for the bad stuff:
    The rape scene - agree that it is much more difficult to see that instead of seeing someone getting killed. My mind was wandering off thinking about that Jodie Foster movie from long ago which had the most disturbing rape scene ever.
    Those teenagers - not very believable that they would treat Norman this nice. He is a strange nerd, right?

  11. Yeah, I was astonished at the friendly Heathers, too. And I love that name for them, HBR.

    HEATHERS is one of my all-time favorite films.

  12. Now I am four episodes in, and I must say that this show is really good. It has great characters (done by great actors), and a lot of twisting around where you never really know what happens next.
    And poor Norman. his mother is SUFFOCATING him! It is very disturbing to see, but I guess that is the whole point of this show. How a mother can make a monster out of her son...
    I'm sticking around so far, can't wait to see where they are taking this. Great (but disturbing) stuff!

    And...I can't help it, this show reminds me of this terrible CT incident in December...

  13. If you stopped at the pilot or even a few episodes in, then stick with it. This is one of the best shows I've come across with just the right combination of suspense, quirkiness, and intrigue. We all know where it's heading and that is half the fun.

    I am a big fan of Hitchcock, and Psycho particularly, and I adore Anthony Perkins' Norman. I think Freddie Highmore as young Norman is excellent and Vera Farmiga as Norma is utterly delightful. Other fantastic actors make their mark later in the series. Give it a go or persist if you can. It will be worth it.


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