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Bates Motel has finally caught up with Psycho, and it’s glorious

The Psycho prologue understands the one thing every prequel needs to remember.

Bates Motel
The Bates Motel is open for business.
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.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 26 through March 4 is “The Convergence of the Twain,” the second episode of the fifth and final season of A&E’s Bates Motel.

My favorite movie podcast, Blank Check, began its life as a series dedicated to dissecting the Star Wars prequels. For 10 episodes at a time — yes, 30-some episodes about the Star Wars prequels — hosts Griffin Newman and David Sims (a friend and former co-worker of mine at the A.V. Club) would examine the films through a surprisingly robust lens: What are these movies about if you pretend the other Star Wars movies don’t exist?

The answer, as it turns out, is, “Not much.” All three movies really only make sense if you know that Anakin Skywalker eventually becomes the main villain from the original Star Wars trilogy. They’re extensions of another story that can’t really stand on their own; and the idea that director George Lucas believes the Star Wars films should be watched in chronological order, rather than in the order of their release dates, is weird and maddening.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with prequels. When your story exists solely because another, more famous story made somebody somewhere think, “Hey, I wonder what happened before?” you’re trapped. The ending is already known.

But that isn’t even the most challenging aspect of a prequel. Even harder to escape is the thought that the story only makes sense within the context of the later story’s ending. The only reason to follow Anakin is that you know what’s going to happen to him. As a character, he’s not particularly interesting.

Yet prequels are still being made, because hey, slap the words “Star Wars” on something, and people will go see it. And most prequels could stand to learn something from A&E’s Bates Motel, a Psycho prequel that has kicked off its fifth and final season in style.

Norman Bates is a murderer. Bates Motel uses that tension to drive empathy for both him and his mother.

Bates Motel
Norman and his Mother are close.

To be sure, Bates Motel has suffered its own prequel problems in the past. The story of serial killer Norman Bates in the years before his life murderously intersected with Marion Crane in Psycho isn’t inherently interesting, unless you’re super into hotel management. And for its first season and a half, Bates Motel struggled to give its characters enough to do while the audience waited for the Psycho ties to develop.

But in season two, Bates Motel finally zeroed in on a theme that had always been present on the show but hadn’t enjoyed the focus it might have merited: How do you care for a loved one who has a condition that makes them a threat to society?

Bates Motel suggests that Norman’s life is just the latest turn in an endless cycle of tragedy. Norman’s mother, Norma, was raped by her brother, resulting in a child (Norman’s older brother, Dylan).

Then Norma married an abusive man (Norman’s father). Norman, deeply affected by the trauma all around him, began suffering blackouts, when he slipped into another persona that dealt violently with the problems that meek, buttoned-down Norman couldn’t handle. As the show continued, that persona became what fans of Psycho knew it must: Norman’s subconscious version of his own mother.

The catch is that Bates Motel’s main character wasn’t Norman, though Freddie Highmore’s work as the character has been surprisingly nuanced and terrifying. Instead, it was his mother, played by Vera Farmiga, who ruled the series. Norma wasn’t the best mother alive, but she did love her son and worried about what would happen if he were taken from her and institutionalized. So she decided to try to care for him on her own, even though she knew something was horribly wrong with him — something she couldn’t quite bring herself to speak of out loud.

Farmiga has given one of the best performances on TV for Bates Motel’s entire run, as both “real” Norma and the version that lives in Norman’s head. The series began to figure itself out when it succumbed to the gravity of Farmiga’s sometimes campy, sometimes poignant, always next-level work.

Prequels almost always play best when they operate as tragedies, when they use the audience’s knowledge of what’s to come as an ironic counter to what’s happening onscreen. But they also need to play as stories in and of themselves. As Bates Motel grew in strength and quality, the show blended these two elements together. Norma tried desperately to help her son learn to cope with his mental illness, in what ultimately played out as a twisted family drama. But we always knew she wouldn’t — and that eventually, she would become one of his victims.

In season five, Bates Motel catches up to Psycho

Bates Motel
Complete with murderous “Mother.”

TV prequels are a special beast, because they can theoretically run for long enough to catch up to and maybe even overtake the source material that inspired them. Think of how Hannibal eventually got to the part where Hannibal Lecter was in prison and offering the FBI the knowledge it needed to catch serial killers. Or imagine how Better Call Saul will almost certainly get to the moment where Jimmy McGill officially becomes Saul Goodman, the morally unscrupulous lawyer we know from Breaking Bad.

In season five, Bates Motel has caught up to Psycho. Norma died late last season, though Farmiga remains on the show as Norman’s version of her. Norman took over the hotel, and the characters dancing around the edges of this season’s story have recognizable names — like Sam Loomis — that will cause fans of the movie to perk up their ears.

But now there’s a whole rich history behind who Norman is and the normal life he’s trying to preserve by keeping up the motel he and his mother ran together for so many years. The series is still a twisted family drama — Norman’s brother is still out there, after all — but it increasingly resembles something like Mr. Robot as well, with Norman endlessly trying to hold on to what remains of himself and figure out just what’s wrong with his head.

Because we know the specter of Psycho looms, like the famous silhouette of the Bates family home, every encounter Norman has with a character from the show’s history has an added charge. They weren’t in the movie, you might think. So nothing good can happen to them right now. This flips the script on the prequel problem — characters you know from the movie are “safe,” because you know whether they’ll die or make it out of the film alive. Characters who aren’t in the movie seem doomed, though you have no idea what might happen to them.

Bates Motel showrunners Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse have neatly ramped up the tension inherent in that sense of doom by leaping forward a couple of years and giving all of the series’ regular characters much more to lose. Former sheriff and Norma love interest Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is trying to prove, from prison, that Norman is a danger to society (he’s serving time for perjury charges largely unrelated to the show’s main plot, outside of getting him away from Norman for a while). Norman's brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has a baby daughter with wife Emma (Olivia Cooke), who just happens to be Norman’s ex.

Bad things are going to happen to these people, you slowly realize, and in the season’s second episode, Ehrin and Cuse unfurl the opening moves of their master plan. Norma’s brother and rapist, Caleb (Kenny Johnson), returns to White Pine Bay, home of the Bates Motel, to see his sister. (Dylan has cut off contact with his mother and Norman, so no one outside of White Pine Bay knows Norma is dead.) He discovers, soon enough, that she’s dead, and goes in search of what happened, after weeping by her grave.

Bates Motel’s portrayal of Caleb has always been clear-eyed about what he did to his sister, but also darkly sympathetic to the ways both he and Norma, raised by abusive parents, were scarred by the experience. He might have done monstrous things, but he also had monstrous things done to him, and Bates Motel suggests that the weight of all those monstrous things, carried forward over generations, results in people like Norman — people who are seemingly nice and normal but capable of great evil.

That’s how Caleb winds up in Norman’s basement, where he finds Norma’s taxidermied body, only to have Norman — dressed as his mother — whack him in the head with a hammer, presumably killing him. Trauma lives at the center of Bates Motel, but it’s not just a concept. It takes human form, sometimes as that nice, mild-mannered man behind the desk of a hotel lobby. And when we arrive at the events that made that man famous, we’ll understand him better, even if we can’t bring ourselves to forgive him.

Bates Motel airs Mondays at 10 pm EST on A&E. Previous episodes of season five are available on A&E’s website. The show’s first four seasons are available on Netflix.

Correction: This article originally said Romero was serving time for murder. He is in jail for committing perjury.

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