'Bates Motel' Season 4 Preview: It's Norma vs. Norman

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The Season 4 poster of "Bates Motel."
The Season 4 poster of "Bates Motel."

How do you solve a problem like Norman Bates?

A) Develop an uncomfortably close relationship with your son

B) Encourage his taxidermy habit in your dimly lit basement

C) Place him in charge of your off-the-beaten-track motel

D) Seek professional help immediately

After three seasons of exhausting choices A through C, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), mother to burgeoning serial killer Norman (Freddie Highmore), is going with option D. Exploring the psychopathy of Alfred Hitchcock's infamous mama's boy marks a turning point for "Bates Motel," A&E's always inventive "Psycho" prequel series. Propelling the storytelling in Season 4 dangerously close to beginning of the original film, the Bates family's darkest secret is out in the open for the first time ever. But before Norman completely abandons normalcy to become Norma, "Bates Motel" is checking into a different kind of facility as a last-ditch effort to prevent what's left of him from going down the drain.

The final moments of the third season finale found Norman and his hallucinatory vision of his mother, dubbed "Bad Norma," watching a car with the bludgeoned body of teen runaway in the trunk sink into the ocean. The opening scene of the new season borrows this imagery with a ship disappearing into open water, covering up yet another crime in the sleepy coastal town of White Pine Bay.

This motif speaks to the defining spirit of the series. "Bates Motel" foreshadows the characters' inevitable fates, while instilling hope in the audience that maybe there's a small chance Norma's mummified corpse won't end up in that cellar. Described as a "wonderful romantic tragedy" by series creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, "Bates Motel" is acutely aware of its own narrative expectations because of how often it subverts them.

"The arc of the series was to get the audience deeply invested in Norma and Norman, so that when Norman's pathology becomes much more overt and dangerous, we really care about both their fates," Cuse told The Huffington Post. "Our hope is that you can walk a line where you can still care deeply about Norma and Norman, even as things get worse and worse for them."

This season pivots the story toward its forgone conclusion -- the fifth season will be the last -- as we find Norman "activated" and a danger even to the one he loves most, his mother.

"[Norman's] now gotten to a place where he’s losing his ability to control his own personalities and sense of reality. The normalcy of his life is slipping away from him," Cuse said. "The question becomes whether he can really be helped personally or professionally."

Enter Pineview Institute, a ritzy mental health facility and *spoiler alert* Norman's new home for the season. Following perhaps the most intense scene shared between Farmiga and Highmore in the series' history, involving mother and son chasing each other around the house with a giant pair of scissors, Norman is sent for treatment at Pineview. Cuse hints he will form a close relationship with one of the other patients, but hopefully, for his or her sake, not too close.

At Pineview, Norman's mental illness -- he has dissociative identity disorder, or DID -- is under the microscope and out of the closet like never before. His deadly blackouts, Oedipal obsession and violent tendencies toward women are now subject to analysis by new psychiatrist, Gregg Edwards (Damon Gupton), who will appear throughout the season.

"We try to honor Norman in the sense that this is a mental disorder, and mental disorders have a life of their own," Ehrin said, explaining how the series strives to represent this aspect of the character authentically. "They're not structured or gimmicky. They don’t always do the same thing. We’re very much on the ride with Norman because he’s at the mercy of how his brain functions."

Norman experiences blackouts during which he adopts the "Bad Norma" persona and murders women who pose a real or imagined threat to his relationship with his mother. In a few scenes throughout the series, we've seen Highmore play Norman embodying Norma, dressing in Farmiga's clothes and assuming her mannerisms and inflections. A particularly effective moment in the premiere where Norman's looking at himself, or better yet herself, in the mirror stands out. Ehrin revealed that before these scenes, Highmore sometimes recorded Farmiga delivering the lines as Norma to perfect her expressions and movements.

Gender bending is a key part of Norman's DID and raises the question of whether this season will address the fluidity of Norman's gender identity. Although viewers should prepare to see more of Norma(n) in Season 4, Ehrin maintains that this component of his psychopathy has less to do with the character's experience as a man or a woman and instead acts as another tether to his mother.

"We see the [gender bending] as part of the disorder because it is so connected to his mother," Ehrin clarified. "Whatever permutations there are aside from that are valid, but it wasn’t the drive of the storytelling. It really is about his obsession and needing literally to absorb her."

Norma, however, remains in the dark about the particularities of her son's condition and how he channels her in his dissociative state. The crux of the new season speaks to this tension, as she learns more about his blackouts and feels increasingly less confident in her ability to control them. Left with no other option, Norma is forced to draw the line between her instinct to unconditionally love her son and protect herself from a demise by his hands. This narrative shift serves as the driving force behind this season, inching the "Bates Motel" universe toward its eventual overlap with Hitchcock's "Psycho."

One of the biggest attractions of a show that explores the backstory of a villain is understanding the ways in which Norman develops into the man who stabbed Marion Crane in the shower. As "Bates Motel" has matured as a series, it has only become more compelling, constructing a world that rivals the original film's depth and character-based complexity. Walking the line between paying homage to a cinema classic and maintaining the originality of its own story is no easy task, but somehow the series has done just that. Now "Bates Motel" is finally fulfilling its potential; after three seasons worth of empathizing with Norma and Norman, it's time to watch them go totally psycho.

The fourth season of "Bates Motel" premieres Monday night on A&E at 9 p.m. ET.

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