Identity is a subject explored throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, be it secret, mistaken or dangerously ambiguous in nature (Psycho examines all three, to some degree).

Tonight’s Bates Motel episode, ‘What’s Wrong with Norman,’ approaches the question of identity with more subtlety than last week’s “Nice Town You Picked, Norma” looked at the duality between exterior beauty and interior ugliness. In fact, the latest episode contains some of the most organic homages to the Master of Suspense’s work, between the dark subtext and expressive stylistic choices made by director Paul Edwards.

‘What’s Wrong with Norman’ also benefits from hitting the brakes when it comes to making White Pine Bay seem like the most noxious and corrupted quaint town on Earth. The first two episodes of Bates Motel kept throwing more creepiness into the mix, as if the showrunners were primarily interested in topping each disturbing revelation with something worse (rapists, sex slavery rings, drug fields that hide sex slavery rings). It was fast-moving toward the danger zone, where the sheer amount of moral decay would become too ludicrous – even for the show’s “Psycho meets Twin Peaks” universe.

Instead of continuing down that path, this week’s episode stops to take a breather and explore just what makes the characters and setting of Bates Motel tick. Dylan (Max Thieriot), as it turns out, really just wants a comfortable relationship with his family and steady employment, while Norman (Freddie Highmore) doesn’t want to be another bad apple living in a vile town. The problem is that Dylan’s “mundane” job includes poppy fields and artillery; by comparison, Norman’s creepy desires are reaching the point where eying pornographic real-life sketches and hugging Mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) ever so tight just aren’t enough anymore.

Consider, for example, how the episode opens with Dylan practicing his tough guy mannerisms in the mirror (complete with a gun), but concludes his onscreen time with a scene where he and Norman enjoy a tender brotherly moment by laughing at their own dysfunctional natures. Dylan will soon face the dangers of demons from the outside world – as future episodes will surely address the dangerous nature of his work – and Norman can only hope to keep his inner-demons at bay for so long. For now, however, they’re both people who do wish to neither pretend to be a monster nor actually become one (as it the case with Norman).

Meanwhile, the female characters of Bates Motel continue to be the most intriguing in the series. Even the relatively uninteresting Bradley (Nicola Peltz) is beginning to gain substance, though she has a ways to go. Emma (Olivia Cooke) remains an odd duck – her claim that most students’ text messages are dirtier than Norman’s “secret journal” is worth rolling your eyes at – but she has real moral fiber and purpose to her existence now, which goes beyond getting weird Norman to like her. Similarly, this is the first episode I recall where Norma wears pants, as opposed to old-fashioned flower print dresses (a symbolic gesture that reflects her gaining power in a patriarchal world).

Emma and Norma are pulled back down to Earth by the men around them before the episode runs its course. The former is shouted down as Norman starts to crack at the seams, while the latter dons a low-cut outfit in order to please Deputy Zach (Mike Vogel). Cooke and Farmiga continue to deliver nuanced performances on the show, which should help as their characters further develop. However, in a world as dangerous for women as that of Bates Motel, you have to be worried about any female character with a strong personality – save for Norma, seeing how we know which member of the opposite sex will be her undoing (and it’s not Zach, who I can now say for certain is the ghoul I’ve suspected all along).

Screenwriter Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2) handles the theme of identity well in “What’s Wrong with Norman” by revealing that so many people on Bates Motel know exactly who and what they are, but keep asking the question anyway, since deep down they don’t like the answer (Norman very much falls into that category). Eventually, though, they have to deal with reality, no matter how terrible it is – and in this case, it’s as bad as it comes. On the plus side, it provides us viewers with all the more reason to keep tuning in to find out where this crazy train is headed next.

Stray Observations:

  • “Everyone seems better in old movies. Happier maybe.” – Norman, on why he prefers old black and white movies.
  • When Norman set off to Deputy Zach’s place, it felt like the show was suddenly turning into an episode of American Horror Story.
  • Wadlow’s script work on this episode makes me more hopeful about Kick-Ass 2, which he wrote and directed.

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Bates Motel continues next Monday with “Trust Me” @10/9c on A&E. Check out a preview of the episode below: