I recently became hooked on A&E’s drama Bates Motel. John and I binge watched the first two seasons on Netflix and have been keeping up with the current season 3. In recent years, I have developed a strange fascination with the birth of fictional serial killers, my favorites being Dexter Morgan from the show Dexter (whose final Season will alas forever live in infamy) and the infamous shower stabbing, cross-dressing Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcok’s Psycho and now Bates Motel (as played by Freddie Highmore). Bates Motel focuses on Norman Bates’ younger years and traces his path from innocent boy to psycho killer.
The story largely centers on his weird, co-dependent, dysfunctional relationship he has with his mother Norma (played by the incomparable Vera Farmiga). Show producers/writers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin have done a superb job of creating compelling characters in Norma and Norman Bates. His slow descent into madness (his famous “we all go a little mad sometimes” quote from Psycho) is both believable and fantastical, uncomfortably weird and inappropriate yet strangely sympathetic, and we witness firsthand how the formidable, melodramatic, manipulative, good-intentioned yet selfishly loving presence of his mother contributes to and inevitably creates the monster that Norman becomes.
The show thrives on dramatic irony–we have the morbid knowledge knowing that Norman is going to be a psycho killer and his mother Norma Bates is going to end up as a corpse in Norman’s taxidermy basement. However, the journey to get there is full of twists, turns and suspense and keeps me as the audience member guessing how and why Norma will end up dead.
Because of Dexter and Norman Bates, I find myself now watching Game of Thrones through this psycho killer lens, wondering if Arya Stark is transforming not into a righteous vigilante, but a psycho killer/assassin. In the same way that Norman feels a connection to his dead mother in Psycho and keeps her “alive” by assuming her form, I wonder if Arya Stark has been trying to maintain a connection to her family (namely, dead father Ned Stark and favorite bastard brother Jon Snow) by becoming a killer herself. Her bloodthirsty, obsessive prayer naming those she wants to kill strikes me as so much more than mere revenge.
In the popular Game of Thrones podcast A Cast of Kings, I remember podcaster Joanna Robinson remarking on Arya’s actions in Two Swords episode from Season 4, Episode 1. Joanna said that some people read this scene as being victorious and a win for a protagonist; she read it darker and what it seems like the writers would have us believe is a simply hero’s victory is actually one more step toward darkness for Arya. We watch Arya deliberately kill Polliver with her trusty sword, Needle given to her by Jon Snow and educated properly on by Braavosi master Syrio Forel, a tutelage supplied and encouraged by her father Ned. She killed Polliver, reclaiming her stolen sword and then rides away triumphantly on a newly stolen pony.
I remember sitting in the bar watching this episode while dozens of my fellow Game of Thrones fans/patrons laughed and cheered wildly at Arya’s victory. It felt like an odd moment because we watched a little girl kill and essentially cheered as a collective. Part of me wonders if Arya maintains such a strong affinity for her sword not only because of her affection for her swordmaster Syrio Forel, but that the sword was given to her by her half-brother with the eventual blessing of her father. In a way, she feels like she is keeping them alive and close to her by giving Needle a purpose and destiny–to avenge the deaths of those lost to her.
Her story is starting to read more and more to me, not as a revenge story, but the birth of a serial killer. Just as Norman keeps his mother Norma alive by appropriating her in an object (her clothes), so Arya is keeping her dead father, dead tutor and distant brother alive through the use of her sword Needle. Dexter similarly keeps his dead father Harry alive by manifesting him as his inner self-talk, conscience and Code. Just as Norman’s intensely inappropriate yet strong connection to his mother motivates and manifests so much of the violence and anger he has internally, so does Arya’s strong family ties (she is a wolf part of a pack, after all) motivates her choices and manifests in her growing fascination and skill she with death and destruction.
It might be a stretch, but I suppose only time will tell…