The notorious villain gets a job in the first episode of Ratched.
This recap of Ratched season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.
“Lord have mercy on us.” The line opens Netflix’s Ratched and underlines the episode’s theme. What does mercy look like, and who is bestowed with the power to give it? Whether its psychiatric hospitals providing a merciful alternative to prison or individual treatment of others; the choice to give and withhold mercy rests in the arms of those in power.
We begin in 1947, as some priests head out to the movies. Upon returning they are murdered one by one by Edmund Tolleson (Finn Whitlock), who seems to delight in carrying out violence.
But this is not purely a crime of passion; as he prepares to butcher the elder priest, he asserts his mother’s name, accusing the priest of raping her and ruining her, and subsequently his, life. “We did things together, but she wanted it,” the priest says, echoing the horrific words of cruel men throughout history who wield patriarchal power over women. Trying to find mercy, he cries out, “I have suffered for my sins.” But Edmund is not a merciful god.
Six months after this scene of brutal justice we meet our eponymous protagonist at a gas station in picturesque Monterey. An overly friendly attendant deals out exposition — the “clergy killer” and Mildred Ratched are both headed to the sleepy town of Lucia, notable for its psychiatric institute. Huh! What a coincidence. In return for setting up the episode’s story, Ratched scolds him for his poor personal hygiene.
Ratched drives up to a seedy motel where an erratic Amanda Plummer scolds the “vultures” trying to get a photo of Tolleson. It’s here where Ratched shows herself to be a creature of pure ambition. She rehearses introducing herself to Dr. Hanover, before presenting a clearly forged letter in order to connive her way into an interview. Fellow unemployed people, take note!
She finds a rival in the professionally stern Nurse Bucket (Judy Davis), but stands her ground in response to challenges to her legitimacy. When Hanover finally arrives, Ratched masterfully asserts her dominance, turning the tables so that he ends up making excuses for forgetting an interview that doesn’t exist. The actual interview gives Ratched a chance to show off her steely perseverance: “Do we have scat throwers here?…. That won’t phase me.” Good to know.
The other notable running motif in the episode is the treatment of sex; sexual proclivity often goes hand in hand with punishment in the episode. The priest who invited Tolleson in did so because he had stayed home to ********** — and we know how that turned out for him and his friends.
At the gas station, Ratched’s eyes are drawn in disgust towards a couple making out. Louise (Amanda Plummer) reads the news of Tolleson and speaks of both how monstrous he is and how attracted she is to him. Lust and violence are intertwined.
That suggestion comes to the forefront when Ratched has a rendezvous with a mysterious character played by Corey Stoll. Apparently Mildred’s idea of a good time involves roleplaying her childhood trauma. It’s the closest thing we get to an explanation of her temperament, something about her mother not wanting her, and giving her up once her father dies. Of course, this is not what Stoll signed up for, and he promptly leaves, to which she responds, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what the problem is.” Yeah, I wonder, Mildred.
Her passion for assertion and manipulation comes to a head when she walks in on a nurse having sex in a bathroom. The experience causes the entire hallways to turn green — clearly, Ratched sees an opportunity, or jealousy, or… something. So far the show is refusing to ground the character in anything but determination; it’s hard to comprehend the purpose of some of the more stylistic elements. Anyway, she blackmails the nurse into quitting her job, so that when the governor is supposed to arrive, the institute is one nurse short.
The governor plot-line begins with Dr. Hanover’s own trouble with asserting himself. After being stood up repeatedly, he finds the governor (scumbag king Vincent D’Onofrio) at a restaurant. Hanover pleads for funding, arguing that his institute could be a new symbol for mercy in the criminal justice system (that theme again!), and that could benefit the governor’s re-election. The governor could not be less interested, but his aide (Cynthia Nixon) sees the potential in running the mercy angle.
When the governor arrives, Ratched sees an opportunity to make herself useful — rescuing a patient who collapsed. To the audience, this is clearly no accident — it underlines the lengths to which our titular character will go to get hired.
Afterward, she fashions herself as a sort of dark angel of mercy, breaking the harsh truth to a patient Mr. Salvatore. Paulson plays the moment with genuine tenderness, but her motivation is more than compassion.
As Hanover discovers that Ratched was responsible for the earlier accident, he stumbles on to Salvatore’s body. Now she has the upper hand and proves her resourcefulness by getting rid of the body. That’s one way to get a job!
Throughout all this, I keep coming back to a line she uttered in her interview: “Save one life and you’re a hero. Save a hundred… well then you’re a nurse.” What does the death of Salvatore make her?
Up to this point, it’s clear that Ratched is willing to do terrible acts in order to get what she wants, but as a character, she is all surface. We have no idea why she is doing what she is, with the closest thing to understanding being her awkward role-play.
This all changes in the episode’s final scene. As a hotly-anticipated Tolleson arrives, a teary-eyed Ratched visits his cell. She reveals that they are brother and sister, and she’s been looking for him. She promises him mercy.
It’s a shame it took so long to reveal her motivation as it really sets up something more interesting than the obscure malice of the rest of the episode. But once that twist settles in it makes me excited for the rest of the series.
- The episode is really quite beautiful. Those overhead shots of Ratched driving up really capture the beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway (one of the most incredible drives I’ve ever been on).
- I wonder what Corey Stoll was doing at the bar, suspiciously eyeing Dr. Hanover.
- I love the scene of Bucket roasting the nurses; I can’t wait to see her and Ratched go head to head in upcoming episodes.
- The music really reminds me of 60s Hitchcock movies; those soaring strings are reminiscent of the Psycho theme, as is the setting.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia