Monster Nation: Queer Happenings on Bates Motel

Psycho's Norman Bates is a canonically straight character with a colorful gay history. Played by gay actor Anthony Perkins in the Hitchcock classic, Norman is a troubled and sympathetic antihero whose pathology plays on old, negative stereotypes about homosexuals. He's a mama's boy. He's quiet, shy, and reserved—at least until "the Mother half" of his mind takes over. And when it does, he wears women's clothing. ("Why was he dressed like that?" John Gavin asks with uber macho disgust at the film's end.) So I've appreciated that A&E's excellent Bates Motel, currently airing its fifth and final season, has occasionally hinted at Norman's queer connections while portraying him in objectively "straight" storylines. As vividly portrayed by Freddie Highmore—rumored to be gay as well as an Attitude magazine cover boy—Norman shares a love of old black and white movies with his mom, and was mistaken for gay by classmates during the first season. But Monday's episode gave Norman his gayest moment yet.

The big hype about "Dreams Die First" was that it marked Rihanna's debut as Marion Crane, the shower victim played unforgettably by Janet Leigh in the original. It's a kick to see the character reinterpreted for Bates Motel and the 21st century, but Highmore's storyline is the highlight. Norman's mother (Vera Farmiga)—or rather, the hallucination of her Norman keeps in his head since he killed her in a botched murder/suicide last season—has been missing, and Norman finds a book of matches from the White Horse Bar. In a series of stylized scenes laced with flashbacks, his investigation reveals that Norman, as Norma, spent a wild night there and hooked up with an Attractive Man (Michael Doonan, tha's the character's actual credited name) in his car (!). Doonan tries to kiss Norman in the bathroom—"come on, you weren't that drunk"—but becomes concerned when he realizes that Norman is obviously distressed and confused about what’s happening. "I need my mother," Highmore heartbreakingly murmurs. It should be noted that Norman is compelled to go to the bar after a chat with his former therapist Dr. Edwards, a gay black man played by Damon Gupton, reminds him of his alternate personality.

To me, the reveal is less indicative of Norman’s sexuality than of his descent into the Norma personality—I’m reminded of Psycho's psychiatrist explaining that Norman is not looking for "a sexual change or satisfaction" when dressing as his mother but "simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive." But executive producer Kerry Ehrin challenges my interpretation with her assessment that "Norman's sexuality is all over the place. It's not super defined." It makes sense that a 2017 television show would have a more open-minded and ambiguous approach to sexuality than a film made over fifty years ago. The White Horse Bar isn't a typical gay bar; there are the expected handsome men but also at least one woman who remarks on Norman's new look. While White Pine Bay has been shown to be a bizarre and dangerous place, the regulars at this bar come off as extremely decent. In one of the episode's more touching moments, Attractive Man asks Norman if he wants him to call his mother for him. (Awww!!!) I'm curious if Dr. Edwards will turn up at the bar in a later episode, or attempt to assist Norman in understanding his sexuality as well as his psychosis.

Marion's introduction brings the Psycho storyline into the Bates Motel fold. After Monday's installment, I can't wait to see how the show, and the vastly talented Highmore, will interpret and expand on the film's sexual themes.

Monster Nation covers the world of horror in its various forms—from film to TV to haunted houses and more—with a fun, irreverent spin. Follow us on YouTube, on Tumblr, and through regular posts here on Geeks OUT. Stay spooky!