Norma and Norman Bates are arguably the most complicated mother-son duo on television. They’ve got enough secrets to last a lifetime. And with that in mind, Bates Motel showrunner Kerry Ehrin is blogging some of the show’s most pivotal episodes, breaking down exactly what’s happening and why.
“The Vault” is a truly pivotal episode for Norma and Norman Bates, and it is, at its heart, a story about emotional healing. We wanted to tell the story this season of Norma and Norma being separated, and slowly allowing themselves to trust someone other than only each other. This is the episode where all these plates start spinning, and it was directed masterfully by Olatunde Osunsanmi.
We also wanted to dig into Norman’s past. What made him who he is? Why does he have dissociative identity disorder (also known as DID)? For people who may not know what DID is, it is a condition that can be brought on by repeated trauma in early childhood. Basically, if a child is consistently in a terrifying or threatening situation, they will literally “hide” inside themselves and create alternate, “stronger” personalities to go out and handle it. It is a fascinating disorder and contested by doctors. Some feel it doesn’t really exist. Others confirm its existence and have noted such things as blood pressure dropping or eye color changing when patients are in their alternate personalities. (Some people have asked why Norman doesn’t have alternates besides “Mother.” I actually think he does. I think Mother won’t let them out. We may see some of them in the future.)
So now that Norman has finally started to trust his doctor enough to begin to open up in front of him, we have these amazing scenes of Norman actually trying in therapy. And he’s terrified. Because he doesn’t know what’s in that black hole of his childhood that he’s shut out. It’s a riveting performance by both Freddie Highmore and Damon Gupton, who plays Dr. Edwards. (And for Hitchcock fans, Dr. Edwards is a name from the only psychological thriller that Alfred ever set in a mental institution, Spellbound.)
What Norman uncovers in these sessions with Dr. Edwards is truly horrific. We see the violent dysfunction he grew up with, we see that his mother did not know how to handle it and was in over her head. We see the incredible bond that was forged between Norma and Norman in the heat and heartbreak of this chaos. And we begin to understand why they are so important to each other; why Norma has created a relationship with her son where he is more like an equal than a child. He is her emotional partner. The ironic thing is that they are not “adults” together; he hasn’t lifted him up from “son” to “husband” status. They are both emotional children who cling to each other for safety and love. That is why it’s so bloody hard for Norma to have relationships with other men. On the surface, she knows Norman is her kid. But she is terrified on a deeper level of losing him if she connects with another man. They are truly co-dependent and feel they will dissolve without the other. But because they have never had therapy or been enlightened about it, they can’t understand it beyond the instinctual conviction that they will die without their “connection,” each to the other.
Meanwhile, Norma, for the first time in her life, has allowed herself to truly connect with a man. And a good man, Alex Romero. (Well, “good” by White Pine Bay standards. I personally love him because he loves Norma and he’s good to her.) She is experiencing a bliss and a peace she has never known because for the first time in her life she doesn’t have to worry about Norman’s safety. She knows he is being cared for and helped. So she has found herself deeply connecting to Romero. And now Chick Hogan (played by the amazing Ryan Hurst) has appeared on her doorstep to “fix her stained glass window” — but really he is trying to find out where Caleb (Norma’s brother) is, as Caleb left him for dead last season in a violent fight.
Chick gleans that Caleb is both Dylan’s father and Norma’s brother — and he puts together the pieces. He tells Norma he needs to find Caleb or else he will expose her secret. So Norma, for the first time ever, is presented with the conundrum: Do I protect myself by lying or do I step up and tell Romero this horrible secret? It’s a secret that has haunted her entire life and dictated much of it — that she slept with her brother when she was a young teenager.
It’s beautiful to watch Vera Farmiga in this episode as Norma emotionally wriggles around, trying to figure out the best way to handle it. Do I turn over Caleb? Can I do that to this man who has hurt me so much, and yet who I loved once, who was in many ways the “Norman” of my young life in a scary home? He’s the one person she connected with and trusted and loved until the day came that he violently turned on her. Combine this with her self-esteem issues that have been carved deep by her own childhood — her belief that she is unlovable and that Romero will stop loving her if she tells him such a harsh truth — and you have the makings of some Vera brilliance as she goes down different roads trying to feel her way through how to handle this without destroying herself or anyone else.
(An aside: The character of Norma, if she were healthier, if she had had therapy, would have a clearer picture of her relationship to Caleb. But she is not that person. She has a huge heart and not a lot of self-esteem. And he is Dylan’s dad. She has had to try and navigate that; as a mother, as an emotionally-damaged person, to try and figure out what’s right. She always makes choices that are better for the people she loves than they are for her. Although in the contemporary world that is seen as tragic, and it is, she is also heroic and valiant in that she is doing the best she can for those she loves without having had any true guidance herself. It is a role women have quietly played for centuries until they found voices. These women are, in certain respects, in my opinion, unsung heroes, as they were always so brave and doing their best in a world where they were mostly invisible. But I digress.)
So Norma is at this pivotal junction: how to handle this? And even though she gets off the hook with Chick, she finds herself doing the bravest thing she’s ever done: she tells the truth to this person she loves. Because she has come to understand that there can be no true intimacy when you live in a world of secrets. And going back to a world of secrets pains her more than the chance of losing Romero. It is a truly huge moment of growth for Norma. And Vera kills it in this scene. I mean, this is a f—ing monologue you would have weeks to rehearse if it were in a play. It’s that emotionally complex. And we, of course, are on our production schedule and have to pop these scenes out in a certain number of takes. And Vera just absolutely f—ing killed it on the first take. (Seriously, I cannot understand why she has not yet been recognized for her work on this show. She is truly brilliant. I thank God every day I get to write for her.)
Freddie Highmore is haunting in his portrayal of Mother begging Dr. Edwards to not make Norman remember his childhood. We can see for the first time, that Mother is a fully dimensional character with her own emotional agenda. It’s fascinating fodder for stories to come. Freddie is masterful in his portrayal of this woman that lives inside him and is trying her best to protect him. His performances this year as his role becomes even more complex and splintered have blown all of us away. (I’m not gong to say it again. Starts with “rec,” ends with “nition.”)
The title “The Vault” was inspired by something Vera said in an interview during season one: that Norma kept all of this emotional baggage stuffed away in this vault inside of her where it couldn’t possibly get out. This episode was about the first time Norma, of her own volition, opened the vault — and finally and for the first time truly started the journey to healing.
I want to close by giving a shout-out to our wonderful writers: Alyson Evans, Steve Kornacki, Erica Lipez, Scott Kosar, Tom Szentgyorgyi, Phil Buiser, and Torrey Speer. Thank you for all that you do! (And Freddie Highmore joined us this year for several weeks and also wrote a script for us. We will be blogging about that for his episode, 408, which is “Unfaithful.”)