Netflix’s Ratched is just what the doctor ordered: a pulpy, twisty, hugely entertaining thrill-ride with layered, complex characters matched by some nuanced, phenomenal performances. It’s lavishly stylish yet emotionally potent. No wonder it’s already been greenlit for a second season. Created by Evan Romansky and developed by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, Ratched is inspired by both Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning 1975 film adaptation. Among those five Oscar wins was Best Actress in a Leading Role gold for Louise Fletcher as psychiatric ward nurse Mildred Ratched. In 2003 the character was placed just behind Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West by the American Film Institute as number five on its centennial list of one hundred greatest villains. And indeed that might well be how she lives in our memories as we recall the suffering of some the men in her care. But Ratched wasn’t the one calling all the shots. She was just part of the mental health care system of the day and in revisiting the film recently, although Louise Fletcher’s performance is timeless and utterly engrossing, to label the woman a “villain” seems like a vast oversimplification. In the movie version we learn nothing about her life outside of her work in the hospital and her facial expressions are generally pretty impenetrable, while her motivations remain ambiguous. Might there be a degree of misogyny at work here? If Ratched was a male nurse would the character rank quite that high on the 100 list? In any case it was a spark of genius to take this iconic “villainous” character about whom we know very little and give her an expansive, multi-season origin story.
The eight episode first season opens around two decades before the happenings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the night of the horrific multiple murder of catholic priests perpetrated by Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), with suitably grisly, gory detail. This is followed by Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) persuasively seeking employment as a psychiatric nurse at Northern California’s Lucia State Hospital, despite not having an appointment for an interview or there even being a position open on the staff. She receives a frosty reception from the hospital’s head nurse Betsy Bucket (Oscar-nominee Judy Davis bringing an absorbing steely vulnerability to the role), but Ratched puts her powers of manipulation to use with the head of the hospital, Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), to get her foot in the door. We know that she’s travelled from out of town to be there, but initially not what the draw of this particular hospital is or how long she intends on staying. She seeks lodgings at a noirish cliff-side motel, that looks like it’s been painted by Edward Hopper, run by the deliciously kooky Louise (Amanda Plummer).
Despite a generous private donor, and the appearance of Lucia being a well-funded institution, Dr. Hanover is keen to receive the cash injection offered by the Trumpian California Governor George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio) in return for him having influence on key medical decisions, such as whether or not Tolleson is fit to stand trial. Encouraged by his ambitious and dedicated press secretary, Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), to make mental health a campaign issue, Wilburn becomes convinced that an execution will help him gain the votes he needs. While Hanover seems more concerned with how a success story with one of his high profile patients, Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), will reflect on him, and in turn nurse Bucket’s priority is impressing Hanover, whom she is secretly in love with. Meanwhile nurse Ratched ensures that she’s a visual and thereby vital part Wilburn’s publicity campaign in order to secure employment at the hospital.
Thanks to Oscar-nominated production designer Judy Becker, Lucia is endlessly opulent, a lavishly appointed, chandelier lit institution that on its green surface looks like an appealing five star hotel. But don’t let the furnishings fool you, the surroundings belie the trauma suffered by many of the patients. A hot bath here might intentionally scold you if you’re a lesbian being “treated” with hydrotherapy for that particular “disorder”, followed by a soak in another tub filled with ice cubes. Or perhaps you’d prefer a relaxing lobotomy? It’s that horrific procedure that Gwendolyn Briggs finds particularly distressing when she witnesses it being administered. Although Briggs is married to a man, it soon becomes clear that is it a marriage for show only as both her and her husband are gay. Briggs’ gaydar hits eleven when she crosses paths with nurse Ratched, but her advances towards the nurse are initially rebuffed. Unlike the man she works for, Briggs is a person of integrity, bravely true to her own feelings and as open about her sexuality as she can be given the socially conservative times. Her relationship with Ratched is never a simple one, but it gradually deepens and becomes one of the finest screen portrayals of women in love in American film or television in recent years, right up there with Todd Hayne’s Carol. At the end of the day acting is acting, and gifted performers like Paulson and Nixon can portray all aspects of the human experience, so it’s not so much about authenticity, but for me knowing that this complex, rich love story between women is being portrayed by actors who both have female partners in real life gives the scenes between them an extra spark, making them even more spellbinding to watch. Soon we’ll see the Ryan Murphy produced The Boys in the Band on Netflix which focuses on a group of gay men set in 1968, refreshingly and remarkably all the characters are portrayed by gay actors.
Sarah Paulson, who also serves as executive producer on the series, retains that degree of unknowability as Ratched associated with the Louise Fletcher incarnation of the character, while gradually unpeeling the layers as the season progresses without relinquishing any of the mystery. Fascinating and compelling in every scene, Paulson is a masterful actor at the height of her craft; in a season that paints in broad strokes, Paulson gives a performance that deepens and enriches. Determined, damaged and fragile; a captivating antiheroine. One of the season highlights, inventively conceived and effectively executed, sees Ratched severely triggered by a children’s puppet show on a date with Briggs, with the puppets playing out traumatic times in her early life, which adds further layers of complexity to the woman.
After Jon Jon Briones’ hugely impactful turn as Andrew Cunanan’s father in The Assassination of Gianni Versace it’s great to see him in such an expansive role here. He commands the screen, bringing an engaging intensity to his scenes, as he slowly becomes more unhinged it’s a joy to behold. In one of the most heightened, melodramatic plot threads, Oscar-nominee Sharon Stone plays the filthy rich Lenore Osgood who wants the head of doctor Hanover. With a literal and figurative monkey on her back, Osgood is written as the queen of cutting one-liners with an air of camp, which Stone delivers while finding the humanity in the woman. It’s a performance that could see her rewarded with award nominations and more importantly a pile of scripts worthy of her talent. Charlie Carver also deserves a mention as the hospital orderly Huck Finnegan, an injured World War II vet who wears the severe scars of his service on his face, scars that Bucket and Ratched both tell him mean that he’s unlikely to gain employment anywhere else. He’s clearly the shell of the man he was before he left for war, and Carver brings a touching vulnerability and strength of moral character to him, one of the few thoroughly decent members of hospital staff.
Emmy-winning costume designers Lou Eyrich and Rebecca Guzzi deliver some sapphic sartorial period glamour to Briggs’s wardrobe, while Ratched is always impeccably dressed, reflecting her controlling character. The overall look and tone of the season is a fitting homage to the film noir of 40s, with some requisite thrilling car chases. As the series progresses one increasingly questions the sanity of those roaming free outside the confines of the hospital with their murderous intentions, drug habits and eccentricities, while those who are committed are being treated for conditions such as “day dreaming” and homosexuality. It’s a riveting watch that leaves plenty to be explored in future seasons that will presumably lead up to the time when we originally met the character in Oregon State Hospital in Cuckoo’s Nest in the early 1960s.
By James Kleinmann
Season one of Ratched launches globally on Netflix on Friday September 18th 2020.