In “Dreams Die First” (March 20), with five episodes to go in “Bates Motel,” the first act of the “Psycho” arc is well underway: Doomed lovers Sam Loomis and Marion Crane (Austin Nichols & Rihanna) are on a collision course with Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), with Sam’s wife Madeleine (Isabelle McNally) caught in the middle.
The iconic moments are all here: Marion’s gross work environment, painted everywhere in that acidic neon Bates Motel blue; a suitcase full of forty (now four hundred) grand; the run-in with a state trooper, here played adorably by series co-developer Carlton Cuse. And though the series’ mythology is juggling a lot more than that, it does seem fitting that we are back to that first-season sense of telling the story behind 00 around, underneath — the story: Madeleine fits into one spot, Norma’s (Vera Farmiga) continued presence in another, old characters and fears resurfacing.
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At least two people become aware of Norma’s (Vera Farmiga) death in “Dreams Die First”: Emma (Olivia Cooke), stricken with a painful near-nostalgic curiosity about the Bates Motel after Dylan (Max Theriot) tells her about Norman’s violence and possible murder of her own mother, comes upon the obituary that Caleb (Kenny Johnson) never managed to bring back to Seattle… And of course Norman himself, who — after a run-in with his old psychiatrist — is confronted with concrete proof that Mother’s been taking over during his blackouts, specifically hooking up with men while in possession of his body.
Norman takes all this as well as he possibly could — after the last time this subject presented itself, back when Cody Brennan (Paloma Kwiatkowski) hit him up for a threesome, he couldn’t react worse — but it’s interesting: Between two visits to the bar Norman realizes he’s been frequenting as Norma, to meet up with the gay psychiatrist to whom Mother made slight advances years ago (in a “Good Will Hunting” preemptive strike, of course) is a wild coincidence. But just like the bright Bates blue all over Marion’s life (and Madeleine’s), once you notice it you can’t think about anything else.
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Of course, like that of the series finale (“The Cord,” coming April 24) in part, the title here refers back to the pilot — “First You Dream, Then You Die” — which is a reference to Cornell Woolrich, a writer whose life mirrored Norman Bates’s in some oddly key ways and whose biographer (whose book bore the same title) has said, “He did in prose what Hitchcock did in film.” He was gay, alcoholic, lived on and off with his mother, did well in the movie-option department and seemed like an all-around total, if forgotten, genius.
His short story inspired Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” and his person inspired the character of Norman Bates, who in turn inspired Hitchcock’s “Psycho” of course, which brings us to the present. “Dreams Die First” itself is a 1978 pulp novel of the highest order by Harold Robbins, a bestselling hedonist and Woolrich’s almost complete opposite — but which, given the sweetly laissez faire atmosphere of Norma’s favorite haunt, is worth noting: In part, “Dreams Die First” is about the adventures of a bisexual, Mob-connected Viet Nam veteran who has a lot of sexual adventures in milieus including Christian sex cults and S&M torture parties. It is not a great book but it is a great reference here.
(“The Cord,” presumably, refers — beyond the umbilical — back to the “Jane Eyre” quote we learned was part of the Bates’ idiolect as they dumped their first “victim’s” body: Rochester says, “…I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you — especially when you are near to me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.” Which did come to pass, after all — and Norman’s been bleeding inwardly ever since.)
While we’re on the subject, let’s revisit episode 2 of this season, Feb. 27’s “The Convergence of the Twain.” It’s a Thomas Hardy poem from 1915 describing the loss of the “Titanic,” written for a charity event in the immediate wake of the disaster. Even with so little distance from the horror, Hardy was able to conceptualize the event (the convergence) not so much as a conflict but as a kind of epic and unavoidable, world-changing marriage.
…Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Tonight, a lot of pieces are maneuvered into place: Marion is driving up to the motel when we leave her, and Sam’s aware that she’s in town. Norman will be having one kind of showdown or another with Mother, who doesn’t need to technically exist or have this “faked death” story in order to push him past his limits. We haven’t seen Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) in a while, but he haunts Norman’s nights the way the new Sheriff (living embodiment of perfection Brooke Smith) haunts his days. Emma and Dylan are most likely on their way back to White Pine Bay, to save Norman or take care of him in some other way.
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We know Sam Loomis from “Psycho,” but wife Madeleine is new to the show — Isabelle McNally, of course, clearly cast for her startling resemblance to Farmiga, and for what’s turning out to be an impressive talent — and what she accomplishes to this point is almost Mercutio-style, a cross-generational mashup of objectified desire: Young as Norman but as old as a grownup, married but girlish, serious business owner and spontaneous slumber-partier and cake-baker.
Their cake-baking is exactly as sensual as it is innocent and comforting — exactly the emotional valley where Mother’s most likely to wake up and start killing people — but that name, that spelling, and the random cake situation as objective correlative, nail that sensory overload/emotional cathexis mashup perfectly. Proust’s seven-volume À la recherche du temps perdu is most often invoked for its early “episode of the madeleine,” in which the protagonist is so gripped by a childhood memory that he seems to sidestep time altogether, and so quickly he can’t quite trace the impulse back until the ecstasy has subsided:
“…A shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin… Having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me… Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself.”
Here Madeleine is a madeleine for Mother, true. But there are others: The sweet, friendly Hey, you from the bartender when “Norma” walks in dressed like a sweet young man. The vibration in the air as Dr. Edwards asks him over coffee if Norman remembers that Mother is a hallucination sometimes, or that sometimes she takes over his body. Emma’s mother’s earring, which pushes Dylan into terrified, abusive panic about all the Bates trauma and memories and shame he’d locked away. The hunk Norma picked up the night before, running his fingers through Norman’s hair… Until suddenly the memory reveals itself.
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We knew this would be the big one, and not just because Riri was coming. We knew because that’s how the show works. It’s the fifth episode of the season, it breaks everything in half, every time:
In Season 1, “Ocean View” (April 15, 2013) turned the story on its head: Dylan (Max Theriot) kills someone during his attempts to get himself and Norman (Freddie Highmore) their own house, Norman loses his virginity to Bradley (Nicola Peltz) and Jiao (Diana Bang) confirms it was Norma’s (Vera Farmiga) boyfriend Shelby (Mike Vogel) who’d been keeping her prisoner. The rest of the season unfolds pretty much directly out of these three events.
At Season 2’s midpoint “Plunge” (April 7, 2014), Dylan finds himself on the other side of the drug war — allied with Jodi Morgan (Kathleen Robertson) — while Norman’s relationship with Emma goes south and things heat up with Cody Brennan: A relationship that begins after Mother’s blackout attack on Caleb at his motel room leaves Norman beaten bloody, and eventually leads to the death of Cody’s own abusive father (Michael Rogers).
In Season 3, of course, the amazing “The Deal”/”Norma Louise” (April 6 & 13, 2015) does double-duty: Not only is it the midpoint of the entire series, but the show’s defining two-parter: Norma flips out about Dylan’s relationship with his father and leaves town entirely for an incredible Portland getaway — which puts Norman under such stress that he gives way completely to Mother, dressing like her for the first time. (And scaring the bejeezus out of Dylan, who comes close to verbalizing this memory with Emma in this last episode #5.)
And in last year’s “Refraction” (April 11, 2016) an institutionalized Norman was visited by Mother — and then came out to play with tonight’s returning friend Dr. Gregg Edwards: The first person to diagnose DID, the first person to really scare Mother. This was also the episode that Caleb and Norma’s relationship on Chick Hogan’s (Ryan Hurst) radar, leading to a scene we saw mirrored again recently, in which Chick offers to take Caleb out, if Norma wishes it. The players change but the game’s the same.
And so now, the final season and the final flip: With Norman and Mother in search of a new understanding, and Marion Crane in trouble deep, with a sister out there somewhere and in love with a monster, and heading right into the storm.
Till the Spinner of the Years / Said “Now!” And each one hears, / And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
And suddenly the memory reveals itself.
“Bates Motel” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on A&E. Five episodes remain.