“A Death in the Family” comes back from a season break with the announcement of Norma’s mother’s passing, news that she shrugs off as though it was an elementary school teacher. In passing, she tells Norman, “My mother died,” and he reacts with the shock one might expect from someone actually human. And yet Norma, going through the motions, drives him to school, flips out when he refuses to get out of the car, and continues on with her day. It’s the type of thing an avid watcher of Bates Motel would recognize as a classic Norma move – she makes Norman feel bad for her, then watches as he attempts to figure out what to do about it.
This time, it’s partially not her fault. The Bates’ all have difficulty handling emotions, and the shock that Norma feels about her mother’s death comes from her mixed feelings about her mom as a person. To put it simply, they didn’t have a great relationship, something that her brother Caleb reiterates when he comes back to visit Dylan. Their life as children was clearly difficult, and much like Norman’s closeness with his mother, Caleb and Norma adopted a lifestyle that protected them, even when it caused some mistakes… like Dylan.
“A Death in the Family” succinctly works around Norma’s mother’s death, that moment creating ripples that splash outward even if it doesn’t affect Norma on the surface. We see her attempt to push Norman away, only to draw him back in in a moment of grief. Their relationship has gotten even more incestual over time – the way Norman draws in his breath while putting his head to his mother’s breast is obscene without anything explicit – and the only one to notice is Dylan, recognizing grodiness and inappropriate behavior when he sees it.
Dylan has more to worry about than what his mom and brother are doing in bed, though. He’s attempting to rebuild his life as a legal pot farmer to the chagrin of Sheriff Romero. At the same time, Caleb’s return to town forces Dylan to get him out of town as soon as possible before he can present himself to Norma. Likewise, Romero takes heat from members of the drug trade after the DEA shuts it down; it’s nothing he can’t handle with a swift glass to the face, though.
“A Death in the Family” is a welcome return to Bates Motel at its finest though. Prior seasons have felt a long ways away from getting Norman to Psycho levels, but his growing psychosis is now being fueled by Norma as well – she’s allowing him to stay home from school and become a manager of the hotel. At the same time, Norman’s becoming a person more confident in his mental illness, allowing that world to blend in with reality in ways that haven’t been apparent before.
Part of this change is shown in the ways he is now able to pretend to be a “normal” person. His empathetic reasoning with Emma’s revelation that her illness has gotten much worse is to offer to go out with her, something she’s been wanting for some time. It’s a nice gesture that the audience realizes is clouded by Norman’s real interests. He seems to legitimately care for Emma, but at the same time, he’s unyieldingly attracted to the hot new woman staying at the motel named Annika.
The episode fulfills audience wishes for Norman and Emma to be together – I mean, she’s such a nice girl it’s hard to root against her, even when that means dating a potential crazy person – and it also dashes those hopes when Norman drives off with Annika during his date with Emma. Annika is a dirty girl, the kind that Norman finds alluring; she has the potential to be his victim, and “A Death in the Family” ends perfectly, with a picture of the Bates Motel’s vacancy sign as Norman pulls into the parking lot, alone with Annika’s car.
It may not be the most thrilling episode of Bates Motel in terms of action, but “A Death in the Family” starts season three off with a lot of necessary character-building, all the while advancing Norman’s slow descent into madness. The thing with this show is that the audience knows where Norman ends up; it’s the how that intrigues, and so far, Carlton Cuse and company have delivered a solid premiere episode that hints at a much darker Norman this season.