Bates Motel

What it Tells us about Our Schizoid Political Culture

Photo by Maxime Roedel on Unsplash

Someone on Reddit recently claimed that Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) in Season Five (the finale) of Bates Motel (A&E, 2013–2017) likened himself to President Donald Trump — “Something about ‘There are many people who are crazy, some of them heads of state. I think I can manage running a motel.’” Bates Motel might not be about Trump per se, but it does say something about the culture that elected him — a people in denial. White Pine Bay, Oregon, is a village that refuses to face up to its own social pathology. Bates Motel creators recognize that the town they’ve created has an unsavory underbelly. Just how unsavory, and what it is exactly that we’re meant to do about it, is another question.

Dysfunctional Family Drama

Norman and Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), son and mother, move from Arizona to the village of White Pine Bay, Oregon. It turns out that Norma (and maybe also Norman ) were abused by Norman’s father, Sam Bates (David Cubitt) — And Sam was apparently killed by Norman. There is Norman’s half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot) that soon shows up, whose estranged situation and gruff demeanor make him inaccessible.

Finding Norma and Norman at the dinner table, Dylan calls them “Mr. and Mrs. Bates.” Dylan tries to warn Norman about staying too close to their cloying, neurotic mother, but to no avail. Dylan soon leaves home and goes into the local and then-illegal cannabis trade. It’s the frying pan into the fire on some levels, because Dylan is having to work for some hard-boiled players like Zane Morgan (Michael Eklund). But Dylan has been around the block a few times, and eventually finds his way.

Psychopathology

Norman’s inability to deal with his murderous behavior forms the tragic, psychological main plot of Bates Motel. As Norman goes in deeper, he eventually kills off just about everyone. Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke), who has Cystic Fibrosis, becomes best friends with Norman (and they also date briefly later on). It is her mild-mannered but principled father, Will Decody (Ian Hart and Andrew Howard) who teaches Norman about taxidermy, never knowing his mentee’s inner workings.

Emma, meanwhile, gains the confidence of Norma and helps her run the motel. But Emma has no clue that Norman is anything but normal (healthy normal, because weird normal is fine) until her own, estranged mother, Audrey Ellis (Karina Logue) is murdered by him in Bates Motel. In the end, Emma —who undergoes a successful lung transplant — and Dylan — who has since found more legit work in Seattle — become a couple. They have an adorable child and enviable lifestyle.

Is this what Bates motel is really about? Partly, yes.

TV shows often have grappling ideologies that reflect class conflicts — In modern capitalist society it is usually the ruling class’s agenda that wins. But Bates Motel, by revealing that diseased underbelly of Everytown, USA, is exposing societal hypocrisy. The town in Bates Motel, White Pine Bay, with its vigilantism, murderous power struggles and organized crime, is certainly pathological, but is it purely psychological?

The Pathology of Normalcy

Industrial capitalist society, the Marxist-Humanist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm told us decades ago, is what is most seriously schizoid — not so much the individual citizen. There is, as he put it, “the pathology of normalcy.” In Bates Motel, Norman’s mother is aptly named Norma , because she is, in certain respects, frighteningly normal. Norma wants to “protect” her son and refuses to believe that he is the killer of several women and men in the town.

The Normans are normal because they look, dress and outwardly perform the same things that almost everyone else does. Their clothes are clean, attractive and stylish. They drive a Mercedes. They eat pot roast for dinner. They own a business. They date people their own age. What happens in Bates Motel is that several different discourses are taking place. Bates Motel is about humanity in crisis in a small town but also about the shortcomings of dog-eat-dog society.

The Normans are Not Normal

Bates Motel, to its credit, shows us that under the surface, the Norma’s and Norman’s of this world are messed up — Unbeknownst to everyone in White Pine Bay besides Dylan, Norman sometimes sleeps in the same bed with his mother. Her brother Caleb Calhoun (Kenny Johnson) and she shared an incestuous experience — rape, actually, a situation that Caleb believes was virtually forced on them as children. Norma has not emerged unscathed. She raised Norman and continues to ring him in emotionally by frequent crying jags and guilt trips about going out with women his own age.

Norman’s victims include one of them, Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz), but also the seductive high school teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), and others. James Finnegan (Joshua Leonard) isn’t killed but only scared off, because he loves Norma and is onto him— James gets whacked when he asks Norman, “Do you want to sleep with your mother?” Dr. Gregg Edwards (Damon Gupton), one of the very few people of color in the show (Rihanna appears briefly as Marion Crane), fares worse when he is apparently killed by Norman after diagnosing him with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Yes, the Bateses are extreme. This is, after all, a Hollywood TV series. Yet, how unusual is White Pine Bay? And what is it really about (besides the obvious)?

What is Bates Motel About?

  • Psychology
  • Tribalism
  • Capitalism

Norma/Norman kills people. Norman is the physical killer but Norma is his persona when he kills, and she has killed in self defense, hiding the intruder, Bates Motel’s former owner, Keith Summers’ (W. Earl Brown) body so that she won’t have to involve the police. In White Pine Bay, vigilantism reigns.

Unfortunately, it’s not that far off from what the current U.S. president engenders among some of his followers. Small-town justice is all about Tribalism. Note that the town is White Pine Bay, not Green Pine Bay or Cypress Tree Bay. In a good script (barring biopics and some historical dramas) — which Bates Motel certainly is — names are rarely assigned by default. Most of its inhabitants are white, but what else is going on?

Tribalism: Who Owns Bates Motel?

Bates Motel is the small-town pastoral but in its ugliest aspects. In classic prime-time television, the sheriff or police chief is always a terrific guy who wears a clean uniform and saves the town from cretinous outsiders — Think Dragnet, Seventh Heaven, or a number of Lifetime dramas. But nowadays, and definitely in Bates Motel, the town sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is, despite his upstanding demeanor, somewhat less than stable — In the show’s final season, he goes rogue. This may be a common trope but, in its subversion of the classic archetype, not an insignificant one.

Alex’s beloved Norma is a troubled woman whose relationship with her son is not healthy. She also needs professional help. Alex may be smart and capable of love, but not thoughtful enough to see what’s in front of his nose.

By contrast, Dylan, the sullen loner, turns out to be the most sane.

In the end, the Bateses lose the motel because they’re dead — The epilogue shows an Asian woman about to take over the motel. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Bates Motel is about the implosion of white American USA, the series is evoking a kind of status-quo society that, while respectable on the surface, is deeply troubled.

The foreclosure in Bates Motel’s opening sequence is the first sign that the series is about more than individual pathology — It is about the casualties of the post-2008 financial crisis and runaway neoliberalism. Foreclosures were still going on a decade after the accompanying housing crisis.

Capitalism

The US economic system, like White Pine Bay, is based on cruelty and denial of oppression. But in Bates Motel, the victims of the housing and financial crises are construed as rapists— The man in question is Summers, the former owner who lost his Seafairer Motel to foreclosure by the bank. Bates Motel writers present him as a lowlife who owned a sex-slave business. But the real sufferers of foreclosure are not vicious raping pervs. They are actually fairly healthy people who are not even necessarily white. Typically, foreclosure victims are often those of color — Is facing the racialized nature of late capitalism too painful to show the truth? Apparently so.

Summers, along with Norma, Norman, Alex, and others in White Pine Bay, are deeply flawed human beings. But Bates Motel is not just about the ruination of fallible townspeople, or the psychopathology of Norman Bates. It’s about the implosion of a society that has had its fill of the status quo. The question is how we can move forward once that precipitous descent occurs. On that, Bates Motel yields back to us, the viewers.

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