The first season of drama-thriller series ‘Ratched’ narrates a part of the infamous and fictional nurse’s life through the lens of Ryan Murphy. Does this portrayal hinder or help?
When the trailer for Ratched was released, it was obvious that it was in the Ryan Murphy universe and not just because the series had Sarah Paulson — who is an American Horror Story lead — centre stage. An unofficial prequel to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched, the show serves as Murphy’s version of the fictional and tyrannical nurse’s history.
Before you dive into Ratched, do give the 1975 Miloš Forman-directed film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Williams (as the original Nurse Ratched) a watch. There is something about Ratched that has your skin crawling and everyone in her vicinity cowering, and has people wondering about her journey into the sadism we see in the film.
The Netflix series takes place in 1947 in Northern California where a Mildred Ratched starts work at a well-known psychiatric hospital led by Dr Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and his head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). With an immaculate appearance at all times, a serene smile and her quick wit, she secures the image of what an ideal post-war nurse should be, ultimately winning the trust of many of the hospital’s employees — except Nurse Bucket.
At the same time, murderer Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) arrives at the facility after killing several priests. Ratched seems set on working at the facility and meeting Tolleson, though the reason is not clear at the start.
According to the series, Ratched’s present is a result of her trauma from early childhood, as she was passed through a fractured child-care system. But how she became a nurse in this context is worth exploring by watching the series. Sarah Paulson naturally perfects the balance between vindictive and merciful, consistently taking pride in her career as a nurse.
As per the conservative times, the hospital is subjected to constant scrutiny in regards to the debate of rehabilitation versus punishment of the LBGTQ+ community and the criminally insane. Set to make the viewer uncomfortable, there are references to controversial ‘treatments’ such as hydrotherapy and lobotomies as a means to ‘cure’ the subject of their maladies.
The hospital, low on funding, is also under intense pressure to punish rather than rehabilitate, as per the State Governor George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is up for re-election and wants the polls in his favour. D’Onofrio nails the power-hungry politician perfectly, of course.
There are politics inside the hospital walls too. One of the most enjoyable things to watch in the show, as with any Ryan Murphy production, is the formulaic rivalries between and banding together of women through the plot. Watching Nurse Bucket and Nurse Ratched continually fight for top-dog and for the good favour of Dr Hanover who is not entirely what he seems. Judy Davis, always a treat to watch, does no different in Ratched and she quickly becomes an audience favourite as the season progresses.
There are many remarkable female characters in the series. Governor Wilburn’s press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) is one of the series’ most likeable characters for her pursuit of equality and the truth — a pleasant step away from American audiences’ dislike for a certain administration’s press secretary. Briggs eventually becomes a confidant to Ratched, much to audiences’ pleasure.
Then there is the doe-eyed Nurse Dolly (Alice Englert), a gum-chewing young employee who rides her own wave but becomes enamoured with Tolleson, leading to a disturbing Bonnie and Clyde relationship. A patient at the hospital is Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo) who has dissociative identity disorder; she quickly goes from being a sub-plot character to someone that is quite central to the storyline towards the end of season one.
But leave it to Sharon Stone as a glamorous, eccentric and obsessive heiress Lenore Osgood to steal each scene even as a disembodied voice on the telephone, threatening Mildred, Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll) and Dr Hanover with painful ends. Lenore is on the warpath from start to finish and her tenacity is unrivalled, all in the name of vengeance for a loved one who suffered at the hands of one the series’ characters.
From wardrobe to production design, the world of Ryan Murphy, who directs a couple of first season episodes, is lavishly created; in fact, it is unsettling to see some of the most heinous things happen right before our eyes in the prettiest of places, all exacted by those in the finest of wares and perfect make-up.
Remember this is not Murphy’s first dip into the world of hospitals, as seen in Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story’s ‘Asylum’. Ratched has the typical Ryan Murphy hallmark on it: warm-toned aesthetics in each frame, rooting for the underdog, criticisms of unrealistic beauty standards, and a love for anything musical.
All said, do not expect any resemblance between One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Ratched, be it look, approach to characters and script. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest holds a much tougher-to-bear narrative owing to Williams’ portrayal, while audiences feel more of a connect and relatability to Paulson’s, which may have been Murphy’s goal.
Unfortunately, the first season of Ratched leaves a lot to be desired. Audiences will not feel the building wrath of Nurse Ratched just yet, even as we see her as just Mildred in some parts. If Ryan Murphy wanted to take the story of one of literature’s most famous villains and explore a fictional history, this could have been done with a lot less control over the look and with more loyalty to a character who has been a precursor for many villains that followed.’
Season one of ‘Ratched’ is streaming on Netflix.