Sarah Paulson shines in a gory prequel that justifies its existence by veering into horror — at the expense of the original material’s social critique.
This review of Ratched Season 1 is spoiler-free.
“You’re not like those other women; you’re different,” someone tells Nurse Ratched midway though the eponymous show’s second episode. That the line is uttered after Ratched sits attentively through a lobotomy demonstration, wide-eyed and inquisitive, should tell you everything you need to know about the protagonist of Netflix’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel. She’s not your regular nurse…. she’s, dare I say it… TWISTED.
Ever since Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance hit the silver screen, fans (Cuckoo-heads?) have been waiting with bated breath for the answers to burning questions such as: What drew Mildred to the nursing profession? How did she end up in a mental hospital? What was her childhood like? What’s her day-to-day?
Of course, there isn’t exactly a fanbase demanding these questions — or if there is it consists of writer Evan Romanovsky and producer Ryan Murphy, who clearly saw the script as kin to his successful American Horror Story series. Yet for the rest of us, the show’s existence feels like a joke. While it’s hard to deny the character’s greatness, she lacks the macabre and horror aspects of characters such as Hannibal or Norman Bates.
The show’s existence feels gratuitous, like Murphey & co. scrolled down AFI’s list of movie villains until they found one they could buy the rights for (speaking of, I’m excited for HAL: Beta Test, a 12-part prequel series coming to Hulu 2022).
So the most surprising thing about Ratched (I watched the entire season) is that it delivers a well-crafted story that more than justifies its existence. At its best, Ratched is an engaging drama about a woman overcoming trauma and doing everything she can to rectify a wrong.
The series follows Mildred Ratched as she connives her way into working at an experimental psychiatric institute run by the careerist Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), who has some secrets of his own. When a headline-grabbing murderer Edmund Tolleson (Finn Whitrock) arrives at the hospital, Hanover sees the opportunity to put his name on the map. But Nurse Ratched has other ideas.
Initially, Ratched is presented as a cipher, a ruthless agent of malice. But by the end of the first episode, her motivation is expressed and she becomes a sympathetic character. Of course, she is Nurse Ratched, so every instance of her being relatable is countered with a scene displaying her ice-cold misanthropy. The end result can feel jumbled at times. Ratched often delights in certain forms of barbaric “treatment” and is later horrified and protesting at another method, with no logical basis for the distinction. It feels like they decided to give her some scenes with a conscience and left it out of the rest.
And it’s the times when they do that Ratched works best. Most notably in regards to Ratched’s relationship to Gwendolyn Briggs (an always charming Cynthia Nixon). Their scenes are so wonderful it’s a shame whenever the show decides to introduce scenes of gratuitous violence.
Oh, did I mention that this was a Ryan Murphy show? Not the Ryan Murphy of Glee (what I would give to see this cast break out into song every few scenes) but the Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story.
Unlike Psycho or the Hannibal films, Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t exactly a horror film or even a psychological thriller. Well, it’s horrifying if the most terrifying thing to you is the state’s cruel suppression of individual spirit and counterculture. But the creators of Ratched don’t seem interested in the political connotations of the original Nurse Ratched.
Rather, they’ve swapped the drab and soul-sucking (albeit Danny DeVito-inhabiting) institute of the original for something more resembling Arkham Asylum. The mental patients are a scattershot mix of regular people, who are committed for reasons that make us say “look how far we’ve come,” and horror movie villains. Anyone expecting a thoughtful exploration of how our society treats mental illness will be out of luck. The show wavers between expressing the inhumanity of its depicted treatments and positioning it as an alternative to the cruel criminal justice system (the savagery of the former being the central thread of Cuckoo’s Nest seems to be of no concern to the writers).
But what the Ratched lacks in nuance it makes up for in schlock. There is gore and lots of it. Subplots involving Dr. Hanover’s backstory are particularly bountiful in this regard. I’m sure fans of Horror Story will enjoy it, but I was taken aback. The outright bloodshed, combined with the foundational trauma of the story left me feeling that the show took suffering as cheap, something that can be exploited for entertainment.
Does it seem like I’m harping on the show too much? It’s really not too bad. For all it’s faults, it is a well-written drama that blessedly refrains from many of the excesses of the streaming era. Ratched keeps a tight pace, never dragging or stretched out, and giving time to develop several characters.
The performances are top tier. Paulson is the real deal, always meeting the demands of the script, even if the script isn’t always there to meet her. Finn Whitrock is a charming but three-dimensional murderer. Judy Davis plays the icy head Nurse Bucket, a role that seems like an alternate version of Ratched. And Vincent D’Onofrio, playing an odious governor, proves himself to be one of our finest scenery chewers.
Also admirable is the foregrounding of female characters, although it’s difficult to call running an oppressive institution feminist. Much of the show is thrilling; the problem is that what makes Ratched interesting is so frequently undercut by gratuitous excess. Fans of American Horror Story will find a lot to love in Ratched. If you’re looking for anything resembling the power of Milos Forman’s 1975 film, you’re out of luck.
Thanks for reading our spoiler-free review of Ratched (Netflix).