Bates Motel’s primary focus is almost always on the relationship between Norma and Norman Bates, leaving Norma’s other son Dylan out in the cold to create his own, usually less exciting stories. As the relationship splinters between Norman and Norma this season, Norma is left searching for someone new to confide in. With “Unbreak-Able,” the positions of Norman and Dylan are almost completely reversed from when we started this series, with Dylan now the confidant to Norma, while Norman sees his mother as self-centered, and always trying to make everything about herself. In doing this, we finally get one of the most interesting Dylan-centered episodes that we’ve seen in quite some time.
This trading of places puts our characters in positions that, understandably, don’t feel right and leave the whole episode feeling strange for these changes—but in a good way. This week Norman is basically using his relationship with Emma to frustrate his mother, almost as if he’s trying to make her jealous. While working on homework with Emma, Norman starts uncharacteristically making out with her, solely because he sees his mother coming. Later when he mentions making food for a picnic, he chooses his words wisely to make Norma think she’s going along with him, only to sweep the rug out from under her, telling her it’s for him and Emma, and that she’s not invited.
While we know that Norman is a killer, and his biggest victims are to come, Bates Motel has been smart this season in making this passive-aggressive behavior feel more like an angry teenager’s than a murderer playing some weird games with his prey. To be fair, Norma has suspected him of killing Annika—which turned out to be misguided—and now she and Dylan are keeping the secret of the mysterious flash drive Annika gave Norma from Norman. It’s understandable that he might want to act out like this when the person he most trusted in the world doesn’t trust him back.
Unfortunately Norman’s actions are also hurting others, as his romantic picnic with Emma turns into a hypothermic trek that ends with Norman repeating his mother’s wishes, saying he shouldn’t have sex with Emma. Not only that, but upon seeing that Caleb is working with Dylan, he sets off to tell his mother the news, which will probably hurt Dylan more than anyone.
Dylan’s story this season has improved immensely. Thankfully we’ve mostly abandoned the storyline concerning seedy marijuana businesses of White Pine Bay, and instead there’s a focus on his relationships, much in the same way that Bates Motel does with all its other characters. Dylan is now at the most intriguing position he’s ever been in, stuck between his mother—who is finally showing trust in her oldest son—and his father, who wants to apologize for the horrible pain he caused Norma and make up for it to her and his son. “Unbreak-Able” allows the audience to finally understand Caleb, and we actually feel sorry for the guy.
Meanwhile, through all the familial problems, Norma is trying to figure out what is stored on the flash drive Annika gave her in her dying moments. She takes her own crack at it, searches her college library for help and asks a stranger at a coffee shop to help her hack—all to no avail. Really, nothing is going well for Norma this season. And, even though she’s gone through so much crap, the writers also (for no apparent reason) decide to give her a parking ticket in this episode.
We also get a little more information into the murders of Annika and Lindsey—the other dead girl that was found—as we find out that they both had a threesome with Bob Harris, head of the Arcanum Club. For once, Sheriff Romero is gifted the bland story line, as this murder subplot seems to be moving incredibly slowly. There needs to be some connection with the family for it to truly matter, and as of right now, there doesn’t seem to be much, besides the missing flash drive that Norma can’t crack.
“Unbreak-Able” is the first time in quite awhile where all three members of the Bates family have solid stories going for them, based on their relationships to each other. There’s no murder or crime at the center of it, just good ol’ fashioned family issues. Sometimes all this show needs to do is to go back to the basics to be at its best.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.