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Celebrating Norma Bates, television’s greatest and definitely worst mother

In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, Aaron Yap collates the best moments of his favourite TV Mum, Norma Bates of Bates Motel

Unless you’re totally fine with showing your mum a modern Gothic soap with Oedipus complex themes, Bates Motel wouldn’t be my first recommendation to binge over tea and cake on Mother’s Day. But the show – for all its creepy, incestuous overtones and overwrought, trashy melodrama – can be appreciated as a galvanising, visceral portrait of motherhood. There’s a little Norma Bates in all our mothers.

I haven’t been shy about my affection for Vera Farmiga’s astounding, richly layered portrayal of Norma, a character previously known to most people sans flesh and blood.

I still stand by the performance as “the most entertaining, if not the best, by an actress currently on TV”. Not to diminish the impact of Freddie Highmore’s stellar work as Norman, but Farmiga is essentially the show’s tonal litmus test: how much you can accept what she does with Norma will dictate how much you’ll enjoy Bates Motel. 

There is A LOT of Norma, in every possible emotional and psychological manifestation: trauma-stricken abuse victim, shrieking, neurotic diva, wily plotter of schemes, swoonsome, romantic sweetheart, and of course, loving, caring, at-wits-end mother to a soon-to-be monster.

Fans can probably agree though, Norma is best when she is losing her freaking shit. To celebrate TV’s greatest and worst mother, here are ten glorious, unforgettable times she made me lose my shit:

10) “If I’m so crazy, get the hell outta my car!!” (Season 1, Episode 5)

Leaving Norman by the side of the road might be one of the least outrageous things Norma has done. But I like how the grounded relatability of the scenario – there’s a similar scene in a relatively “real” show about motherhood like Better Things – is dialled up ever-so-slightly by Norma’s signature hysteria. The way she scampers back to the driver’s seat in her high heels is priceless.

9) “Why do crazy people keep gravitating towards me?!” (Season 1, Episode 9)

A sentiment that defines Norma’s story arc in a darkly hilarious way. Despite her best intentions, starting a new life and business in White Pine Bay, poor Norma just can’t catch a break. It also foreshadows the descent into madness for both Norman and Sheriff Romero, who’s questioning her in the scene.

8) “You’re a dick!” (Season 2, Episode 1)

If there’s one thing Norma’s skilled at, it’s giving you a piece of her mind. Her insults are second to none. This pithy number, directed at a smug city council head who’s blown off her proposal to stop a bypass construction, looks tame on paper. But Farmiga’s delivery, within the context of the scene, makes the line such a rib-tickling joy.

7) “Chill your own ass” (Season 1, Episode 9)

Norma takes umbrage at a group of teenagers “smoking doobies” on the porch of her motel. One of them tells her to “chill” after she tears into them while relaying her life story in the process (“No one prepared me for the colossal freakin’ face-dive off a cliff that living in this crazy town really is!”). She responds accordingly.

6) “Every time I walk out of the house it’s gonna be ‘oh, what a beautiful day, hey that’s where Deputy Shelby bled to death.’” (Season 1, Episode 7)

A great bit of stinging sarcasm from Norma. She’s scrubbing furiously at the steps of a bloody crime scene, and Dylan’s trying to tell her she won’t be able to get rid of the stains and no one will notice anyway. What’s important is that SHE will. God is in the detail. She’s not a half-measures person. Farmiga’s high-low, sing-song cadence is just wonderful here.   

5) The Purse Attack (Season 1, Episode 9)  

Norma’s plans to sell the motel and leave White Pine Bay have gone pear-shaped. Just don’t be the person who tells her that. The realtor finds out the hard way in this laugh-out-loud scene. I couldn’t find a gif, but hopefully the screenshots above illustrate the exquisite perfection of this Norma meltdown.

4) “What am I supposed to, darn some socks?!” (Season 1, Episode 10)

Some of the most explosive Norma moments come from trading blows with Norman, and this spat, over Norman’s missing black socks, is a classic. It’s such a stupid and mundane thing to argue about, but the level of screaming rage they reach had me in stitches. They’re both unreasonable and stubborn. Punchline: Dylan stepping into the room calmly with a solution (“I’ve got some black socks you can borrow”).

3) “Screw off, shithead!” (Season 1, Episode 10)

If you’re curious as to how fast Norma can go from zero to 100, look no further than this scene. She bumps into a stranger and apologises sincerely. He mutters “Yeah I guess”. She reacts by giving him the above earful. What makes Norma’s insults usually so funny is how she will never cross into F-bomb territory no matter how angry she gets.

It’s like watching a network-friendly version of a movie where all the R-rated profanity has been dubbed over with lighter, more ridiculous-sounding dialogue.

2) “Pfft, pfft, pfft… I just diminished what you said” (Season 4, Episode 8)   

Here, Norma and Norman are shopping for a Christmas tree but the whole excursion goes downhill quickly, their verbal sparring charged with the dramatic weight of game-changing developments (Norma and Romero’s marriage). Norma can be supremely petty and childish, and her mimicking of Norman’s “pfft” shows the low she’s able to stoop to.

1) “I hate you!! You stupid piece of shit sign!!!” (Season 3, Episode 2)

The only thing funnier than Norma spewing insults at people is when she’s doing it to an inanimate object. Her volcanic breakdown at the sight of the memorial bypass sign for Lee Berman, the councilman she called a “dick” in season two, is a beautiful showcase for Farmiga’s vocal chords and knack for physical comedy.

It’s Norma at her most unrestrained and naked, absolutely no fucks given.


Enjoy a trip to Bates Motel this Mother’s Day (not like that) by watching it on Lightbox below:

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