Emmy spotlight: Freddie Highmore deserves overdue nomination as Norman in ‘Bates Motel’

Freddie Highmore has delivered award-worthy work on “Bates Motel” for five seasons, but has gone completely unrecognized by the TV academy. Playing a horror movie character as iconic as Norman Bates was always going to be a difficult task, but Highmore has carved out an astonishing, complex take on the role established by Anthony Perkins. “Bates Motel” fans have witnessed Norman’s evolution from troubled teen to menacing serial killer over the past five years, and 25-year-old Highmore has subtly shifted his performance to reflect the demons growing within.

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Highmore’s performance has been no more impressive than in this final season of “Bates Motel,” which finds Norman struggling to suppress his murderous rage. He is also coping with the death of his mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), who continues to occasionally haunt and pester him to the point of madness. Norma’s death has meant significantly less screen time for Farmiga than in the first four seasons, which has in turn put much of the show’s weight on Highmore’s shoulders. Yet, the shift has actually made his performance that much more outstanding.

In lesser hands, Norman Bates would have gone full “psycho” without much nuance. We, the audience, wouldn’t root for him to overcome his inner monster and the actor playing him would give in to obvious, hammy acting techniques. In the hands of Highmore and the show’s writers, though, comes a portrait of a tortured young man whose incestuous relationship with his mother is wholly unique and compelling and whose desire to kill is complicated by his conflicted feelings.

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Plenty of TV critics have raved about Highmore’s performance, with some saying he rivals that of “Psycho’s” Perkins. IndieWire’s Ben Travers raved in his review of Season 5, “Freddie Highmore’s take on Norman Bates feels like an honest precursor to Anthony Perkins.” And We Got This Covered’s Joseph Hernandez said that Highmore is “moving and sounding more like Anthony Perkins’ original Norman. It’s so creepily good and serves to showcase what an outstanding evolution the actor has gone through over the course of the series.”

So where is that Emmy nomination for Highmore? “Bates Motel” has a spotty history with the TV academy. Farmiga was Emmy nominated for Season 1 back in 2013 but has not been seen in the Best Drama Actress race since. “Bates Motel” was completely snubbed for Seasons 2 and 3, suggesting voters had given up on the show. Then the show received additional nominations last year for Season 4, in the Best Single-Camera Cinematography and Best Music Composition categories.

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Yet the show’s leading man has been overlooked year after year. Based on last year’s nominations it seems that some Emmy voters are fans of the show, but it’s do or die time now. This year is the last opportunity to grant Highmore with his long overdue first nomination, but there needs to be a strong push. Last year’s Best Drama Actor nominations included Rami Malek for “Mr. Robot,” Kyle Chandler for “Bloodline,” Bob Odenkirk for “Better Call Saul,” Matthew Rhys for “The Americans,” Liev Schreiber for “Ray Donovan” and Kevin Spacey for “House of Cards,” and all six are back in contention again.

However, with news of Farmiga competing as Best Drama Supporting Actress, we may finally see another acting nomination considering the wide-open field this year. The Emmys do love movie stars, and Farmiga, an Oscar nominee for “Up in the Air,” has led the two “Conjuring” movies to over $100 million each at the U.S. box office. “Bates Motel” producers would surely celebrate a Farmiga nomination, and yet, what’s Norma without Norman?

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It’s tough to tell what’s holding Emmy voters back from embracing Highmore. Is it his young age? Emmy voters tend to reward older actors in general, but we just saw 35-year-old Malek and 31-year-old Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) take home their first Emmys in the lead drama categories. Is it “Bates Motel” being too much of a genre show? Voters are embracing these types of series more than ever now, including “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story.” With the TV academy more willing to embrace genre shows and talented young performers than ever before, now is the perfect time for Highmore to receive his very first Emmy nomination. If not, Mother might have a word with you.

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