Bates Motel: Season One Blu-ray Review

Written by Steve Pattee

Blu-ray released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Various writers and directors
2013, Region A, 466 minutes, Not Rated
Blu-ray released on September 17th, 2013

Vera Farmiga as Norma Louise Bates
Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates
Max Thieriot as Dylan Massett
Olivia Cooke as Emma Decody
Nicola Peltz as Bradley Martin
Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Alex Romero
Mike Vogel as Deputy Zack Shelby
Keegan Connor Tracy as Miss Watson
Jere Burns as Jake Abernathy


When I first heard about the Bates Motel TV series, to say I was mildly interested would probably be an overstatement. I wasn't angry about it like many people because, you know, I wouldn't be forced to watch it. And I wasn't excited for it because even though I'm probably in the minority of actually digging the Psycho sequels, the teasers did nothing for me and young Norman Bates didn't look anything like Anthony Perkins. The latter reasoning is a bit silly, I know, but I would have liked some sort of semblance of the iconic character the TV show is based on. Now, after watching season one, I have promptly called myself an idiot for not jumping on it when it aired.

Bates Motel, a sort of a prequel to Psycho, takes place during Norman's younger years when he and his mom ran the infamous motel. I say sort of because it's set during present day. While Psycho is certainly a timeless movie, it's a bit jarring the first time you see a cellphone busted out in Bates Motel. There have been many complaints on the web about this decision, but I find that it adds to the surrealism of the show. Norma (yes, that's Norman's mother's name) purchased the house and hotel from the bank completely furnished, so all of the scenes that are inside the house seem to take place in the '50s whereas once you leave the front door you are transported to today. This somewhat subtle effect creates an unease that puts you in the right mindset for the show, in some strange way making you relate to Norman's troubled mind.

This first season of Bates Motel is 10 episodes and I can't help but love how the story develops as the season progresses. It's clear in the first episode that the show is not going to pull any punches by showing Norma (Vera Famriga) getting brutally raped. It's a damn uncomfortable scene, expertly shot in such a way that you don't see much more than Norma's handcuffed hand clinching a table leg as the violent act is happening. Not only does this scene give you enough to know that this show will get ugly when it needs to, it also establishes the mindset of our main characters by how they handle the situation – by not calling the police and instead dispose of the body on their own. You can't have bad press before your hotel opens, you know.

The two halves of the series are expertly delivered; the first half doesn't focus on Norman as much as it concentrates on how conniving and controlling his mother is. Vera Farmiga is so effective as the domineering matriarch, by the second episode you cannot imagine anyone else playing this role. Norma is incredibly manipulative, so much so that the viewer rides her emotional roller coaster along with Norman because there are times when you are siding with her 100% and minutes later she does something so devious you question why you like this character at all, and the whole thing is maddening. Farmiga is so impressive here it almost feels like the audience is Norman and she is our puppet master.

But all that changes in the second half of the season in one brilliantly executed move. There's a point where Norma explains to someone (I won't tell you who, because it would ruin the surprise) how Norman's father died, and that changes not just your impression of her, but the entire relationship between her and Norman as well. In the first part of the season, the mother/son dynamic is uncomfortable at times due to its incestuous overtones. However, once this reveal is presented, everything feels different, and all the pieces fall into place. Yet, here's the kicker: it could all be a lie and this would just be another of Norma's tricks. Either way, I'm hooked.

From that point, the story focuses a little more on Norman's psychosis. Freddie Highmore is quite impressive as the young psychopath. He does well with getting you to sympathize with the emotional plight with his mother, his social awkwardness in school, and his general frustration on why he just can't seem do to anything right when it comes to his mom and relationships. That alone would be enough to make his role in the show compelling, but when the character's darker side is revealed, Highmore's subtle portrayal of pure evil more than gets the job done.

It would be remiss to fail to acknowledge at least a few of the actors from an overall strong supporting cast. Nestor Carbonell (who, ironically, bears more than just a passing resemblance to Anthony Perkins) is absolutely terrific as Sheriff Romero. The town's top cop sees right through Norma's conniving ways, and he pulls no punches when telling her so. One of the best conversations this first season is between her and the sheriff when she mistakenly thinks she can manipulate him into getting what she wants. He makes it quite clear that she is to play that game somewhere else, and it's wonderful.

Olivia Cook is equally impressive as Emma, the girl who is crushing on Norman, but her love is unrequited. What's interesting about Emma is that she suffers from cystic fibrosis, so where she may be one of the weakest characters physically, emotionally she is one of the strongest. Sure, there is pain that she feels because Norman has his attentions on another girl (the most popular girl in school, to be exact), but she handles it maturely. It's a delicate balance to be both weak and strong, and Cook effortlessly delivers. Where normally you'd want to feel sorry for a character in this situation, you don't here. Cook plays it so you don't feel sorry for Emma. You don't root for her because of her condition, you do so because of her inner strength. And that scene where she turns up in the Bates' house high as a kite is wonderful.

While he doesn't show up until the last half of the season, Jere Burns makes an impact from his first moment on screen. Maybe it's because I'm a huge fan of his roles in Burn Notice and Justified, but this guy plays evil incredibly well, and it's no different here. You know the instant his character Jake Abernathy turns up that he's up to no good. I won't say what Abernathy's intentions are, as it would be a mild spoiler to one of the key plots of this first season, but it involves Norma heavily. And when he finds her following him, the mere fact that he bluntly states what he knows and what he intends on doing makes for another favorite scene. Burns is nothing short of fantastic in roles such as this, and here is no exception at all.

I would be lying if I said I wasn't surprised on how much I enjoyed this first season of Bates Motel. I had minimal expectations of it. But once I got into it, I was pleased to find that while the show (naturally) centers on Norman and his mother, it goes far deeper than that. Like the house in Psycho, the town in which the Bates reside is its own character as well. Seemingly filled with a variety of people with their own agenda (some good, most bad), the Bates clearly aren't the only kooks who live here. Couple that with an interesting plot (on top of that of Norman and Norma), strong writing and very impressive acting, and I was glued to the set episode after episode. If you haven't yet, you're going to want to check it out. Or, if you are a fan of puns, you're going to want to check into it.

Video and Audio:

Bates Motel is presented here in 1.78:1 1080p. Seeing how this aired nary a year ago, there is no reason why it shouldn't look terrific, and it does. The fine detail is great and colors are lush.

The DTS 5.1 Master Audio is equally impressive. This might be a dialogue-driven show, but the surrounds are appropriately used when needed and the score is never overpowering.

Special Features:

  • Deleted Scenes
  • Paley Center Panel Discussion with the Cast and Creative Team

While this Blu-ray is light on features, what is offered is a real treat. Aside from deleted scenes running 20 minutes, there is a nice panel discussion featuring Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot (Dylan Massett), Nestor Carbonell, Olivia Cooke, Nicola Peltz (Bradley Martin), and creators and executive producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin. Running about 45 minutes, the discussion is moderated by The Shield creator Shawn Ryan and topics range from how the idea for Bates Motel came about, the mother/son relationship, how the actors felt stepping into such big shoes, the Twin Peaks influence, and more. It's well worth the watch if you enjoyed the show as its a nice behind-the-scenes peek.

Also included is a set of the pictures from the sketchbook Norman found early on in the season (which is a pivotal piece of the story arc, but one I won't spoil). Those sketches were a pleasent surprise when I cracked open the case.


Movie: Grade Cover
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