In The Mix

No Reservations

As Bates Motel nears its close, its showrunner sees the romantic side of its deranged residents.

Sarah Hirsch
  • Christina Gandolfo
  • Carole Segal/A+E

Fans of A&E’s Bates Motel naturally connect the series to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

But the horror classic was more crucial to the pitch than to the plot, say the series co-creators.

As co-creator and showrunner Kerry Ehrin describes it, the 1960 film was “a Trojan horse.” The network knew Bates Motel was drawn from Psycho, “but we could put whatever our heart’s desire was inside it.”

What Ehrin and series co-creator Carlton Cuse — both executive producers, along with Tucker Gates, Tom Szentgyorgyi and star Vera Farmiga — brought to the series was “a story about a codependent relationship that was not just ugly and dysfunctional,” Ehrin says, “but had a huge, almost romantic beauty to it, in the way that Wuthering Heights does. A gothic largeness.”

With the show now in its fifth and final season — the finale airs April 24 — Ehrin was as surprised as viewers may have been by the twists and turns it has taken. “You surprise yourself as you write something over five years,” she reflects. “You go in directions you didn’t know you were going to go.”

Because the show serves as a prequel to the film, the fatally flawed relationship between Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Farmiga) had to be created from scratch. But Ehrin didn’t have to look very far for inspiration.

“I’ve often said, ‘Norma is me if I had never gone into therapy,’” she says, laughing. “I basically drew from instincts that were inside me, which I’ve learned how to overcome. My friends tell me they hear a lot of my voice in Norma. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”

Certainly the semi-Oedipal relationship between Norman and Norma is questionable at best and murderous at worst. Norman’s killing of his mother in season four sprang from Ehrin’s desire to imbue his method — an attempted murder-suicide by gas leak — with a romantic quality.

“We wanted it to be a true tragedy,” Ehrin says, “and to feel like it was a series of events that could have been avoided, but by fate,  became unavoidable. Like Romeo and Juliet. We wanted to  stay true to the pathos of these people, and their genuine,  if misguided and f—ked-up love for each other.” 

The current season of Bates has brought the narrative up to Psycho’s timeline, and has introduced the iconic character Marion Crane, played by Rihanna. But of the similarities to the source material, Ehrin says, “We looked at the film once before we started, and we let it go. We made a conscious effort to not be beholden to it, but to honor it.”

Looking back, Ehrin maintains that Highmore’s inherent innocence kept the character sympathetic. “You can imagine those scenes where he’s in bed with Vera, and with any other actor it wouldn’t work. But there is such a pure love that comes through in those scenes — it makes you go, ‘Oh, this isn’t that weird.’”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017