I don't know how I'd manage to recruit a control group for this experiment, but I'd love to know how BATES MOTEL plays to someone completely ignorant of Norman Bates's future. Does it work as a TV show if it has to stand on it's own merits, or do some of its flaws get a pass because the audience gets the thrill of seeing TV Norman take big leaps closer to being everyone's favorite cross-dressing serial killer?
In an ideal world, a prequel would stand as compelling without being propped up by Easter Eggs or callbacks (or is that "call-forwards") to its originating art. BETTER CALL SAUL seems to pull this off quite well, proving completely accessible to people I know who've never watched BREAKING BAD. It'll be intriguing for me to see how this plays out because BCS's Jimmy McGill is much more likable and sympathetic as a human being than his future incarnation Saul Goodman. Will people who root for the success of the scrappy Jimmy be disgusted when he evolves into the slimier, unapologetically ambulance-chasing Saul?
That's not to say that I don't feel like you can see the connection between Jimmy and Saul - just that Saul fans are having a rather different experience from Jimmy fans, and I find it fascinating that thus far, the show seems to work on both levels. The same could be said for the Mike character. On BREAKING BAD he was a villain with an occasional sympathetic side. Here, I really feel for the guy in a way that makes his eventual end feel far more tragic for me. (And if I was experiencing Mike's story chronologically, probably less satisfying.)
But BATES MOTEL... I enjoy it, but I'm not sure if it'd seem cohesive if we didn't know the destination. The season four finale airs tonight and the previous episode ended on what appeared to be the major step in Norman's evolution that we all knew was coming - the murder of his mother. As depicted on the show, it was actually a murder-suicide attempt, with Norman attempting to snuff out both him and his mother with carbon monoxide poisoning. It would have worked, if not for the arrival of the sheriff, who vents the room before Norman succumbs, but can only futilely attempt resuscitation on Norman.
It doesn't help that BATES MOTEL is not a show without many faults. Going back to season one, I've basically zoned out whenever screentime shifted to "the pot storyline" all about the drug trade in the nearby town. I completely understand why it's there - to get five years of story out of this concept, there needed to be larger mythology. Developing the setting is a natural step, but too much of the drama there has felt incidental to Norman's transformation.
Season one also had a brief phase of what I call the "Norman Bates, Sex God" era. I don't find it inexplicable that he'd be appealing to some women. He's got that "lost scruffy puppy" sort of vibe and I can totally buy that some girls would want to take him home and clean him up. I DON'T buy one of the hottest and most popular girls in school hopping into bed with him. (And if I'm not misremembering, he actually had TWO such conquests in season one!)
It feels weird to say this, but there was a point by the second season where I wasn't watching the show through the lens of it being a PSYCHO prequel. I'm not sure what led me to drop my guard, but I remember being blindsided by a midseason episode where Norman suddenly started acting out and it became clear that he was speaking in the Mother persona. I won't lie - it was genuinely cool to see the birth of the character as we know him/her in the Hitchcock film.
But I have to wonder how many plot turns read as acceptable only because the audience knows where the story HAS to go. Having Norman committed this season was a good start because his erratic behavior through season two and three had gone past the point where one can justify Norma as being in denial about how sick Norman is. Of course, this creates another conundrum - if Norman's mental issues are well-documented does that compromise an outcome where he ends up quietly managing the family hotel, with the locals completely blind to his homicidal tendencies?
Hell, just in the short term it seems strange that Norma's death won't get more serious scrutiny from the police. I'm sure the show will deal with this somehow, but Norman's spent four years leaving behind clues to his psychosis so the real trick is going to be making it credible that none of the authorities piece any of this together.
I'm in for the long haul here, regardless. It's nothing short of criminal that Freddie Highmore and especially Vera Farmiga haven't been Emmy winners for their work here, though Farmiga has been nominated once. The wonderful Olivia Cooke might have started getting more mainstream notice from ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, but BATES MOTEL had her first. It's not easy to appear alongside Highmore and Farmiga and not get blown off the screen but Cooke holds her own in a quieter role as the one undeniable innocent among the players. That fact is also why I've been dreading the moment the plot requires her death. I've feared the show won't conclude without destroying the last bit of innocence in Norman's world.
As I said, there's a lot I genuinely like about the show, but it's impossible for me to know if I'm rationalizing some of it's larger flaws because of some kind of tunnel vision towards the resolution. Do I have any other BATES MOTEL viewers in my readership? What do you think?