On its face, itâs not a bad idea. Take one of cinemaâs greatest villainsâLouise Fletcherâs Nurse Ratched, head nurse at an Oregon psychiatric hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckooâs Nestâand unpack her backstory. How did this killjoy functionary end up at the facility, with her mild-mannered tones and chilling glares? Why isnât this conventionally pretty woman in her 1940s hairdo raising kids and tending to a husband in the early years of the â60s? How is it that maintaining order is all that animates her, when the suffering of her patients is plainly obvious? What might drive such a passive-aggressive, purportedly caring character?
Ratched, from creators Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky, attempts to answer that question. The reveal, without spoiling too much, involves repressed lesbianism, an abusive upbringing, and a brother with a tendency towards violent revenge. Murphy, whoâs Netflixâs marquee showrunner, has combined nostalgic cultural touchstones with exploitative violence and queer horror to great effect in the past. A televisual bludgeoning of taboo tropes is kind of his hallmark.
But whatâs striking about Ratched is just how scattershot and incoherent its characterization is, both as a backstory for Nurse Mildred Ratchedâplayed by Murphyâs muse Sarah Paulsonâand as a narrative. At the beginning, Paulsonâs Ratched has a more murderously cruel streak than we ever saw in One Flew Over the Cuckooâs Nest; over time, bizarrely, the series softens her, humanizing the nurse into a character with some dimension. Neither persona seems remotely related to the original Nurse Ratched; Paulsonâs various Ratcheds do not even seem related to each other. Ratched turns Ratched into whatever it feels like it wants in that moment: a long-suffering sister, a vengeful caregiver, a repressed lesbian, an enthusiastic lesbian, a master manipulator, and even a caring nurse.
Paulson does her very best to connect the dots, but her Herculean effort to hold the narrative together with her bare hands cannot mask how little the writers seem to have considered Ratched as a character beyond a uniform and a haircut. Paulson makes quite an impression, especially in a scene in which she delivers an ice-pick lobotomy to the camera, and weâre looking up at her uncompromising face before being permanently addled with a metal skewer. But a collection of impressions do not magically turn into a character arc. Over the eight-episode first season, the show flails from set piece to set piece, investing as much as it can into production details to cover just how little inspiration is in the plot. Alarmingly, the show has been greenlit for 10 more episodes, according to Deadline.
Most of the action takes place in a small Northern California town, where Ratched rapidly insinuates herself into the state psychiatric hospital headed by narcissistic fabulist Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). Ratched has no trouble making herself indispensable, partly because the hospital is under scrutiny by the stateâs governor (Vincent DâOnofrio), until he and his assistant Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon) realize they can turn the institution into a political asset. Dr. Hanover needs their approval, because he is eager to unleash new and exciting therapies onto his patients: lobotomies, hydrotherapy, LSD dosing, and more.
The abuse of the mentally ill is an awful footnote of human historyâone that Ratched mines for multiple gory scenes. (Itâs an arena that Murphyâs American Horror Story: Asylum also covered in 2012 and 2013.) One patient diagnosed with âlesbianismâ is sentenced to a lobotomy before being shunted off to a terrible hydrotherapy treatment, in which she is submerged in too-hot water for half an hour and then dunked into an ice bath. Ratched is at times put off by these methods, and at times inclined toward their vicious ends. The reason she has come to this small town is to seek out her brother Edmund (Finn Wittrock), a murderer sent to the hospital for evaluation. She wonât allow Edmund to be subjected to the same treatment as other patientsâbut she will use some of these methods to exact revenge.
This lets the show have its cake and eat it too, so to speak. It can frame hydrotherapy and lobotomy as awfulâand even have Ratched agree with that sentimentâthen wallow in the gore of Ratched using these methods to torture or kill an enemy. Itâs clumsy and exploitative, using violence to mask how little the show has to say.
The clumsiness is particularly troubling when it comes to how the show approaches mental illness. Ratched acts skeptical of how society categorizes the mentally illâmore than one character is âdiagnosedâ with an illness for their sexuality, and itâs suggested that the minority patients are at a disadvantage in the system due to their race. At the same time, Ratched is haunted with the hulking presence of mass murderer Edmund, who is perhaps traumatized, but sane. As a patient, though, he manipulates the hospital staffâs empathy for his own nefarious ends. Ratchedâs sympathy for him is difficult to understand, and the show bungles their relationship so badly itâs almost admirableâcapped off with a mess of backstory that the show introduces via puppets.
Yet the seasonâs worst blunder is not Wittrockâs one-note character, but rather the showâs odd decision to sell out its stance on mental illness with the introduction of a Black patient named Charlotte (Sophie Okonedo). In general, with a Ryan Murphy show, if you canât count on a solid story, you can at least enjoy daring attempts at inclusivity. But Charlotteâs dissociative identity disorderâa disorder previously known, and much frequently depicted, as multiple personality disorderâis a poorly conceived misfire, turning Charlotte into a caricature for the worst kind of assumptions about mental health. She becomes a liability for the hospital and a tool for Edmundâs worst impulses; her character is reduced to her disorder, becoming a vehicle for unspeakable violence. The end of the first season is anticlimactic and kind of stupid, but itâs made much worse by the fact that it uses Charlotteâs illness as a gimmick for a few jump scares.
Okonedo is not at her best in Ratched, and neither is Paulsonâbut there are some great performances buried in here. Nixon offers so much subtlety to her character that she seems to be in a different show, while DâOnofrio is pleasantly entertaining as the blustering, execution-happy governor. Davis is given the thankless task of trying to make Nurse Bucket interesting or amusing, and ends up almost carrying it off; Alice Englert does great work as Nurse Dolly, though her little subplot ends up going nowhere. You may have heard that Sharon Stone and Corey Stoll are in Ratched, but their storyline is so ridiculousâand ultimately so superfluousâthat their inclusion is nominal at best. The best I can say for it is that Stoneâs character, Lenore, lives in lavish splendor that production must have spent a lot of money on. (Thereâs something haunting about how the bright green of Lenoreâs gardens and greenhouses contrasts with the sickly turquoise shades of the hospital.) Part of that lavish splendor includes a pet monkey named Petunia.
Ultimately, Ratched fails to deliver not just because it doesn’t have a handle on its lead and canât locate its horror, but because it has limited vision and poor follow-through. The elements of this story are so inelegantly mashed together that they may as well have come out of a blender.
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Actu monde – AU – Netflixâs Ratched is Wretched