Not that Bates Motel, A&E's Psycho prequel, would ever be for the squeamish — we all know where Alfred Hitchcock's story went, after all — but the pilot's brutal rape and subsequent murder is certainly designed to swat away any dilettantes.
Halfway through its first episode, which premiered Monday night, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is raped by a resentful local, Keith Summers (played, even in his brief scenes, with Deliverance-esque skills, by W. Earl Brown). It's graphic and hard to watch; Norma is eventually saved by Norman (Freddie Highmore) conking the rapist over the head. When he awakens, handcuffed, and leers, "You liked it" at Norma, she stabs him to death. "Who is going to book a room in the rape-slash-murder hotel?" Norma asks Norman when he asks why they don't call the police. Her decision to cover up what happened, and her and Norman's dynamic as they do it, sets Bates Motel in motion.
I talked to Kerry Ehrin, the executive producer who runs the show with Carlton Cuse, about the depiction of the rape and the show's approach to violence in general.
Why the threat from the town had to manifest itself through a rape:
"It's a complicated answer, so I'll try to answer it in pieces. The first thing is that's never something you put in a script recklessly. We thought about that long and hard. We knew that we needed the character of the town to present itself pretty early on; but it was important to see how Norma dealt with that. It was important to see what her emotional reaction was, what her go-to reaction was. That is so telling of who she is. And I've got to say, she's the most fascinating character I've ever had the pleasure of working on. You're peeling an onion. How she reacts to that horrific incident is the first little layer of the onion coming off."
The particulars of the rape itself:
"From the beginning, it was something we wanted to be real. That you would feel for her what she was going through. We didn't want to gloss over it, and be, like, oh, and she gets raped. It's the most horrible violation. We wanted to not in any way suga coat it."
The filming of the scene for Vera Farmiga and everyone else:
"I was not there that day. It was a tough day on the set from all reports. You can't help but get caught up in the mood of what's happening on the set. Also, man, as an actress, she is just such a trooper. God, she just throws herself out there every day so generously and so valiantly. You can't help but feel for her and admire her when she has to go through a scene like that. I think the whole set was affected by it."
On why Norma kills Summers…:
"I feel like it's not a super-thought-out process for her. I think it's very impulsive and emotional. And I think it has to do more with her whole life, this being a symbolic piece of it. She's just fucking sick of putting up with people where she's had no power."
… and doesn't call the police:
"She has this remarkable ability, the character, to compartmentalize. And she has that ability for a lot of reasons we don't know yet. She's an amazing survivor, Norma Bates. She's messed up, yes. She's definitely emotionally mercurial. But you've got to love her, because she is just a fucking survivor. And she's just so incredibly resilient. You get the feeling her old life was not so good for her. This was this huge, beautiful, sort of impossible-to-realize dream that she was going to move to this new place with her son, and start this beautiful new life where they were going to live happily together running a motel. So it's this huge, immediate assault on that dream. Where most people would completely collapse under it, she has a unique approach to dealing with it."
Bates Motel's approach to violence in general:
"I speak personally, because I don't come from a background of writing that is very violent. I come from Friday Night Lights and Parenthood! First of all, if you're going to do Bates Motel, you have to accept it's going to have violence in it. Then your goal, given that it's going to have violence: Try to educate as much as you can, try to create real characters, real human beings, so you can tell the story of what happened to them. Be it good or bad. You can tell it without judgment. And just kind of observe it. No one wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'm a bad person' or 'I'm dysfunctional' or 'I'm fucked up.' The goal of writing these characters was to express them in a fully rounded, human way. And that was also the joy of writing them, I have to say."