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Bates Motel's Norma Bates is TV's best — and worst — mother

She's doing a good job. She's just raising a psychopath.

Bates Motel
Here she is bathed in beatific light!
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.

A lot of female-centric horror is about motherhood, in one sense or another. Think of Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist, both movies about the fear that your child might be some otherworldly thing that even its mother struggles to love. Or think about how the monster in Alien may as well be a malevolent fetus, looking for any exit it can find.

This makes sense. Pregnancy is one of the most taxing — and on some level, horrifying — experiences the human body can go through, and it's rife with moments when tweaking things just a little can lead to sheer terror at the alien invader occupying your body.

Then, once you actually give birth, your kid is forever growing apart from you, bit by bit, becoming her own person. You can't control that; there's no way to guarantee the child won't become a monster.

What sets A&E's Psycho prequel series Bates Motel apart from other motherhood-centered horror is that it finds evil in being a good mother. By many modern standards, Norma Bates (the incomparable Vera Farmiga) does everything right. She loves her son Norman (Freddie Highmore) as much as she possibly can. She tries to protect him from the world's darkness. But by doing that, she's feeding the growing psychopath inside him, the terrifying murderer he is already becoming.

And in "Forever," the ninth episode of the series' fourth season, it appears she's fallen victim to the son she's always tried so hard to protect.

Bates Motel seems to be hurtling toward its endgame

Bates Motel
Norma recently married Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell).

Throughout season four, Bates Motel has seemed to be barreling toward the moment when Norma goes from a living, vital presence to the mummified corpse in the cellar we see in Psycho, someone who only exists as a hallucination goading Norman into greater and greater crimes. That moment seemed to arrive in "Forever," as Norman filled the Bates home with carbon monoxide, and Norma apparently succumbed.

Fans know the show has been renewed for a fifth (and probably final) season, but there's a certain thrill to the notion that the kind, loving Norma who can't seem to stop screwing up her kid has exited the show entirely near the end of season four. It would open up completely new terrain for next week's season finale and the upcoming season five.

But Bates Motel has done such a great job of building the inevitability of this horrible tragedy that season four also feels at times like being behind the wheel of a speeding car whose brakes have gone out. In the eighth episode, "Unfaithful," alone, Norman threatened his stepfather with an ax and got into a screaming argument with Norma about how she's not allowed to be happy, more or less. Norman, so used to having life revolve around him, increasingly can't understand why his mother has invalidated this central contract of their relationship.

Bates Motel has argued this season that if Norma wants to be happy then Norman probably can't be, and vice versa. But it's not in Norma's nature to try to do things that might displease others. She recognized that Norman needed professional help and convinced him to commit himself to a mental hospital early in the season. But she also couldn't seem to leave well enough alone once he was in there, checking up on him from time to time and fretting about what he might be up to.

The richest irony of the closing half of Bates Motel season four is that it's set at Christmas, at a time of year when families are ostensibly drawing together. Yet Norma's is splintering. Her marriage is falling apart, Norman is slowly spinning off his axis, and her other son Dylan (a character invented for the show) and his girlfriend are about to move to another city entirely. The Bates family is dissolving.

Of course, if you're a parent, you recognize that sooner or later your child will have to leave home and begin his own life, perhaps having children of his own and beginning the cycle all over again. But the dissolution is something Norma fears on some level. She's worked hard to build a world where she's not in constant terror for her personal safety and freedom, only to find that sense of security shattered by the person she tried hardest to protect.

And that's what makes her a much richer character than the one who inspired her.

Bates Motel has risen above the potential pitfalls of its source material

Bates Motel
Norma (Vera Farmiga) is among the living. For now.

In the 1960 film Psycho, "Mother" is a boogeyman.

The audience doesn't quite realize that until the film's very end (when her mummified remains are discovered in Norman Bates's cellar), but even when viewers assume Mother is alive, director Alfred Hitchcock keeps his distance, building her mystique. We see her in silhouette or from high above. We keep our distance.

This is so we don't realize that "Mother" is actually Norman, wearing his dead mother's clothing and killing women he finds sexually attractive. But it also creates a notion that Mother is omnipresent and omniscient, constantly aware of her son and what he's up to. She's like the oft-repeated threat of your mother having eyes in the back of her head, taken to its logical extreme.

But she's also a bit of a one-note monster, because she literally just exists in Norman's head and is mostly there to "protect" him by guiding him to kill. And for as much as that makes sense in the film's portrayal of Norman's psychological makeup, it creates lots of problems if you're going to create a TV series where Mother is actually alive, and where Norman interacts with her every day.

Now, if you're going to create a series about how Norman Bates slowly loses his grip on reality and embraces this alternate identity who is a more murderous version of his own mother, there are tons of places to go wrong.

The first would be to make the actual, living Mother as much of a monster as Norman's fictional version of her. The second would be to play up the campy side of the "Mother" persona, or Norman's cross-dressing. And the third would be to push the story into outright incestuousness, with Norman seducing his mom or vice versa.

Where Bates Motel has managed to avoid all of those pitfalls is in turning the Norman of the film into the boogeyman. He's always there, haunting the proceedings, looming over even the series' happiest scenes.

Norma is both a great mother and a terrible one — for many of the same reasons

Bates Motel
Norma visits Norman (Freddie Highmore) at the mental hospital where he commits himself.

The best decision Bates Motel ever made was to make Norma Bates a genuinely good mother, save for her one tragic flaw.

She has sacrificed nearly everything for her sons. She wants to always be with them, to make sure they're okay. And the more we see of both her horrible upbringing and the darkness that surrounded Norman when he was a child, the more we understand why she tried as hard as she could to shield him from harm.

But those good, motherly qualities are also what help further her son's embrace of his murderous side.

Because she doesn't want to be apart from Norman, he becomes dependent on her. Because she shields him from life's darkness, she's afraid to make him confront the darkness growing inside of him until it's too late. And because she's given so much of herself for her sons, Norman is all the more surprised when she wants to have a life of her own. It ends terribly for both of them.

Thus, Bates Motel can credibly argue that Norma Bates is a contender for mother of the year, while also understanding why her presence was so psychologically damaging to her son, to the degree that he spies on her having sex with her new husband.

Creating a character whose strengths and faults are only separated by slight matters of degree is a tricky thing, and Bates Motel hasn't always been successful at portraying Norma as someone whose relationship with her son could be both semi-functional and deeply damaging, especially in its first season, which too often made Norma seem like a monstrous presence, dominating her son's life.

But the longer the show has run (and the more time Farmiga has gotten to craft the character), the more the show has dug into the idea that good parenting and bad parenting ultimately aren't all that different, especially if there's nothing you can do to ensure your son doesn't disappear into his own psychological trauma.

The horror of motherhood isn't necessarily that your child might become a monster, or might reveal himself to be completely unknown to you.

No, as Bates Motel successfully argues, the horror of motherhood is that you can know everything about your child, can be certain of the right path for him, and still be undone by the simple fact that monsters aren't created in momentous explosions. They're created by long paths lined with the best of loving intentions.

Bates Motel airs Mondays on A&E at 9 pm Eastern. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.