Though Emma wasn’t a big part of season two, Bates Motel has been getting the most out of her character this season. In “The Arcanum Club,” she goes on a date with Norman, and after a couple of flirtatious moments flitting around the topic of sex, Norman says something telling about his experiences: he asks if she ever felt bad after sex, like it’s some regression in behavior that should immediately make one question morals. Emma replies that sex is important, it’s the process of birth, but it shouldn’t make someone feel like they’ve murdered a kitten (I’m paraphrasing here). And then she shoots right to Norman’s psychosis: that his mother loves him a bit too much, coddling him into thinking that any close relationship with another woman is somehow wrong.
It’s a profound diagnosis from Emma, one that doesn’t seem to affect how she feels about Norman. She’s in love with him, so even something as large as sexual trauma won’t deter her. But “The Arcanum Club” gets close to the trappings of Norman Bates as a predator, and throughout the episode, as Norma tries to figure out just what happened to Annika Johnson after she took off with Norman, Bates Motel keeps coming back to Norman’s relationship with his mother and her classic interpretations of good, bad, and slutty.
It helps that Vera Farmiga is on her game this episode. Norma is having a tough time attempting to distance herself from her son, a son becoming increasingly pervier with every turn, and the missing new girl in town becomes an obsession for her. Norman lies to her about seeing Annika the night before, fueling her suspicions, but the episode begins with Norma already suspecting that Norman has something to do with it because she knows what he can do.
It pushes her to search Annika’s room, finding an invitation to a prestigious event called The Arcanum Club, a place where rich people get together to do debauched things because they can. As a call girl, Annika was going to be the belle of the ball, to put it mildly, and so Norma dolls herself up and heads out the estate hoping to find Annika herself.
Unfortunately, she still can’t get in with the invitation. In the second-funniest moment of the episode, Norma stutters and stammers and looks her invitation all over as a guard asks her for the password at the front gate. After moments of humiliation, she finally turns back to him and says, “I don’t think I know the password.” It’s a great moment, not only showing the desperation she feels but also how bad she is at this game.
Undeterred, though, she sneaks in through the back gate, only to find a guy watching people having sex and then Sheriff Romero. He promises he’ll try to find out about Annika, sending her home because it’s “dangerous,” and on the way back we get to the funniest moment of the episode: Norma, seeing the big bridge sign that will soon section off her motel from the main drag, first tries to kick it over, then gets in her car and rams right through it.
This is Bates Motel at its best; it recognizes the humor in Norma and Norman, that things don’t always have to be super bleak. It also humanizes Norma as a woman, not just a mother to Norman doing some questionable things. Throughout “The Arcanum Club,” Norma continually sighs and bites her lip when thinking about Norman and Annika, nearly telling him that he’s a danger to “loose women”; she kind of knows what’s going on, but she’s having trouble believing it, and more than that she doesn’t want to believe it.
Bates Motel seems like it’s not going to cop out, either; in the final scene, we get a shot of a naked body floating in the water, albeit face-down. Is it Annika? It sure looks like Annika from behind, but we can’t be sure until next episode.
On the Dylan front, we find out that Caleb hasn’t left town. In fact, he’s helping Dylan and his friend build that medicinal weed farm out on the outskirts of town. They kill a dog and then meet their neighbor Chick (Ryan Hurst, hanging out with his Sons of Anarchy buddy Kenny Johnson), a weird hippie fella with a lot of sweet talk draped in menacing undertones. Dylan’s storyline is still way on the outskirts of whatever else Bates Motel is up to, which is why this is brought up more as an aside than anything else; but the confrontations between Caleb and Chick are well done, a tension created between them immediately.
“The Arcanum Club” is one of the best episodes of Bates Motel in some time: it’s a murder mystery wrapped up in the Norma/Norman conflict, with a drug sidestory. But it’s also the Norma Bates Comedy Hour, and that alone sells the episode. Still, the show is doing big things with Norman’s psyche this season, really starting to dig into that sociopathic complex he’s got going on; what’s even more important, though, is that his problems are slowly enveloping Norma and Emma.