I never thought Bates Motel was going to work. Back in 2013, I just saw it as one of the first in a lineup of several TV shows based on horror movies. Hannibal came out around the same time and I could see a fully formed idea of what that show was going to be. That one immediately made sense. I remember being more excited for NBC’s Dracula than Bates Motel, which is astonishing in retrospect. It’s not that I didn’t think a TV series based on Psycho could work or that there was nothing about it that interested me—even before I took a serious interest in the show, I thought the casting of Freddie Highmore was genius.
But the concept, when I first heard it, sounded destined for failure. I totally got the idea of going back and telling the story of Norma and Norman, an extremely, obsessively close relationship that we never actually got to see in Psycho. Telling the story of the days leading up to her death interested me.
But doing it in a modern setting? That just sounded like a terrible idea. Other than stylistic choices and pushing the boundaries of censorship, Psycho was not an aggressively modern film. It was black & white in a time when most movies were moving away from that and Norman himself has always been portrayed as a man of old-fashioned tastes.
The things that tend to kill most reinterpretations of classic properties are the new elements that they introduce. Bates Motel revolutionized the TV adaptation by making its new additions some of the smartest, most innovative elements of the show.
Introducing a brother for Norman was a huge curveball at first, but it made perfect sense. Nothing embodies the fact that nothing could ever come between Norman and Norma like introducing a third person into that relationship. Dylan’s growth over the course of five seasons was mesmerizing to watch. He started out as a hostile, screwed up kid, the perennial third wheel in his own family.
But he grew up. And even if he was working in a highly dangerous, illegal environment it quickly became clear that he had a better understanding of right and wrong than his mother or brother ever could.
Emma Decody was introduced as a best friend for Norman, someone for him to play off of, someone for him to connect with and even a potential love interest to spark his mother’s jealousy. She was the classic character that you take one look at and just know that she’s going to die. At the start of the show, Emma was literally already dying. The first thing Norma asked her was “What’s your life expectancy?” But she kept fighting and became one of the most sympathetic and empathetic characters on TV.
But the brilliance of Bates Motel, as with any great TV series, is that it never did the expected thing. You never knew exactly where it was going. Sometimes the characters everyone expected to die didn’t, and vice versa. That’s amazing, considering that this was a series designed with an end in sight. From the pilot, people were already guessing where it would probably end. Everyone expected that the show had to end with Norman killing Norma, propping her up in the window, and maybe the last shot would see Marion Crane pulling up to the motel.
Then the end of the fourth season completely changed all of that. Once you go beyond that point, nobody knows what to expect. By doing their own loose retelling of Psycho, the show truly became its own entity, its own world. That’s so ironic, but so fitting, that actually embracing and reimagining the classic story would leave viewers with the least ability to predict what would happen next.
Once the final season began in earnest, once we saw what the story would be, it became increasingly obvious how Norman’s—and Dylan’s for that matter—story would end. But sometimes the expected thing isn’t always the wrong thing. This series achieved a powerful balance between doing something that would keep audiences on their toes and doing something that might be predictable, but was nonetheless right for the characters. I knew where this story would end and I knew that it would have to end there, but it wasn’t until the very last shot that I actually understood why it would have to end there.
Most shows don’t ever get to tell the whole story that they want to tell. Most great series end before their time. It’s an amazing thing that Bates Motel knew when to get in and when to get out. It’s easier to let go of something when you know it ended exactly where it needed to.
Of course, it’s not too easy. I know that I, as well as fans all over the world, will miss not having a new season to look forward to. As a Psycho fan, it’s been amazing to have this story unfold so consistently for the past five years.
While the show has come to its end, no series is ever truly over for its fans. We’ve come to love, hate, and deeply identify with these characters. We’ll miss Dylan, Emma, Romero and especially the star-crossed duo at the center of it all: Norma Louise Bates and her lonely, isolated motel owning son. Norman may be gone, but the fans will always be thinking of him. He will always live on in our minds.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.