From its earliest days, A&E’s Bates Motel has been sold, described, and critiqued as a Psycho prequel: Here’s what Norman Bates and his beloved mother were up to before his life intersected with that of Marion Crane and his murderous ways were discovered.
“Marion,” the sixth episode (of 10) of the show’s final season, gives the lie to that description. This isn’t a Psycho prequel. This is a wholesale attempt to reimagine the Psycho mythos from the ground up, to reach a wholly different conclusion from the film that inspired it.
Psycho is one of the greatest twist movies ever made, ditching its protagonist (Marion) halfway through and forcing the audience to sympathize with a murderer it doesn’t yet know is a murderer. Alfred Hitchcock kept the bones of Robert Bloch’s novel, but he stripped out much of the context, leaving a story that gave the audience no steady place to stand.
Bates Motel, being a TV show, is fated to be all context. By leaping back and following Norman first as a teenager and later as a young businessman, it’s doomed to tell us so much more about the character, which means that even if we had no idea Psycho existed, it would be hard to surprise us once he started killing people. In its first season, the show tried to unleash a few twists (in particular when it revealed that Norman had already killed someone before the series began), but it eventually stopped trying to utilize major twists and became a stronger show for it.
That, perhaps, lulled the audience into a false sense of complacency, because now that Norman and Marion Crane have met again, everything has changed.
Bates Motel upends Psycho’s most famous twist
Major spoilers for Bates Motel — and Psycho, for that matter — follow.
Here’s the biggest, most obvious change Bates Motel makes: Norman, recognizing a kindred spirit in Marion, keeps himself from killing her, instead urging her to escape while she still can. (In one particularly meta moment, Marion, in the shower, where her film counterpart famously dies, says, “I’m not doing this,” before turning off the water and getting out. She’s referring to not putting up with the cheating boyfriend who drew her to town — but fans will get the wink to the movie.)
But Bates Motel knows that in an episode called “Marion,” we want to see somebody get stabbed to death in a shower, dammit, and it’s only too happy to oblige. Looking for her, Marion’s boyfriend Sam heads to the Bates Motel, which she’s already left. It’s been a long night for Sam, who’s lost both his wife and his mistress (Marion), so he hops into the shower.
Meanwhile, up at the house, Norman is trying to figure out why he keeps seeing his Mother, and why he keeps having conversations with her, when she died several years prior. (He killed her via carbon monoxide poisoning in her sleep. He attempted to kill himself as well but survived.)
She finally reveals that he created her as a proxy for his darkest emotions, and that when he disappears into that persona, he’s able to take action to rid himself of that darkness. And why did he need to create that persona? Because his abusive father was such a terrible man. And isn’t the world full of other terrible men who might deserve to be brought to justice?
Indeed, isn’t one showering over in one of the motel’s rooms right now?
In a sequence set to Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — rather than the famed violin shrieks of the film — Norman (as himself, not dressed as Mother) draws back the shower curtain and stabs Sam to death. Director Phil Abraham almost perfectly apes the film’s famed shower scene, only now the victim is a man who stands in for all the horrible things men have done throughout the course of the series.
This shift in storytelling is in keeping with the show’s slightly more feminist bent
To call Bates Motel a deeply feminist TV series would be misleading. This is still a show about a man whose heterosexuality gets so twisted that he puts on his mother’s clothes and kills women when he’s attracted to them, and there’s only so much room to maneuver within that.
But Bates Motel’s creators, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin (who also serves as showrunner), have always tweaked that idea here and there to push slowly but surely in one direction: If anybody is ruining the world, it’s dudes.
That’s a different tone from both the film and book, which posit Mother as a dark, demonic force that results from Norman’s awful parenting. But throughout its run, Bates Motel has suggested that what creates fatally damaged people like Norman is trauma, and the seeds of most trauma in the show’s universe are planted by men (though by no means exclusively by men).
While she was alive, Norma Bates endured horrible treatment at the hands of her brother (who had a sexual relationship with her), her husband (who abused her), and plenty of random men she had encounters with. The climactic moment of the series’ pilot involved a man attempting to rape her.
The series’ world is also a brutal one for the women Norman is attracted to, who die almost exclusively because he’s never been sure what to do with his sexual feelings. Bates Motel has more sympathy for Norman when it comes to how little he knows about what his murderous alter ego gets up to, but it doesn’t have sympathy for the act of murder itself. It’s always dark, always brutal, and always unnecessary.
Yet the murder of Sam twists that dynamic just a bit. The musical choice indicates as much — no longer is this a moment of terror, heard in those famous shrieking strings. Instead, it’s a moment of emotional catharsis. The point of view isn’t Sam’s. It’s Norman’s, as he tries to rid the world of everything that made him the dark, damaged person he is. Notice the scene immediately leading into the shower scene. It’s all Norman, arguing with Mother, trying to figure out what his life is meant to be. Picking up the knife, then, becomes an act of fate.
He’s found his true purpose, even as we know that he’s about to be captured, both by the authorities (as happens in Psycho) and maybe by his long-lost brother, Dylan, who has finally learned of Norma’s death and will presumably return to town. (Max Thierot, who plays the character, has been credited as a series regular all season long, and there’s no way the show kept him around to occasionally glower in far-off Portland.)
Oh, right: Rihanna is pretty good
The hype around “Marion” has mostly stemmed from the fact that Marion Crane would be played by pop star Rihanna — a big name, but an unproven actress. She was cast because Cuse read a Vanity Fair interview in which she said the series was her favorite show. Coincidentally, Cuse and Ehrin were looking for someone to play Marion who would have a very different vibe from Janet Leigh, who played her in the movie, and “has a different vibe than Janet Leigh” definitely describes Rihanna.
Rihanna won’t win any Emmys for her turn as Marion — weirdly, she has trouble portraying anger onscreen, when that’s both a major part of her pop star persona and one of the more obvious emotions to depict — but she’s pretty good, especially in the moments when she’s supposed to evoke Norman’s sympathy by drawing a line between how the two of them are both trapped by circumstances they didn’t create.
To be sure, these scenes place most of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of Freddie Highmore, who plays Norman beautifully as always. But Rihanna ably suggests a woman in over her head, who grasps at freedom in the moment it comes to her and ultimately doesn’t look back.
Yet even the portrayal of Marion — who is barely respected by the men in her office, and then only for her beauty — is in keeping with the season’s major theme. The dark side of masculinity is a horrible beast that exists everywhere, even in relatively innocuous settings. You don’t need to exist within the over-the-top, eerily campy world of Bates Motel to see its effects. You just need to leave your house to see it all around you.
That’s why Rihanna’s casting makes sense, even when she’s not the world’s greatest actress. Pop stars are always asked to offer a performance of gender in one way or another, and casting a pop star in the part of a character who barely amounted to a plot device in the original Psycho (even though she was the protagonist for half the film!), designed to eventually ensnare Norman, offers a quick shorthand for how the show views Marion versus how the film did. This Marion is also a plot device — but she’s one who realizes she can no longer be defined by the men in her life and survives for that revelation.
What Bates Motel has done in its final season is an impressive, tricky thing. It’s paid homage to a legitimately great film, a true cinematic classic, while also putting its own stamp on those themes and updating them for a modern era. (It even takes a stab at navigating the idea of Norman Bates’s alter ego without giving in to schlocky transphobia, as other Psycho-adjacent properties have in the past.) The series has always existed in an uneasy tension between the wholesome and the horrible, and “Marion,” with its notes of hope, catharsis, and murder, unites the two into something wonderful — call it wholesible.