As a television adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, Bates Motel and its central story of the troubled, co-dependent, mother-son relationship between Norman and Norma Bates, always suffered from a problem of inevitability. The series seemed caught between stalling its involvement in or depiction of iconic moments from the film, the eventual reveal at its end, and explaining the ins and outs of how a killer like Freddie Highmore’s Norman could emerge without arousing too much suspicion of those around him. That issue increased as the series carried on and saw a litany of characters come and go during its now five-season run, meaning the creepy seclusion and not-so-aloneness of Anthony Perkins’s version of the character has given way to one who has gone from peculiar and distant teenage boy to a young man eager to convince those around him just how normal he is. In other words, in order to make this television series work, Norman’s unraveling had to happen more or less in full view of an entire cast of characters.
For the most part, though, it’s worked in the favor of Bates Motel. Since the series is a modern update on the original film, it seems fitting to have Norman and his psychosis surrounded by bit players, making the apparent endgame brought forth by former sheriff and now escaped convict Alex Romero a more protracted and drawn out process, and one that fittingly makes good on the film’s famous line, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
That memorable bit of dialogue resonates throughout the final hour of Bates Motel. With Norman’s secrets now exposed and the police well on their way to making an airtight case against him, there’s nothing for the series to do but finally face down that inevitability it had been skirting for the better part of 50 episodes. Smartly, the series has seen Norman’s legal woes escalate over the last few episodes, heightening the sense of finality in the appropriately titled ‘The Cord’, in which Norman finds himself at the mercy of Alex, following a surprisingly well-executed (pun intended) excursion from the penitentiary to White Pine Bay seeking the sort of revenge that, given the circumstances probably looks a lot like justice to him.
The sense that Norman’s days running the titular Bates Motel are already behind him gives the finale the opportunity to narrow its focus, and to afford the show’s end a more personal touch than if it were to concentrate on the character’s legal woes. In fact, with the exception of one scene, Brooke Smith’s Sheriff Greene is all but a footnote in what proves to be Norman’s rather sad, confused, and dreamlike final hours.
‘The Cord’ makes use of its more centralized focus in interesting ways, starting with its hasty dispatch of the former sheriff. Despondent over the loss of Norma and the knowledge that her son was not only responsible for her death but that he’d exhumed her corpse, Romero is easily distracted and his plan to execute Norman after locating his lost love quickly goes awry, leading to his predictable death at the hands of his intended victim. Though there was a chance that the hour could have been one long confrontation between Romero and Norman, with only the body of the woman they both loved in very different ways between them, the former sheriff’s been a marginalized character for the majority of season 5, a potential variable in the season’s narrative that acted mostly as a source of tension and a way to dispatch certain loose threads, like Ryan Hurst’s kimono-wearing Chick Hogan. As such, it’s not too surprising (and it’s sort of fitting) that his plan would see him experience the fate he had wanted for Norman.
It is easy to argue that the part Romero had to play in the end of Norman’s story began and ended with kidnapping him from the precinct and ostensibly granting the killer his final moments of freedom. But it’s much more of a surprise to see how sparingly Bates Motel uses Vera Farmiga and the character of Norma in ‘The Cord’. Farmiga has been a dominant force in these final 10 episodes, bringing a wonderfully entertaining and often very funny performance when taking over for her fictional son for long stretches of time. Therefore, to see the character announce her departure and then for the actor to be used primarily in the hazy recollections of an ill and likely severely concussed mind is a somewhat surprising creative choice that pays dividends for the show’s final hour.
With Farmiga remanded to the background – though still a constant presence – and the weight of Norman’s legal troubles so far in the background there isn’t even a police presence at the Bates Motel when he finds his way back, the burden of bringing the story to a satisfying close is placed almost squarely on the shoulders of Freddie Highmore. As he’s done throughout the course of the series, Highmore plays with the volume of his performance in interesting ways, and by reducing his interaction to a brief encounter with Romero, a random customer, a few lines of dialogue with Norma, and then with his brother Dylan, Bates Motel closes in on what made the series unique in the first place: a sense of tragic humanity in a character not originally intended to illicit pity.
Strong performances and clever positioning of key characters aside, the final moments of Bates Motel prove to be a predictable but no less respectable anti-climax. Despite his series-long presence there just wasn’t a sense that Max Thieriot’s Dylan was as much his brother’s keeper as the show would have liked him to be. In the end, Dylan’s tough love felt more like the series forcing a routine biblical allusion to the series’ climax that felt as uninspired as the flash forward montage that ended with a shot of the grave Norman shared with his mother. It wasn’t the perfect ending, but Bates Motel finished strong nonetheless.