“Bates Motel” Avoids Sophomore Slump With Impressive Second Season

“Bates Motel” airs on Monday nights at 10 pm on A&E.

Jamie Ferguson

"Bates Motel" airs on Monday nights at 10 pm on A&E.
“Bates Motel” airs on Monday nights at 10 pm on A&E.

In an industry filled with dime-a-dozen sitcoms and reality shows, television has recently been granted with a revival of dark programs over the last few years. The newest Golden Age of Television is surprisingly gloomy, and shows such as Breaking Bad and Dexter have replaced the traditional drama formula. But in particular, the horror genre has successfully made its way into the television industry, from the Silence of the Lambs inspired Hannibal to the anthology success American Horror Story. Last year, A&E premiered Bates Motel, a modern prequel to the horror classic Psycho. Although networks always risk ratings when they mess with beloved classics (as was the case with the failed 1990 sitcom Ferris Bueller), Bates Motel managed to balance originality while staying true to its inspiration, a feat rarely accomplished by remakes or additions to a franchise. And even more impressive is the show’s ability to have not only a strong first season, but an equally well done sophomore season.

Season one of Bates Motel began when Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) move to White Pine Bay, Oregon after the death of Norman’s father and buy a run-down motel. The design of the eponymous motel is a dead ringer for the original setting, right down to tiny details such as the bird sketches on the walls in the infamous Cabin 1. The family hopes to start a new life in the seemingly peaceful suburban town, but after Norma murders the motel’s former owner Keith Summers in an act of self defense, the Bates soon discover that the smallest towns hide the biggest secrets. And when the town sheriffs begin to investigate the missing man, their secret is harder to keep than they could have ever anticipated. Between the death of his father, a complicated love triangle involving the shy Emma (Olivia Cooke) and the popular Bradley (Nicola Peltz), his increasing mental instability, and his mother’s secret, Norman slowly begins a transformation from a shy, sweet teenager to a dark, twisted character who bears a striking resemblance to the original Norman Bates (the late Anthony Perkins).

The season two premiere begins almost immediately after the season one finale (in which Norman possibly murdered his favorite teacher, Miss Watson, in one of his unnerving mental blackouts). Norma receives a call from the school about the murder shortly before Norman comes home, bloodied and unhinged. What makes Bates Motel interesting is although it is likely that Norman killed Miss Watson, there is an equally probable chance that he did not. However, the fact that Norma suspects that he is the killer (she confirmed her suspicions when she found Miss Watson’s pearls under Norman’s mattress), she has not said anything to anyone about it, which sets up an interesting storyline about the lengths parents go to in order to protect their children.

Bates Motel is led by extremely strong performances, particularly by Highmore and the Emmy nominated Farmiga. Even though the end to the Bates’ story is inevitable, their performances are so captivating and complicated that the show is never predicable. The characters are so layered that none of the characters can be taken at face value. For example, although Bradley appears to be a stereotypical popular teenager, she reveals a dark, vengeful side after the death of her father. But none of the characters are quite as complex as the Bates themselves. Highmore’s Norman is both sensitive but psychotic and fragile but dangerous, while Farmiga’s portrayal of Norma highlights Norma’s ability to bring Norman closer to her while also pushing him even further away.

While the first season focused heavily on Norma and Norman’s attempts to cover up Keith Summers’ murder, season two explores the characters’ relationships and their struggles to find themselves. Miss Watson’s murder investigation is equally important, but in order for Norma and Norman to figure out her murder, they must first figure out themselves. Despite their differences, both seasons struggle with the unnecessary focus on the town’s drug industry, which was inflated after the introduction of a rival drug family. Although Breaking Bad created an interesting and suspenseful story about drug cartels, one successful show does not mean it is a storyline that viewers crave, and the heavy focus on the town’s drug industry just seems out of place.

Although unlike most shows, Bates Motel has a cemented ending (because if the show wants to stay true to the original material, it can only end one way), it has the unique ability to capture its audience’s attention and entice viewers even if the ending is an iconic moment in pop culture. Farmiga and Highmore’s incredibly strong performances as well as a solid supporting cast will hopefully give the show a deservably long run. The show’s second season has not only avoided a sophomore slump, but is arguably as good as the prior season, and Bates Motel is a welcome and original position in an already strong television industry.