Ratched review: Netflix series should shed its pretence of being a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest prequel

The Mildred Ratched of Netflix's Ratched has little in common with the Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest apart from her name, some personal facts, and vocation.

Rohini Nair September 20, 2020 09:07:21 IST
Ratched review: Netflix series should shed its pretence of being a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest prequel

This post contains mild spoilers for Netflix's Ratched.

***

HBO's Perry Mason, released this June and aimed at creating an origin story for Erle Stanley Gardner's iconic character, left me perplexed. Mason here, as portrayed by Matthew Rhys, is nothing like the suave courtroom champion of Gardner's stories and previous screen adaptations. Instead, he's a down-on-his-luck private eye who'd have been more at home in a Raymond Chandler story. Mason's isn't even the character that gets the most compelling overhaul in HBO's series — that honour goes to his associates Della Street and Paul Drake. At the series' conclusion, however, you could — with some stretching — visualise that yes, this might very well be how Perry Mason got his start.

While Perry Mason made for engaging viewing, I did wonder why the makers had felt the need to call it that. Why couldn't Rhys' character have been any old detective-turned-lawyer if so little of Gardner's original story/style was being retained? Was it the name recognition? The opportunity to build on a pre-existing fan base? That knowing where these characters' futures lay allowed the makers (and viewers) to more significantly explore their little-examined pasts?

These are questions Ryan Murphy's new Netflix series, Ratched, raises as well.

Every episode of Ratched begins with the note that it is "based on the character of Nurse Ratched from the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and from the Saat Zaentz Company motion picture of the same name". This claim is somewhat dubious. The Mildred Ratched of Netflix's Ratched has little in common with the Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest apart from her name, some personal facts, vocation, and employment at a state psychiatric hospital. Ratched would be better served if it dropped this pretence — and baggage — and let viewers watch it for what it really is: a version of American Horror Story.

Ratched is stocked with AHS alumni, including lead actors Sarah Paulson (as Mildred Ratched) and Finn Wittrock (who plays Edmund Tolleson), among others. It has the signature Ryan Murphy aesthetic that in its own way is almost as distinctive as say, Wes Anderson's: a profusion of pastels, the gorgeously constructed indoor and outdoor frames, the juxtaposition of horror and luxury. With all of that visual beauty and a stellar cast going for it, Ratched still falters.

Anyway, for OFOTCN fans ruminating over what made Nurse Ratched the way she is — the personification of a dehumanising, authoritarian regime — the answer Murphy's prequel provides is: A Dark and Twisted Past.

Ratched review Netflix series should shed its pretence of being a One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest prequel

Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched| Still from Ratched | Netflix

Ratched review Netflix series should shed its pretence of being a One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest prequel

Finn Wittrock as Edmund Tolleson | Still from Ratched | Netflix

The contours of this Dark and Twisted Past are uncovered over the course of eight episodes (each between 45-60 minutes in length): A childhood spent shunted around cruel foster homes, sexual abuse, a bond with a fellow orphan who a kindly caseworker tags as Mildred's brother so they won't be parted by the system. Mildred and her brother are separated anyway.

Cut to the present-day timeline, in 1947, when a young man murders four priests in a vengeful rage. The murders trigger public outrage, with calls for the killer — Edmund Tolleson — to be sentenced to death. Instead, he is sent to a hospital in the seaside town of Lucia for a psychiatric evaluation, to see if he is fit to stand trial.

The hospital is run by a Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) — a "dope fiend" battling personal demons whilst running an underfunded institution, with ambitions of providing cutting edge treatment to the mentally ill — along with his worshipful Head Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). The hospital is a former rest spa for the wealthy, its lush decor and serene setting contrasting starkly with its eerie, macabre happenings.

It is to Lucia that Mildred Ratched is also drawn, and it becomes quickly evident that she is connected to Edmund in some way, which is why she's schemed, lied, blackmailed, manoeuvred and manipulated her way into a position at the facility. Edmund — obviously — doesn't want to be executed, and Mildred is determined to save him.

Other sub-plots converge with this narrative: the machinations of the sexist and gross Governor Wilburn (Vincent D'Onofrio) who wants Edmund's swift execution to be his campaign plank for an upcoming reelection; Mildred's growing attraction to the governor's press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) and Edmund's affair with Dolly, a nurse-trainee (Alice Englert); a side quest involving two lesbian patients at the facility; Dr Hanover's attempts to cure Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), a patient with Multiple Personality Disorder; and the attempts by the uber wealthy and enigmatic Mrs Osgood (Sharon Stone) to have Dr Hanover murdered for incapacitating her son Henry (Brandon Flynn).

Ratched review Netflix series should shed its pretence of being a One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest prequel

Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells and Jon Jon Briones as Dr Hanover | Still from Ratched | Netflix

Ratched review Netflix series should shed its pretence of being a One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest prequel

Sharon Stone as Mrs Osgood | Still from Ratched | Netflix

If that lowdown sounds a tad exhausting, that's because it is: Individually, each of these strands is riveting enough, but to have them crunched together into one season means none of them get the space to really breathe. The claustrophobic feeling is reinforced by the heavy-handed use of music: the score is a often louder than it needs to be, screaming where it might whisper, signalling some anxiety-inducing denouement even when one isn't close at hand.

What Ratched wishes to say is also unclear. On the one hand, its depiction of the barbaric treatments (lobotomies, hydrotherapy) that were once in vogue for treating mental illness as the true horror of this narrative, works. It underlines how "loose", and by extension inhumane, definitions of "mental illness" could be — everything from PTSD to homosexuality to daydreaming. On the other hand, the direction it chooses to take for some of its characters — Henry Osgood and Charlotte Wells, for instance — runs the risk of demonising mental illness.

All of this may have been easy to overlook if Mildred Ratched herself was a consistent enough character. The problem is that Ratched can't seem to commit to what it wants its central figure to be. If she's a survivor to be sympathised with, then what of her transgressions? Is she the kind of person who engages in casual cruelties just because she can, or someone who deeply empathises with the people she comes into contact with? She could very well be both, but then how do you square this Mildred Ratched with the Nurse Ratched she's supposedly the precursor to?

Ratched has its moments. Unfortunately, that's all it does have.

Ratched is streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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