, currently in its fourth season, is a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
(1960). Set in today’s world, A&E’s television show offers an intriguing thought experiment about how a teenage boy might become the psychopathic serial killer Norman Bates.
Season four’s first episode, “A Danger to Himself and Others,” sets the stage for subsequent representations of the professional treatment of (mental) illness and its spaces. Norman, after suffering another psychotic episode, finds himself restrained on a gurney in the Willamette county hospital’s psych ward. The hospital calls his brother, Dylan, who tells his mother, Norma. While Dylan goes to Portland where their friend, Emma, is having a lung transplant, Norma rushes to see Norman.
Throughout the episode, Norman’s space and treatment are juxtaposed with Emma’s. The Portland All Saints Hospital is a state-of-the-art facility with competent and benevolent doctors who treat Emma gently and execute a textbook operation to save her life. Emma is afraid, which everyone understands and accepts while also reassuring her. By contrast, the county hospital psych ward where Norman is held is a shabby and crowded place. His gurney is stationed in the corridor and a busy nurse tells him that he must wait in his restraints until a doctor has time to see him. The difference between the two hospitals is striking and further exaggerated by lighting and framing choices. A sickly yellow-orangey tint fills Norman’s space. This is a color code conveying Norman’s mental-health state that has flared up throughout the seasons whenever he moved a step closer to becoming Psycho
’s serial killer.
Remarkably, warm yellow light, which is usually perceived to be soothing, is distorted in the psych ward to instill discomfort. A cut takes the audience to Emma’s room. While it is dark to emphasize her fear, it was shot with a perfectly adjusted white-balance, representing an ordinary world. The waiting area of the All Saints hospital is also spacious, comfortable, and quiet. The locked room where Norman is finally put under 72-hour observation – without any explanation let alone consolation – might be spacious but it is also menacing in its isolation.
Hospital Psych Ward
Throughout the seasons, Norma increasingly isolates Norman and hides him away at home. In season one, he can barely participate in school activities. In season two, Norma takes him out of school altogether and makes sure Norman will not get a driver’s license, further restricting his movements. Her misguided actions are to protect him as much as to keep him for herself. Her solution is to control him, the spaces he inhabits, and the people he socializes with. In season four, after Norman is released from the county psych ward, Norma locks him into her room. By episode three, “’Til Death Do You Part,” he is locked away in a room in a mental institution some place near the woods in the outskirts of town.
Norman has yielded to signing himself into the Pineview Mental Institution – to please his mother. But his admission is equated with signing away his privacy and civil rights. He is being locked into his bedroom and deprived of certain items like his belt. When he points out that someone took it and wants to know why, a patronising nurse tells him that “nobody wears a belt around here.” Norman, in this extraordinary place away from ordinary living conditions, behaves like an ordinary teenager: he is angry. Indeed, his anger is justified and would be seen as acceptable outside the institution. But in this confined and supervised place, any reaction by the mental patient is scrutinized with extreme suspicion. Behavior seen elsewhere as ordinary is here treated as a symptom of an illness. The lack of trust and autonomy becomes apparent in the facility’s layout and its regulations of behavior, which are designed to observe and control the patient at all times.
Norma, feeling like she abandoned her son, persuades Norman’s doctor to let her see him. This woman who ostensibly tailors all her actions to benefit her son cannot bear to not
be in control. She knows that she is finally “doing the right thing” for Norman. He needs professional help to get to the root of his illness so that he may get better. And yet, for Norma letting Norman work through issues with outsiders proves most difficult. After pushing him to open the door (to commit himself), she is reluctant to let him walk through it. Perhaps not least because this would involve trusting health-care professionals with well-kept secrets, which could lead to both of them ending up in jail for murder.
Norman is upset by his mother’s visit and goes to speak to his doctor. As he arrives at his office visibly distressed, the doctor’s secretary and a nurse immediately physically restrain him. They automatically treat him as a threat. Two male adults roughly handle this one skinny teenager even though he did not attack them – the patient is merely reacting to their fear of him. In episode one where he was strapped to a gurney although he remained remarkably calm and polite, staff around him displayed similar unease toward their mental patient. This behavior is puzzling because of its complete lack of empathy.
Comparing Emma’s physical to Norman’s mental illness, it becomes clear that one may be understood and cured while the other cannot be fully comprehended yet, which makes the recovery process more challenging. This uncertainty inspires fear. The usual human response to fear is wanting to neutralize the threat. In these cases, this is achieved by controlling the patient’s movements and his space. Instead of speaking to his therapist, the distressed Norman ends up locked in an observation room once more.
In season four, Norman has already turned into the psychopathic serial killer audiences know from Hitchcock’s Psycho. He just does not know it yet. But the audience does, therefore fearing him and what he might do is logical. Each episode delicately moves the story forward. The production, from lighting, sound, and framing to color themes and costumes, vividly conveys the characters’ experiences and their journeys through this fictional space. This television show can be categorized as drama and thriller, and as such it elicits strong emotional responses. And it is just that: fiction.
Nevertheless, audiences may inhabit the show’s spaces and take part in this fictional journey. These representations of mental institutions and their patients inadvertently contribute to how mental illness and its treatment are perceived in society. Fictional representations certainly depend on the creation of extremes (the show’s county psych wards are shabby and saturated in eerie orangey light) and myths (mental illness is something to be afraid of). But these vivid representations perpetuate real prejudices. Within the show’s narrative, the mental-health professionals also do not know that Norman tends to kill people when he blacks out (after all, not everyone suffering from psychosis is secretly a serial killer). Their suspicion and indeed fear of what he might do is solely based on an exclusive categorization of them being people versus him being a patient. Episode one juxtaposes the spaces and treatment of physical and mental illness to show alarming contrasts. Due to the nature of the fictional narrative, these carefully established distinctions are all but forgotten by the time Norman arrives at the Pineview Mental Institution. For audiences immersed within the narrative and traveling through this often frightening space, it is easy to forget that mental illness is just that: an illness, and not something that needs to be feared or hidden.
 See, for instance, “What’s Wrong with Norman” (S1E3), after he has had another blackout, or “The Deal” (S3E5) when he steals a prolonged look at an undressing and unsuspecting woman at the motel.
 The show has created complex characters that are deeply flawed, which makes them all the more human. There is no doubt that Norma loves Norman, and that she desperately wants to be a good mother. In hindsight, Norma’s actions may have been wrong, and, as a mother, she is possessive and demanding. The show makes clear, however, that one cannot solely lay the blame for Norman’s murderous actions on his mother.