It’s just a simple love story — of a boy who’s in love with his mother. “Bates Motel” returns for its third, oh-so-twisted season on A&E on March 9.
“This is the best season yet,” promises star Freddie Highmore (Norman Bates) who, along with executive producer Kerry Ehrin, talked to Variety about the violent twists ahead, their writing partnership and the possibility of Highmore taking a seat in the writers’ room.
How would you describe this season?
Ehrin: It feels like convergence and pressure.
Highmore: Internal and isolated, especially from Norman’s point of view. He becomes the manager (of the motel). He starts home-schooling. The people that he’s interacting with become fewer and fewer and he goes into himself. He’s more removed from everything but himself and the voices he hears.
You’ve said this is the best season yet. How so?
Highmore: You see the first two seasons as a setup toward Norman’s downfall and descent into insanity. The payoff of the first two seasons just rushes towards that.
Ehrin: It feels really good because it feels like we earned it, as opposed to coming out of the gate. That’s why it’s particularly delicious this season. You’re so invested in these people and you’ve been on this journey with them and you know it’s coming and you don’t want it to come but it’s also sort of thrilling when it does.
Highmore: It’s also this breakdown of the relationship between Norma and Norman which is also exciting.
Ehrin: It won’t ever happen completely. You have to think of the relationship as a math equation. There are different equations within the complicated equation. The fun part of it creatively is when a shift happens between them, it spins out all this great emotion and details that makes stories. It’s really fascinating. It’s just setting things spinning, and seeing if they’re going to run into each other or fall off the table.
They’re almost like magnets. You can pull them apart, but they always seem to snap back together.
Highmore: It’s like an elastic band. They’re stretched out but they always go back to their original shape. And in the third season the band is distorted but once it returns it’s never quite the same as it was before.
Ehrin: And you might find out you don’t even need the band. The trust very gradually starts to change not in an overt way at all, but how they are viewing each other or feeling out different things that have happened. If you think of it a marriage as we always have, stuff happens. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. If two people are supposed to be together in the end, they will be. And if not, one of them will end up dead.
Highmore: And we know which one.
How has Norman changed this season?
Highmore: Norman’s a lot more mature.
Ehrin: He thinks he is. No, he is.
Highmore: Especially with his self-awareness that he didn’t have before of what he’s done before and what he’s capable of. In that way, it’s a definite shift more to that husband/wife relationship where the power is much more evenly spread, sharing these moments of controlling each other. As opposed to the first two seasons, where Norman was very much the son in that power structure. He’s turning the tables.
Ehrin: It’s a control game. She had all the power last year. This is a whole new part of him we’d never gotten to try out.
Highmore: He was so manipulative.
Ehrin: Well, you learned from a good teacher.
Highmore: He’s still redeemable, but even the scene with Emma, it makes you wonder why he’s asking her to date him.
Does dating with Emma work out?
Ehrin: It works out in a way, as everything does on “Bates Motel.”
Ehrin: Emma’s going to stick around. Emma’s going to do all right. Emma has some good karma coming her way.
Is there anything going on between her and Dylan?
Ehrin: There is some kind of something something. Two islands that run into each other in the ocean.
Freddie, how do you not internalize Norman?
Highmore: People always ask me this, as if I go home and continue this “Psycho” character. I find the separation quite easy in terms of being home and being on set. On set, your mood on the day is reflective of the mood of the scene.
Ehrin: The thing with Norman is while he is crazy or psychotic and does bad things, he lives in a world that is actually very sweet. He doesn’t want to be lonely, he doesn’t want to be isolated, he wants to take care of his mother. He has very normal desires in that sense. He wants security and love.
But when you have to play something more aberrant, how do you get into the mindset of that?
Highmore: You do try to think as Norman. I always feel Norman feels guilty afterwards. He has that one singular focus that takes over his mind in a horrible way. And of course there are times when you see him fighting with himself and trying to pull himself out of that space. More and more it becomes this bubbling up of this fiction, of this completely different world where he’s hearing this voice of his mother. She’s guiding him. Season three becomes the relationship not only between Norman and Norma, but Norman and this fictional version of Norma. If Norman is ever more controlling of Norma, Mother Norma is in place to control Norman again
Ehrin: That’s going to be really fun to play with next year.
How complicit is Norma in creating Norman as a monster? Or was he just born bad?
Ehrin: If he’d had a different parent, things could have turned out differently. She’s dysfunctional. She’s super needy. She has a big black hole in her in that emotionally she can’t figure out how to fill up. A lot of the stuff she does wrong comes from that place.
How do you get through those intimate scenes?
Highmore: We always find the humor in it. Vera and I certainly push those intimate scenes to the point where it becomes funny. They call cut, and we burst into laughter. It’s the delicious waiting of how long can you extend a loving look or a nose rub to the point where you can’t take it anymore and are forced to laugh.
Ehrin: On screen it totally works. If it was all dark, it would be unpalatable. It would be unpalatable for me and (executive producer) Carlton (Cuse). We couldn’t get through it. We couldn’t have done it.
How much freedom do you have to tell the story when we all know how it ends?
Ehrin: Part of it is that’s not really where it ends. It’s the story of being on the journey with them. It doesn’t necessarily end where the movie ends. We get to cover a lot of territory that the movie doesn’t necessarily go into. When you think of him as a real person, it’s complicated and can go on for a long time. Especially when you’re dealing with someone’s brain and hallucinations and worlds that exist and don’t exist. There’s a lot to play with in that.
Highmore: But it’s great knowing the end. Because you can just play against it so much. Knowing where Norman will have to pass through at least some stage the killing of his mother, we can make him the nicest guy possible because people will always arrive with that preconception. He’s going to be a serial killer. But maybe if you didn’t know where that was going, you’d look at him and find him even more innocent than he is.
This season, though, includes some clever winks to the movie.
Ehrin: We were a little nervous about doing that, to not make it seem to winky. We wanted it to seem its own animal. (Tracy Spiridakos) was great. She was fun to work with.
You’ve been writing together. How’s that going?
Ehrin: We finished it, right around Thanksgiving. It’s awesome and they didn’t pick it up. The story of many pilots.
Highmore: So that’s where that’s at. We find it funny.
Ehrin: We really like writing together. We’ll probably do something else. Freddie and I are very much…
Ehrin: We’re very much on the same page.
Highmore: A very odd page.
Ehrin: We like being creative together. He was very much interested in writing. From the first year we did “Bates” he’d start asking about it. He always has excellent notes on scripts. If he ever brings anything up, he’s right.
Highmore: It came out of doing TV for the first time. When you’re doing something on a larger extent than a film, when you’re doing so many episodes. you want to be involved in that process. Whereas a film, you create a character and it’s finished and there isn’t that time to get to know it so well that you realize you want to have your own ideas and greater creative input and be there from the start, as opposed to just having a small part. I’d love to start to do that myself.
Ehrin: You’ve lived inside that world for so long.
Highmore: You don’t want to give that up. We just finished the season and you have ideas you want for season four. It’s hard to completely step away and say I don’t really care what happens over the next few months. You want to be a part of it all the way. It seems unnatural to stop, to know that it’s continuing but you’re not there yourself.
Ehrin: I think you should be.
Highmore: I’d love to.
What ideas has he suggested?
Ehrin: Huge ones! The scene in the woods last season where Norma is talking him out of killing himself, and Freddie said, “I think she should kiss me.” It took us a minute to wrap our heads around it, but it was absolutely right and Vera of course did it absolutely perfectly, just brushing up against crossing the line and getting away with it. It was really beautiful. You do like pushing the boundaries.
Will you try writing together again?
Ehrin: Yeah, we’re talking about an area. We’re trying to find it. It’s a really interesting dark area. Probably not a comedy this time, although it probably will end up being a comedy.
Highmore: It was so much fun doing it. I would love to write more.
Ehrin: This is the strange thing about him. You keep waiting for him to do something wrong. And he never does. He’s never written before and he totally comes through. I think he might be really smart.
Highmore: The first seasons of “Bates,” I was going back and forth to university…
Ehrin: What university?
Ehrin: And what were you studying?
Highmore: Arabic and Spanish.
Highmore: I was combining acting with something else. So in a way it feels odd not to be doing something else. Something’s got to fill in for essays on Arabic literature.
Ehrin: That’s where I come in.
Highmore: I found it to be really similar to acting. It’s creating the character and finding that voice. And once you have it, you take this character and put them in different situations. With a comedy, it’s something that’s the most fun and set them up against it. We really want to do “Bates Motel,” the comedy.
You’ve said you see “Bates” running five seasons.
Ehrin: From the end of the first season, Carlton and I both had the exact same instinct of five seasons.
Do you have an end in mind?
Ehrin: Emotionally, yes, a very specific one. I will say it’s beautiful.
And how does this season end?
Ehrin: It’s physically gorgeous. Violence when it’s done beautifully, it makes it bigger than what it is. It’s horrible and horrifying. And then, it cuts to Norman’s face, and I’m like, “Oh, Norman!”
“Bates Motel” season three premieres March 9 at 9 p.m. on A&E.