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“BATES MOTEL: Season 3, Episode 1” (TV Review)

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To this writer, there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing the direction that BATES MOTEL will eventually go, and the, dare we say, change in Norman’s voice that’s been teased in A&E’s previews for season three. But, BATES MOTEL still has to get there, and  I have to give A&E credit in that the first episode of the third season is much better written than most of season two, especially in terms of the oh-so-uncomfortable approach to Norman and Norma’s familial relationship. And with strong writing comes strong performances, and luckily, strong direction, which all makes “A Death in the Family” a solid lead in with a promise of something much creepier.

Without giving too much of the episode, BATES MOTEL makes some leaps and bounds in terms of character development: Norman and his dying beau Emma make their relationship official, Norma deals with the death of her [supposedly insane] mother, and Dylan faced demons both past and present. But even with those elements present, BATES MOTEL’s return is also planting the seeds for something much more familiar, as audiences get a firm look at “peeping tom” Norman as he looks in at a showering call-girl and Norma’s cognizance that her relationship with Norman is more important to be comforting than conventional. Of course, whether the show takes the unlikely route of making Norman and Norma similar to their PSYCHO IV origins is another question entirely, but at least the show isn’t afraid to make two completely empathetic characters incredibly creepy (in every sense of the word.)

BATES MOTEL season three also seems to be starting to strive away from some of the aspects that made the first two seasons weak. The town’s drug economy angle, while a catalyst for some important tension on the show, has always been a distracting sub-plot with a rare sense of consistency, especially in season 2, and its presence appears to be minimal thus far in the premiere. The show is also finding a greater dynamic with Norman as well, and the fact that the show is addressing his occasional sense of normalcy with Emma so soon is refreshing. And yet the premiere of BATES MOTEL’s greatest success might be in allowing a greater insight into PSYCHO Norman, and this writer has a feeling that the show will finally make explicit what so much of us assume sooner rather than later.

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The episode, directed by Tucker Gates, features some effective visual composition as well. This writer is continually surprised by the exceptional use of cinematography on the show, using space, depth and color in a way that many other horror programs only dreamed of achieving. Even the weaker moments in the premiere are made more effective by the visual intimacy on display, which also helps establish a tonal consistency between the bolder moments, such as Romero’s violent show-of-force, and the quieter moments, such as Norman’s descent into his “episodes.”

Speaking of, the show certainly benefits from the quality of acting as well, with every actor bringing their A-game to the table. Freddie Highmore is absolutely phenomenal in the premiere, and his nuanced physical language when he begins descending into his hallucinatory state is worth praising alone. While Vera Farmiga isn’t given as much as Highmore, she also delivers a strong performance, particularly when she catches Norman in a state of perversion. And the supporting cast is great as well: Max Theriot and Kenny Johnson do a superb job working off one another, while Olivia Cooke, Nestor Carbonell and Tracy Spiridakos all offer their best in their limited screen time in the premiere.

Overall, BATES MOTEL seems to be significantly stepping up it’s game from season two, and should the show stay on it’s current path, there’s a good chance we may be looking at the best season yet. Furthermore, “A Death in the Family” gives Highmore some of his most subtle work to date, and at times, gives Tony Perkins a run for his money. Hopefully, BATES can keep up the creepiness and play down the campiness that made season two such a narrative roller coaster.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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