I used to have a lot of trouble giving up on a show that I stopped being interested in, feeling I should see it through to the end rather than bail. This is why I watched every season of 24 despite only enjoying I think three or four of them, and stuck with X-Files until the bitter end (and even came back, twice if you count that second movie - time will tell if they can lure me in again), etc. But as I've gotten older and free time has become a more valuable commodity, I find it easier to jump ship when a show ceases to deliver the goods; I sometimes wonder if I would have made it to the end of Lost or Prison Break after their bad periods (Seasons 5 and 3, respectively), and I even said if Community came back for another season I probably wouldn't have bothered with it. There are simply too many great shows fighting for my time to bother with the ones that lost their way, or (in the case of Walking Dead) were only being watched to keep part of some vague online conversation.
And so after three underwhelming seasons of Bates Motel, I didn't bother checking in for its fourth go-round when it aired last year, as I had tired of the show's insistence on trying to convince us that the drug dealers of White Pine Bay were just as interesting as Norman and Norma Bates. Even though they were only ten episodes per season, there was a lot of filler, and with each season I found myself giving less and less of my attention to it. During Season 1 I'd check my phone a couple times during an episode; by the end of Season 3 I wouldn't even bother pausing it when I left the room to grab a snack or use the bathroom. It's not that the show was terrible - the actors were all terrific and there would always be another fun nod to the movies waiting around the corner, but it just wasn't grabbing me as well as I felt it should, and it didn't help that Hannibal (another TV show that prequelized and reworked a classic movie villain) was airing during these periods as well, and it was like a night and day difference on how to approach this particular method of reviving one of our beloved antiheroes.
However, I kept hearing that Season 4 was a big improvement on the others, so I filed it away in the same "When I have time maybe I'll catch up" purgatory that has (forever?) claimed Daredevil, Stranger Things, and yes even Walking Dead, which I've never really loved but am always kind of curious about (I still read the comic, so whenever I hear a character I liked from the comic has been added to the show, my interest perks up a bit). Basically, I wasn't about to say I would never ever bother to go back to it (like, say, Smallville, which I gave up on during season 8 and never returned - sorry Meredith!), but I was also smart enough to realize the couple hours a week I have to watch television would likely never include a show I had rarely felt too strongly about. When that fourth season came to Netflix I made a note of it, but it might as well have only been available on the moon for all it meant to my likelihood of watching it anytime soon.
Luckily for the show (and me, as it turns out), I have a particular way of dealing with stress: I do jigsaw puzzles. And being that I'm a sane person who tends to care about his fellow man, our current President (who is not those things) REALLY stresses me out, so I got myself a 9,000 piece puzzle (click to see it! It's pretty!) and started it on the day he began his reign of terror*. And since the only spot in my house big enough to assemble such a beast was in front of a TV, I figured rather than listen to music while I work on it as I usually do, I'd load up Netflix and half-watch some show. Needless to say, Bates Motel got the "honor", and it wasn't long before I realized that those friends were right: the fourth season was indeed a big improvement. So much that it was actually slowing my progress with the damn puzzle; I'd have a piece in my hand to throw into a pile with its similarly-colored brothers (or, occasionally, place in its correct spot), and an event on the show would suck me in, leaving me sitting there holding a tiny little chunk of Saturn in my hand for several minutes. After three years, the show's producers and writers finally figured out that no sane person could possibly care about Norma integrating herself in White Pine's politics, or Dylan's run-ins with rival drug dealers, and junked all that stuff in favor of a focused season that began racing toward the part of the story we already know: Norman Bates running the motel with his dead mother.
To be fair, when the show began they obviously didn't know how long it would run and what audiences would gravitate toward, so the idea of using the motel as the center of a sort of Twin Peaks-esque serial drama wasn't the worst one, but it didn't take long to realize that none of that stuff could ever hold a candle to the scenes where Norma (Vera Farmiga, worthy of every award one could bestow on a television show) and Norman (Freddie Highmore, who got better and better with each season) engage in their dangerously codependent relationship. However, they knew it would be foolish to reduce the role of Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Romero (who at one point in an earlier season was up for reelection against a rival! Riveting!), so they got around the issue brilliantly - they kept him around by having him marry Norma, a sham marriage that would allow them to send Norman to the fancy (and expensive) psychiatric treatment center with his insurance. This paid off quite nicely, because what was just for show at first eventually blossomed into genuine love, and there's nothing Norman hates more than someone coming between him and Mother. And in turn, Norma is still so dependent on Norman that she risks her relationship with Romero to protect her son, even though she is genuinely happy for the first time in her life now that she has a real man to share a bed with instead of her son.
All of these scenes work like gangbusters, and since I already knew that Norma was killed at the end of the season (and don't you dare pull any "spoiler!" shit with me, the goddamn billboards for Season 5 show her corpse), it intensified the tragic circumstances of her romance with Romero. I mean, I knew they'd eventually kill Norma off, because that's just how the story of Psycho goes, and no matter what other changes they add to this particular version (Dylan's existence, Norman actually getting laid, etc.) I couldn't imagine a scenario that didn't end up with her stuffed corpse in the basement of the house. But I figured that would be sometime around the series finale, not the penultimate episode of the penultimate season, so knowing that it was coming so soon made me feel really sad for her in a way I don't think I'd feel if I was under the impression she'd be offed several years later. Planning to fix up the house, making plans with Alex, trying to repair her relationship with her sons... knowing how soon all of it would end for her had me borderline devastated at times, thanks to Farmiga's terrific performance and the fact that nearly every other character on the show tried warning her that Norman may try to harm her. I also felt bad for Romero, who hasn't had the easiest couple of years on the show either (his house got burned down, and he's constantly putting his neck out for these loons) and deserved his own peace and happiness, only to have it snatched away after only two weeks by someone he at first tried to help and then tried to protect Norma from.
As for Norman himself, we got to see a lot of his increasingly fractured state of mind this season. By now we know he "becomes" Norma when he blacks out, and that she's the one killing people (Norma isn't his/"her" only victim this season, he also kills Emma's birth mother), but we see it happening live from the perspective of a third party (Dr. Edwards, his psychiatrist), giving Highmore a fun acting challenge of morphing into another character mid-scene (and back to Norman again at the end of it) and allowing the editors to indulge in some cutting tricks to give the audience a sense of what Norman believes is happening and what is actually happening, without repeating dialogue or using a split-screen or anything like that. He's also dealing with what he sees as a betrayal from his mother, who pushed for him to be committed at this place, but is also having trouble living without her, so those at-odds feelings trigger more blackouts than he previously experienced. And Norma won't tell him that she's married, but he finds out about it anyway (from a newspaper article showing Romero and "his new wife"), setting the stage for the nerve-wracking final couple of episodes, when he is released from the institute and returns to find he's no longer the man of the house.
With this twisted "love triangle" at the center of the show, there was little need to bother with much else. Sure, there were a couple of subplots along the way, such as a former flame of Romero's who has some dirt on him (and he on her), but these interludes were brief and not remotely damaging to the show as a whole. As for Dylan (Max Thieriot) and Emma (Olivia Cooke), their screentime was reduced, but their scenes were vital - Emma had surgery to be rid of her oxygen tank, and the two of them began a relationship that had Dylan rethinking his shady business life. He wanted to earn an honest living (and keep Emma out of any danger), and also wanted to be free of his crazy family (for those who are reading but do not watch - Dylan is Norman's half-brother, and is the product of incest between Norma and her brother, Caleb), but still cared for them and could see that Norman was about to snap for good. He spends a good chunk of the season trying to convince Norma that Norman needs help and may cause her harm if he gets out of the hospital, but eventually reaches a point that he just can't do it anymore, saying goodbye and leaving for a new life with Emma. It's a nice arc for the character who, until now, had never gotten a chance to justify his non-canon existence (if Norman ever mentioned a brother in the movies, I sure as hell don't remember the reference). It's so well done that I legitimately thought he and Emma were being written out of the show, as Cooke has a decent movie career going (she will be in Ready Player One) and it would make sense to drop Dylan out as they get closer to folding in the narrative of the first film.
But they're back in season 5, which has once again become something I DVR and watch every week (hell, I almost attempted to watch this week's live so I could add my thoughts to this piece, but got stuck at work and was too tired when I got home; I should be watching it this evening). I'm actually looking forward to the next episodes, which hasn't been the case since... uh, episode two of season one, I guess (the pilot is solid, I never denied that). The new season has set the stage nicely for the upcoming series finale, with Romero (in prison for his shady cop stuff) hellbent on killing Norman for revenge, and Norman running the motel with Mother (who he believes is still alive, of course). And while Marion Crane hasn't appeared yet, another movie character - Sam Loomis, Marion's boyfriend) has made a surprise appearance that I wasn't expecting, and he's not being used the same way (at least, not yet). The Hannibal connection I mentioned earlier is even stronger now, as the showrunners seem to delight in taking what we "know" and spinning it in a different way, while not alienating newcomers who might think "Sam Loomis" is a reference to the Halloween films. And Norman has found a new potential love interest (Sam's wife, played by Isabelle McNally) who, when given the proper makeup and hairstyle could indeed pass for a young Vera Farmiga, which is obviously the point.
Speaking of Farmiga, being dead has not diminished her performance or screentime, and she seems to be having a ball playing a figment of Norman's cracked imagination. One other thing the show really improved on in season 4 was its humor (her proposal to Alex was legendary), and they haven't backed away from it one bit so far. When she sees McNally's character for the first time, she remarks on how she could be her ten years ago and then asks Norman if he's gonna be "one of THOSE" guys, which is all kinds of perversely hilarious (that she doesn't exist and thus it's Norman himself making these comments adds to the deranged comedy of it all). And interestingly, Norma keeps "existing" even when Norman leaves the room; in one scene in last week's episode, Norman caught her smoking, and we see her reach for another cigarette after he exits, an odd touch to include for a character who only exists in that other person's mind. It's probably a mix of making her seem more "alive" and also wanting to give Farmiga (whose movie career hasn't exactly stalled; they must know they're lucky to have her) more to do wherever they can, but damned if it doesn't work perfectly. Of course, there is no illusion whatsoever that she might really be alive, as we see her stuffed corpse more than once and also the house has gone to complete shit whenever we see it from anyone besides Norman's perspective, but they do a damn fine job of almost making the audience live in Norman's head where she is indeed still with us. It's a well done balancing act that manages to not feel like a cheat.
Long story short, the show has earned back my appreciation, and those who stuck it out are finally being rewarded for their patience. It's a shame that I can't recommend the show to a newcomer without such a major caveat ("OK, it gets good after thirty episodes or so..."), but hey if you got any jigsaw puzzles lying around, put it on in the background while you work in it, and maybe by the time you've finished it the show will be up to the point that it started earning your undivided attention.
* For people who are interested, search #AstrologyPuzzle on Instagram for all of my progress. For the sake of sanity, the puzzle's makers split each half into its own bag, so you only had to sort through 4,500 pieces to find the one you needed, instead of all 9,000. I am almost done with the first bag.