We're all about family togetherness here at Plugged In. But there are times when even we think it can go too far.
Exhibit A: Norma and Norman Bates. Oh, the two love each other … in their own dysfunctional, sometimes (potentially) incestuous way. Norma loves 18-year-old Norman so much she'd rather not let him spend time with anyone else. And Norman responds to his mom with, "It's you and me. It's always been you and me. We belong to each other."
It hasn't always been just Norman and Norma, of course. A husband and father was in the picture at one point, but he died (under somewhat mysterious circumstances). And so the depleted Bates clan left for Oregon. Their new home: a grim gothic house that looms over a rundown motel. Norma hopes to make a go of the motel and make a fresh start of things.
But fresh starts are hard to find when you're dealing with the same spoiled goods.
Bates Motel is a tragedy—the making of a madman. We know where the story winds up: Jennifer Leigh bleeding out in Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror flick Psycho. And so in A&E's very loose prequel (set in more contemporary times, complete with iPhones), we see the seeds of Norman Bates' madness take root. His sheltered (smothered) childhood. His controlling mother. Their shared secrets. His hidden notebooks. Dark histories. Incestuous desire. A newfound fondness for taxidermy. His growing propensity, perhaps, to kill. And the fact that Norman's half-brother, Dylan—the product of an incestuous rape perpetrated on Norma by her brother, Caleb—has come to town to grow medicinal marijuana, adds another disturbing wrinkle into an already disturbing story.
It's hard to say that this series is darker than Hitchcock's black-and-white slasher (which, despite its lack of overt nudity or obscenity, was retroactively rated R by the MPAA). At times, it strives to be a Twin Peaks-like romp. But those campy moments are rare, and the blood we see is never something to laugh at. In Psycho's infamous shower scene (as harrowing and horrible as it feels), we never see that sharp knife make contact with skin. We see no stab wounds. Bates Motel exercises no such restraint. Explicit sex, rape and "submission" mingle with gratuitous killings and torture not just on an emotional level, but a physical one—often shown in horrifying detail. It's a messy, disturbing show, the likes of which Mr. Hitchcock himself would not have concocted.
It could be said that Bates Motel molds itself to our modern times as we puzzle over the devastating real-life deeds of today's most notorious killers. It could be said that A&E is merely plumbing the depths of the beginnings of a psychopath. But as it opens up the door to the Bates' forbidding home, what it's really doing is asking us to dwell in the darkness—night after night, week after week—to love it, to embrace it, to never let it go. Then, when it unveils its horrors, we won't want to, won't dare to or perhaps won't be able to leave.
"The Arcanum Club"
A motel guest disappears without explanation—last seen in the company of one Norman Bates. (We later learn she was a call girl.) Norma, fearing Norman killed her, looks into the disappearance herself, crashing a party thrown by the mysterious Arcanum Club. According to the sheriff, it's made up of "incredibly wealthy people doing whatever the h--- they want."
Norman and Emma go on a date, during which they discuss their previous sexual experiences. Emma tells Norman that his mother doesn't want him to grow up. "Do you want to be Peter Pan?" she asks him. "Maybe," he says, "if you want to be Wendy." "Peter Pan and Wendy never got to have sex," she says with a smile. (The date ends with a kiss, but Norman pushes Emma away before things go very far.)
A dead woman is seen from behind in her underwear, bloated and floating in a pond. At the Arcanum Club, Norma spies on a man and woman engaged in loud sex, as another well-dressed man flanked by two lingerie-wearing women look on. Whiskey and beer and mixed drinks are consumed. Dylan talks about his medicinal marijuana crop. Norman lies to his mother. He stuffs a dead baby goat. Norma mows over a sign with her car. We hear the s-word a half-dozen times, "d--n" twice by itself and twice with God's name, and "a--" "h---" and "p---" once or twice each.
"First You Dream, Then You Die"
Norma is raped in this episode as she's chained to a table. The camera refuses to look away as her clothing is ripped and cut. As the grievous sex act is perpetrated. As Norman arrives, knocking out the attacker and stabbing him repeatedly in the torso, killing him. The floor and Norma are covered in blood. The dead body is wrapped in chains and dumped in a lake.
Norman finds an old notebook featuring hand-drawn pictures of nearly naked women—sometimes gagged or being injected with something. They serve as a precursor to us seeing a chained woman poking a needle into her already pockmarked arms.
Norma's hand is sliced open. Norman falls from a second-story height. Norman's dad is shown dead.
Norman ogles his mother in her underwear as she stands by a window. He disobeys her by running off with a handful of girls. At a party, we see teens smoke marijuana and drink alcohol. Norma drinks wine. Someone shows up drunk. Norman throws up in a trashcan. People say "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑" two or three times each. God's name is misused a handful of times.