"I wish I could've met Mildred Ratched before the world got to her." So says one of the characters in producer Ryan Murphy's new Netflix series Ratched, an imagining of the backstory of the infamous One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next villain. Murphy developed the series along with writer Evan Romansky, but as with all the series Murphy produces, his fingerprints are all over it. In this case, "the world" that gets to Nurse Ratched is not only cruel, it's garish, surreal, gory, and art-directed to within an inch of its life. What Ratched isn't is an exploration of a literary character that says much about what made her or how we might interpret her in a different light. Make no mistake: Ratched is a classic Ryan Murphy camp extravaganza, for better and for worse, but as a Nurse Ratched story, it fails to make a case for its own existence.
In her original incarnation in author Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched was the picture of institutional repression, lording over the ward at a mental hospital with a pitiless efficiency, employing coercion and manipulation to keep her patients docile and compliant. This portrait was enhanced in the 1975 Milos Forman movie, for which Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for playing Nurse Ratched, who by this point had acquired the first name of Mildred, but was no less a symbol of the system's determination to keep individuals under its thumb. In making the decision to offer a revisionist take on Nurse Ratched, Romansky and Murphy risked undoing the power of Kesey's original narrative, but certainly there was room to maneuver. What happens when you look closer at an instrument of systemic repression and see the human being underneath? What brings a person ostensibly employed in a caregiving role to a place where she is so clearly hostile to the people in her care?
Sadly, none of this is explored in Ratched. Mildred is given a backstory, of course. Multiple backstories, in fact, including a troubled, traumatic childhood, a harrowing experience as a nurse in World War II, and a buried romantic inclination. But by the end of the eight-episode first season (Netflix's production order was for two), we are no closer to understanding the woman who would go on to square off with Randle Patrick McMurphy. As played by Sarah Paulson with her usual level of dialed-in intensity, Mildred is a complicated character with a muddle of motivations that have her vacillating wildly between villainy and victimhood, but she comes across far more like a typical Ryan Murphy protagonist than anyone resembling her Cuckoo's Nest analogue.
As the series begins, we see Mildred Ratched arrive at a psychiatric hospital in Northern California to begin her new job. It's 1947, and the state of mental health care at that time is both primitive and grotesque. The hospital is under the direction of Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), whose dedication to advancing psychiatric care past the dark ages is well-intentioned, but self-serving, and ultimately reckless. His head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) is the closest the show has to a Nurse Ratched type, and she takes an immediate dislike to Mildred. Murphy and Romansky use the setting to explore the various horrors that were once undertaken at hospitals like these in the name of progress, and as you might expect, we get things like lobotomies and extreme hydrotherapy in the goriest of detail. Considering he already had a season of American Horror Story set at a mid-20th-century insane asylum, a lot of Ratched feels like it's retreading Asylum's ground, with the only difference being the candy-colored West Coast decor of this new show.
But Ratched has far more on its mind than a simple critique of outdated health care practices. For a while, that's the show's saving grace. Even if there doesn't seem to be much urgency or novelty in the central plot, Murphy and Romansky are throwing so much else on screen. There's accused serial killer Edmund Tolleson, played with an excess of glower power by Murphy recidivist Finn Wittrock (absolutely the new Evan Peters of the Murphy-verse). There's Cynthia Nixon as an aide to the governor of California (Vincent D'Onofrio, never cast for his subtlety), who ends up entangled in Mildred's life. And there certainly is Sharon Stone as a wealthy heiress with a long-simmering vendetta looking to exact an elaborate plan of revenge on behalf of her preppie-psychotic son (13 Reasons Why's Brandon Flynn). Each represents an avenue, a detour away from any kind of exploration of Mildred-as-Nurse. Murphy's typically deep casting bench keeps throwing new characters into the mix. Corey Stoll as a private investigator. Amanda Plummer as a hotel matron. Sophie Okonedo as a woman with multiple personalities, one of them Jesse Owens. They all have their moments. If you can't get a thrill out of Sharon Stone with a monkey on her shoulder detailing a diabolical plot, you're living life wrong. But many of them ultimately feel like narrative wheel-spinning, with precious few contributing to the narrative of a show called "Ratched."
As you'd expect, Mildred works her way up the ranks in her new job, which is meant to feel ominous, given who she'll ultimately become. But the show can't resist making her the lesser of two evils at every turn, until eventually it just gives up and makes her the default heroine. Rather than a burgeoning symbol of repression, Mildred comes across as a frantic plate-spinner: attending to revenge plots, undermining state executions, plotting against (and sometimes with) Hanover and Bucket. For a while, the plot seems to coalesce around a queer reading of Mildred, giving the show some sense of purpose. Homosexuality was of course considered a mental illness back then, and some of Mildred's first patients at the hospital have been institutionalized for this "affliction." This dovetails with a relationship between Mildred and the Cynthia Nixon character that plays like a campier version of Carol. Murphy's most successful recent endeavors, specifically Pose and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, have centered the queer experience. But here, that focus wanders and ultimately this theme is sidelined in favor of gaudier plot developments. (Not to mention that this subject matter was also handled on American Horror Story: Asylum.)
More often than not, Ratched is a frustrating experience, punctuated by moments of camp excellence, which makes it impossible to dismiss outright, which in a way makes it even more frustrating. Paulson is great, Murphy seems to have found something fantastic in his relationship with Judy Davis (the Oscar-nominated actress was also excellent in Feud: Betty vs. Joan), and as ever, there is a thrill in watching top-tier actors get up to such luridness. Alas, Ratched doesn't get at anything about Ratched, and ends up crumbling under the weight of its own expectations.
The entire first season of Ratched drops on Netflix September 18th.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.