Tonight, A&E’s Bates Motel wrapped up its five-season run with the episode “The Cord,” and when you think about it that’s quite a feat considering how others have tried and failed to expand the universe of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.
The movie’s sequels during the 1980s were met with a lukewarm response by audiences and critics, even though Psycho II featured Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates and Vera Miles as Lila Loomis. Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake received the biggest cold shower of them all: it not only swirled down the drain financially with a $37 million global box office against a $60M negative cost in what was a loss-leading year for Universal, but also the director’s shot-by-shot experiment was seen as an abomination by critics.
But history didn’t deter Carlton Cuse, who was approached five years ago by then-Universal TV EVP Bela Bajaria and drama chief Russell Rothberg to revive the Hitchcock property for A&E. Kerry Ehrin was brought aboard to write the series, and Cuse instantly struck up a collaborative working relationship.
“As a writer, certain ideas work on your brain and I couldn’t stop thinking about this story in a contemporary setting and adding characters like a brother for Norman, and putting it in a Twin Peaks-like town setting,” says Cuse. “But I think we always labored under the shadow of the movie.”
Much like Christopher Nolan’s deconstruction and rebuild of the Batman series with its devotees, Cuse believed there was a similar creative license with Norman Bates. If there was a curse that impacted further iterations of Psycho, it’s arguable that Cuse and Ehrin laid them to rest, with Bates Motel earning three Emmy nominations during its run — one for Vera Farmiga’s lead dramatic turn as Norma Bates in Season 1 — as well as three Critics’ Choice TV awards including acting noms for Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norman.
Given their avant-garde approach to Psycho, Cuse and Ehrin staged the series’ fusion with the classic film during the middle of this season versus the end. There was no benefit in paying strict homage to Hitchcock (as proven by Van Sant), so Cuse and Ehrin broke rules in the “Marion” episode with a very different shower sequence and going against Hitchcock’s standard blonde type in casting Rihanna as the iconic Marion Crane, who gets to live given Norman’s emotional connection to her. The finale per the co-creators was never about building up to the movie.
“There was a larger story playing on in the larger part of the house,” says Ehrin about defying conventions.
Written by Cuse and Ehrin and directed by Tucker Gates, in “The Cord” we finally see the son laid to rest next to his beloved, dead mother.
“We were always telling an unconventional love story at the very center of the show between Norma and Norman,” says Ehrin. And given that co-dependent love, an ending that saw Norman alive and alone was never in the cards.
“If you held a gun to our heads in Season 1, and had us make the best guess on how this series would end, knowing we had to kill Norma, we would have likely said this was our ending,” Ehrin adds.
At the top of the finale, Norman leads ex-sheriff and Norma’s husband, Alex Romero, to her body buried in the snowy woods. Romero is decimated to see her corpse, and takes to beating the boy. He wants to kill him, but the scuffle ends with Norman pounding a rock into Romero’s head.
Did Romero have to die?
“Romero’s attempt to kill Norman is the most anti-Norma thing he could do, and from her grave he should be taking care of Norman,” adds Ehrin, “Had Romero killed Norman, it would have violated the love he had for Norma, but the anger took over him and got lost in it.”
Later on, Norman phones his brother Dylan (Max Thierot), who has been trying all season to get his younger brother committed to a mental hospital. Norman waves a white flag and invites Dylan to dinner so they can reconcile. Before entering the house, Dylan tells the motel’s newest guest to escape since his brother is nuts. Upon entering the dining room, Dylan is shocked to see his mother’s dead body sitting at the head of the table. The dinner climax brings to mind the ending of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, where Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling awakes to find Dr. Hannibal Lector frying a piece of her associate’s (Ray Liotta) brains and feeding it to him. However, Bates Motel’s climax wasn’t that gruesome.
“It wasn’t for any horror factor,” says Ehrin of the ending, “but it’s the most heartbreaking scenario that Dylan could walk into, for here was Norman insanely trying to re-live their lives together. Carlton and I leaned into the heartbreak.”
“You need to turn yourself in and we need to get you help,” Dylan tells Norman through tears.
“I can’t let you take me away from her,” Norman tells his brother, walking toward him with the token Psycho knife. But Dylan came to this knife fight with a gun. “Don’t ask me to do this,” he says before shooting Norman. In the final shot of the show, we see that the Bates Motel is up for sale, and with a potential buyer.
So given how Bates Motel threw the doors open on the expanded Hitchcock world, can we expect future TV series built around Rear Window, North By Northwest or other classics from the Master of Suspense?
Ehrin admits that “Hitchcock films lend themselves to expansion on television because so much of them is left out in the way that they’re structured. If you think about Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo, there’s some crazy stuff going on. It’s valuable to mine the expansions if you have the right people doing them; it’s about digging into the characters and all these things that Hitchcock doesn’t give a lot of time to (in his movies).”
Says Cuse firmly, “I have no plans to redo any Hitchcock movies. Bates Motel was a singular event, and the way this project evolved, it wasn’t meant to become a larger franchise.”