Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the series finale of “Bates Motel,” titled “The Cord.”
He may have risen to fame as as a child actor, but Freddie Highmore proved his very adult acting chops on the final season of “Bates Motel” — as he was called on to play not just Norman Bates, but to also embody Norman-as-Norma, and even Norman-as-Norma-as-Norman. But Norman’s struggle with (in)sanity finally came to an end in the series finale, as he realized the fragile world he’d tried to construct with Mother’s mummified body couldn’t last — and he forced his brother, Dylan, to kill him.
Here, Highmore talks about ending the show he’d called home for the last five seasons as actor, writer and director, what it meant to have Dylan be the one who ended it all, and what he learned from the experience.
Were you happy with the finale?
I think it was a beautifully written end to the show. I think (showrunners) Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse were so smart to refer back to the pilot and bring things full circle. It felt very satisfying and hopefully and a little heartbreaking, too. Tucker (Gates) our main director deserves so much credit. He brought so much creatively and stylistically to the show from the very beginning.
Norma and Norman did get reunited, if not in life then at least in death.
Yes, they’re reunited. I don’t know whether it’s a happy end or a sad end. In some ways, it does feel like the fitting end to a love story between Norma and Norman. They couldn’t be in life but they finally are in death. But at the same time I think it’s especially sad when you see in that last scene, Dylan stating all the things he’d dreamed of and wished had come true, that he wanted them all to be a family. He’d wanted Norma to be able to meet his kids. It’s sad because all three of them, all had this shared dream and desire. They were all fighting so hard for it and all trying to do this best to get there, but they weren’t able to achieve it. I think the line that really stood out to me was, if you really believe hard enough, you can make it that way, that Norman says to Dylan. It seemed to sum up not only Norman’s attitude but Norma’s too back in the time that she was alive. The idea that the two of them together by dint of loving each other so much, by fighting as hard as they possibly could and committing entirely to their dreams and desires, it would be OK and things would turn out all right. That’s what we’re all kind of taught to hope for as we grow up in life, this idea that we can do anything if you put your mind to it. But unfortunately the flip side to our romantic ending is that dreams aren’t always enough.
But he ultimately forced Dylan to kill him, which does seems intentional. Do you think Norman was truly insane by the end?
It’s interesting to raise the question of whether Norman was truly insane by the end. I think so much of the last episode sets up this idea he’s entirely committed to living in the reality of the pilot. He genuinely believes that his mother is there with him. They’re going to be starting over. Things are going to be great. He’s going to see Dylan who he hasn’t seen for so long. But I think once Dylan appears into that world, you realize there’s been a performance behind Norman’s for much of the episode. He’s trying to convince himself of something of which he’s not entirely certain. And he’s not as crazy as we might think. He has a degree of self-awareness about him. and the moment he’s forced to push and confront what he’s surrounded himself with, he starts to crack. That’s what he’s trying to hold onto. He knows his mother’s not around. That last scene is really a test that Norman is putting out there. A trial, will he able to live this life that he wanted or will it be impossible. And the moment that Dylan steps into that room and making him face the truth, I think the answer to that test is clear and there’s no other option. And that’s when he chooses to ask Dylan to take him out of the world and to be reunited to with her because that’s the only way he can be truly happy.
You were certainly put through through your acting paces this season, playing Norman as Norma as Norman. How did you keep track?
It always felt truthful. It was in the writing. It never felt gimmicky. It never felt that were switching up characters just to be cool. It always seemed to make sense. I understood where it was coming from. the one that was most hard to play of all was in the one that I got to direct where Norman had become Mother pretending to be Norman to Sheriff Green to get themselves out of jail and go back on the story Norman has already told. And that’s where it does become a little bit crazy, when you’re pretending to be Norman. There’s three different layers now of characters to play. I felt so lucky to be able to do those scenes and to have the time to do the transitions so it never felt forced. It never felt speeded up in editing. That process of why and when he becomes someone else was fundamental in making it believable.
One of the most damning to me was when Emma comes to visit and sees right through it all and says, “Where’s Norman?”
I loved that moment, too. I know that some people will want to see a last true moment between Emma and Norman, but I think by dint of having her react to Mother in Norman’s body, that it brings Emma and Norman closer than any scene with Emma and Norman would have. If that makes sense. That she kind of needed to step outside engaging with Norman to see him for he truly was. In a funny way, that’s how Dylan reaches his conclusion, too. By seeing the insanity, he finally understands who his brother is and what his brother has been hiding all this time.
And then there’s Romero (Nestor Carbonell), who completely unraveled by the end.
Poor Romero! Nestor and I are of the best of friends, but the moment he started to have a relationship with Norma, there was a change in the way we interacted with each other on set. The sudden rivalry was apparent to everyone. He in fact was convinced by my having been in the writers room for the last couple of seasons that I had was the one who had pitched that Romero would die. Which I wasn’t. But he was convinced that all the other writers didn’t want Romero to die and I had somehow put my foot down and said this has to happen. But it wasn’t true at all! I felt connected to Romero when I was forced to understand his position in episode 8, because it’s heartbreaking to see this person who’s been turned into someone he wasn’t purely because he loved this woman. It’s awful. But he was fantastic as he goes around the house, reminiscing about the time when he was there, and then ultimately down into the basement with Chick. I love the way in which they were both in their different worlds. Chick was enthused and excited about what he was writing, but the flip side of that scene was the horror of Romero’s realization of where Norma’s body had been. Even though it was largely silent, we played out this lovely long beat on Nestor as he realizes what’s been going on. It’s heartbreaking. By doing so little, it was such a powerful moment.
What was the hardest scene for you?
The last big scene with Dylan was tough. That one because it was right at the end of the season with big moments and challenging moments, you didn’t want to mess it up. You knew this was the last memory people were going to be remembering Norman by and wanting to get that right. And make sure that transition we spoke about from Norman being invested in this illusion he’s created around him, to the slippage into not wanting to engage with the reality Dylan makes him confront, and then from that, finally making the choice that he wants to die and wants to die now and he wants Dylan to do it. Making sure all of those beats never felt forced. That’s why those scenes are tricky. They’re beautifully written, but it’s plotting those points where such huge decisions are made.
Did you enjoy getting to play with how the show crossed over with “Psycho”?
I loved what Kerry and Carlton did in episode 6 — you get to see the other side of “Psycho.” You get to see what you never saw before. The ways they played with and changed the original key beats of the film and ultimately managed to hit them. I loved those scenes in “Psycho” when you look up at the house from Marion’s perspective and hear some shouting and see this person in a window, and you think what’s going on in that house? It’s exciting to play out what was genuinely happening from Norman’s perspective, as she’s smashing up the place. It’s fun to see the sandwich arrive but you never know how it was made or by who in that lonely night.
What did you learn from the experience of working on “Bates Motel”?
I just hope that whatever I do next people will care about it as much as they do with “Bates Motel.” I think that’s what’s made it the most special experience was that everyone was fully committed. They were invested in it. They wanted to be there. It was a unique show. It’s a testament to everyone in the show who supported it and was a part of “Bates” in every way that they could. That was what I feel so lucky to be a part of it. I know everyone will talk about their family and how hard it was to say goodbye to everyone. But genuinely on this, this was the case. This was the most special group of people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.