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7 screenshots that explain why Bates Motel is so wonderfully creepy

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore play Norma and Norman Bates in the Psycho prequel Bates Motel.
Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore play Norma and Norman Bates in the Psycho prequel Bates Motel.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Bates Motel, A&E's deeply, disturbingly fucked-up Psycho prequel, may as well advertise its third season, which debuted Monday, March 9, as "even more of a complicated psychosexual morass than ever before!" The series returned, incestuous vibes between mother and son intact, and seems to be pushing into even more twisted territory than before.

Suffice to say, Bates Motel, about the lives of Psycho murderer Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his infamous Mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), before (spoilers for a 55-year-old movie) Norma dies and leaves her son alone to run the motel named after their family, is a weird, twisted, Oedipal tragedy. On Bates Motel, Norman is just 18, but he's already beginning the downward spiral toward the man we know he'll become.

In the TV show, Norma is well aware that there's something wrong with her son but also doesn't want to have him institutionalized. Yet we've seen the movie. We know he eventually kills her. This is all leading toward a gloriously gruesome end.

One of the things that makes Bates so thrilling is the way it uses one of the most basic building blocks of cinema to suck us even further into its psychologically disturbing swamp. See, Bates uses the two-shot as well as anything on TV.

Putting two people in one frame is the most efficient way to visually explain relationships

The two-shot is one of the most basic cinematic units out there — particularly on television. The two-shot is any shot that includes two actors in the same frame. They could be side by side, or one could be in the foreground with another in the background. One could be positioned lower than another in the frame, suggesting that the higher actor is in a position of power.

The two-shot, in other words, is cinema's most efficient, effective delivery mechanism for instantly and easily conveying the emotional weight of relationships. And Bates Motel uses them to lay out just how horrifying intimacy is within its universe. The characters close in on each other's personal space, violating the bonds between them in ways they shouldn't do. And yet they get closer and closer and ...

Bates Motel uses the two-shot as well as anything on TV

Consider where the third-season premiere begins.

Bates Motel

Nothing like waking up in the morning, cuddling with your mom. (A&E)

No big deal. Just a mother and son cuddling in bed to start the day.

With Norma and Norman established as an incredibly close, codependent mother and son, Bates Motel can now go about pushing the two of them closer and closer together. It will return, again and again throughout the hour, to the idea of the two of them as an ersatz married couple.

Bates Motel

Mother and son, just spending a quiet night at home in bed. (A&E)

In fact, one of the episode's major stories is Norma suggesting to Norman that it's not good for the two of them to sleep in the same bed and then immediately changing her mind when she needs someone to hold her.

What's sort of remarkable about this is how the series has gotten you to think this relationship is, well, normal. Norma and Norman are uncomfortably close, but they've never actually done so much as kissed. There's a weird chasteness to their relationship that the show weaves around you. "They're all each other has!" it says. "Do you want to take them away from each other?"

But then you notice how much closer Norman is to his mother in frame ...

Bates Motel

Norman and his mother? Very close! (A&E)

Than he is to the girl he's ostensibly dating, Emma (Olivia Cooke).

Bates Motel

Norman and his girlfriend, Emma (Olivia Cooke), aren't as close. (A&E)

Here, let's look at those images side by side.

Bates Motel

See what I mean? (A&E/photo illustration by Susannah Locke/Vox)

Granted, Emma and Norman have only just started dating, whereas Norman has almost two decades of codependence with his mother, but the series is still underlining at every turn just how messed up all of this is.

On this show, intimacy can kill

Of course, there are bad omens on the horizon. Those who watch Bates Motel will surely at least have a passing familiarity with the movie Psycho. So that means when Annika (Tracy Spiridakos) checks into the motel early in the episode and Norman takes a good look at her curves, we know she's in danger.

Later, the two share a moment of genuine, unforced physical closeness, when Norman comes to Annika's room to fix one of her lighting fixtures. He replaces the bulb. Their hands touch. He learns that she's some sort of escort, showing up at parties on the arms of rich men. It's too much for him.

Bates Motel

Norman and Annika (Tracy Spiridakos) are just changing a light bulb. But it's a charged moment for him. (A&E)

Even the hint of sexual attraction means terrible things for Norman, who has his murderous impulses all bound up in his tangled relationship with his mother and whatever desire he feels for women. And as the episode wears on, Norman spies on Annika in the shower (another nod toward Psycho), then takes her on a ride into town, one from which she mysteriously doesn't return.

See, even if you've never seen Psycho but you've seen this show, you know Norman kills. Back at the end of season one, he killed his teacher when he was sexually attracted to her. And now, the reflection of a photo of her (in an ad hoc shrine to her at his school) serves as a reminder of what he did. Episode director Tucker Gates' clever framing makes her appear to be a ghost, haunting him forever.

Bates Motel

Norman is confronted by the image of the teacher he killed way back in season one. (A&E)

Of course, then she turns up in a later scene, sitting next to him at lunch, now a very literal ghost (or, more accurately, a hallucination). She grips his hand, and blood drips out of the wound where Norman slashed her throat. It oozes down onto the tentative connection they've formed. (Yeah, this isn't a two-shot, but it's cool nonetheless.)

Bates Motel

Yes, that's blood dripping onto her hand from the wound in her throat. (A&E)

Bates Motel is a slow-moving show. Not much in the way of plot actually happens in this episode. But it tells emotional stories so well that it's easy to not care when the overarching plot is mostly standing still.

See, look at all of those two-shots above. Their implications couldn't be clearer. Intimacy is a bad thing. It's worth being afraid of. Intimacy smothers, it consumes, and finally it kills.

Bates Motel airs Monday nights on A&E at 9 pm Eastern.