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Rihanna Made TV Magic Years Before The Super Bowl

On Bates Motel, she channeled her mysterious essence into a classic role.
  • Rihanna as Marion Crane on Bates Motel (Photo: A&E)
    Rihanna as Marion Crane on Bates Motel (Photo: A&E)

    Rihanna can rest easy about Super Bowl LVII. No matter what happens during her halftime show, she’s already delivered an excellent TV performance that proves she can command the small screen as easily as she can rule the pop charts or run a cosmetics empire.

    Six years ago, the multi-hyphenate appeared in two episodes of Bates Motel, playing none other than Marion Crane, the woman who has a bloody encounter with Norman Bates in the movie Psycho. If Rihanna doesn’t quite erase the memory of Janet Leigh, who played Marion in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, then she still proves there’s more to discover about the character.

    The key thing about her performance is her presence. Rihanna doesn’t have to do anything to command the eye: In her earliest scenes, she’s just standing around the real estate office where Marion works, trying to be as unassuming as possible, and she still crackles with energy. Even when she’s quiet, Marion watches everything, assesses it. When a blowhard client tries to flirt with her by letting her hold a briefcase full of cash, she communicates her exhaustion with a flick of her eyes. Later, when her manager chides her for asking for a raise, it’s clear that along with feeling embarrassed, she’s making a plan to get even.


    Rihanna’s knack for suggesting she has secrets makes her a great fit for this role. Even though we know Marion is desperate to be with her lover Sam Loomis (Austin Nichols), that doesn’t entirely explain why she steals the $400,000 from her employer. Nor does her frustration with her boss entirely justify her decision to blow up her life and go on the lam. Just like in the original film, Marion is driven by a reckless impulse that simply exists, full stop. For the character to work, we have to believe in this mysterious extra layer, and Rihanna makes that easy.

    Granted, she doesn’t find loads of nuance in her scenes. When Norman (Freddie Highmore) tells Marion that Sam is actually married, a different actor might appear less stoic. Rihanna also seems remarkably poised a few minutes later, when Marion smashes Sam’s car with a tire iron. However, her sphinx-like quality is an asset for a series like Bates Motel, which turns Norman’s five-season trip to the dark side into a nonstop parade of operatic excess.

    In these two episodes alone, Norman realizes he’s had anonymous gay sex while in a fugue state, screams at the ghost of his dead mother about what to make for dinner, and twitches like an itchy child when he tries to convince a bartender he’s feeling just fine. If Rihanna matched this energy, then these episodes might be unbearable, but her reserve provides ballast. It also intensifies her scenes with Norman. He’s understandably drawn to this woman who’s suffering in such a different way than he is, and it makes sense that he feels so bad about Sam’s betrayal that he tells her to run away from the motel and never look back.

    That’s a huge shift, of course. Even the least informed film fan knows that Marion Crane gets killed in the shower. But here, she lives. The last time we see her, she tosses her cell phone out of a car window while she drives to a new life with all that money in her trunk. Thanks to Rihanna’s performance, it’s easy to believe she’s savvy enough to make the most of it.

    All seasons of Bates Motel are now streaming on Peacock.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Rihanna, A&E, Bates Motel, Super Bowl LVII, Alfred Hitchcock, Freddie Highmore