It’s ironic that one of the most dramatically potent moments in “Ratched,” the Ryan Murphy-produced attempt at an origin story for Nurse Mildred Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” is one of its subtlest moments. Young Mildred (Sarah Paulson) sits across from Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) at a cozy seaside café; the two women sit and sip cocktails, and Briggs, the older, more assured woman, teases her tautly-drawn companion that she’ll enjoy sampling the oysters. The scene is layered with narrative and character complexities—Gwendolyn is the aide to the boorish Governor of California, a man who can decide the fate of the psychiatric hospital where Mildred has just started working, and which houses someone from her past, someone she can’t bear to lose again; the two women also share a sexual tension that is potent and frothing as the waves breaking on the shore beside them (and at a time when homosexuality was still in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Watching two seasoned actresses pirouette through the minefields of their characters’ furtive hopes and palpable anxieties is riveting in ways that the gonzo, gore-flecked cheesiness of other Murphyverse fare so rarely is. Unfortunately, “Ratched” lacks sustained faith in the power of its human drama.
The series’ premise is initially intriguing: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” remains an iconic film, and Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of the arctic-hearted authoritarian has made her one of cinema’s great villains. However, time—and more nuanced depictions of gender—has rendered the movie’s vision of personal autonomy, and its avuncular avatar, the brash Randall Patrick McMurphy, through a shallow lens (more “boys just wanna have fun” than “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”), and begged the question of whether Nurse Ratched is a native-born ball-busting evil incarnate, or, perhaps, a competent woman whose soul was eroded by her time in a cruel, patriarchal institution.
One might assume that “Ratched” would be consumed by this question, given its ad copy’s invitation to “meet the woman before the monster” and its thematic sisterhood with “American Horror Story: Asylum,” which was preoccupied with the ways in which striving for institutional authority can make otherwise intelligent women, women who should know better, identify with their aggressors. Think of Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude, unsung administrator of Briarcliff, putting a smug doctor in his place with a tart “Let me give you fair warning: I’ll always win against the patriarchal male” before subjecting a woman to violent electroshock therapy to singe away the “sin” of lesbianism. But “Ratched” is surprisingly not interested in its heroine’s relationship with traditional forms of power—the series’ first half is devoted to how love, in all its forms, holds its own power to warp us and the promise to redeem us.
Mildred’s forays into the mental health system of the late 1940s are motivated by her desperate devotion to a man from her past, the only family she has, whose protective sweetness has curdled, through the grotesquely operatic trauma of his past, into an ooze of violence. This devotion compels into her great manipulation and violence of her own, allowing Paulson a symphonic range of emotion: Her Mildred vacillates between diamond sharp focus and Machiavellian cunning as she maneuvers to become the right hand woman of the hospital chief, Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones); barely contained fury at a world that has shown her so much suffering; and, most poignantly, a strained sense of hopefulness that she can save her family, and perhaps build a new one with Gwendolyn, the woman who has slowly begun to crack through the hard shell of her accumulated fear and self-loathing. Though the quality and consistency of “Ratched'”s writing dramatically deteriorates around its midpoint, Paulson’s dedication to finding the pulse inside the brittleness of the ice queen archetype makes her compulsively watchable—and the first four episodes, at least, give her a main through-line that is worthy of that performance.
Mildred’s rescue mission leads her into acts of cruelty—such as manipulating a distraught man to take his own life in Dr. Hanover’s office during one of the Governor’s visits (so she can swoop in and clean it up, as the good doctor’s savior) and giving an icepick lobotomy to an innocent priest who’s seen too much—that the show wisely resists playing up as campy grandeur. She knows what she’s doing is wrong and still she must do it. Paulson vests Mildred with the full weight of her transgressions and a ferocious dedication to her cause. Her grim awareness stands in contrast with Dr. Hanover, who sees himself as a progressive champion in his field, but whose “innovative” treatments—like the lobotomy, hydrotherapy in scalding baths, and hypnosis—are as vicious as anything a serial killer might dream up. Indeed, Mildred’s blossoming back into her humanity comes when she and a fellow nurse, disfigured war veteran Huck (Charlie Carver), decide to save two patients—a pair of women who have fallen in love while hospitalized and must be “treated” for their “afflictions”—from the sustained torture of hydrotherapy. Of course, the choice to save these women from broiling alive is about learning to accept her desire for Gwendolyn; it’s also embracing, as hard as she can, the part of her that can still feel empathy for anyone else. For Mildred, love isn’t all roses, it’s also a garland of thorns.
It’s unfortunate that once this plot-line resolves itself, “Ratched” devolves under the force of a sudden and wholly unnecessary “muchness” full of assassination plots, political intrigue, lovers on the run, and monkeys in diapers. Creator Evan Romansky and team seem to lose confidence that more grounded, human stories are animated by all-consuming and relatable human desires. The show sacrifices tonal coherence for a kaleidoscopic intensity that alienates, rather than engages, the viewer—especially when so many compelling supporting performances, like Briones or Judy Davis as Betsy Bucket, Mildred’s chief rival at the nurses’ station, or Finn Wittrock as the patient Mildred is so attached to, become sucked into the vacuum of inelegant zaniness. The show takes a hard pivot, as if it’s auditioning to be some secret season of “American Horror Story” and indulges in that series’ worse impulses.
In some ways, Murphy is not unlike Dr. Hanover, a man fancying himself as an enlightened innovator while inflicting real damage—most notably, in the depictions of physical disability and mental illness. Characters who are physically disabled are either monstrous or all-suffering saints, with little of the nuance or grit afforded to the able-bodied. The show purports to be, at least nominally, about the horrors enacted against vulnerable mentally ill people, but it traffics in the most pernicious stereotypes against mental illness—specifically, that it makes people dangerous. Late in the series, Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), a patient with multiple personality disorder, arrives on the scene like a cyclone, all chaos and bluster—and it’s not long before she goes from victim to wild-eyed killer, a depiction that is only compounded by the fact that Charlotte is the only Black woman with a recurring role. The patients we’re meant to sympathize with are the two women that Mildred and Huck help escape—white and blonde and not really crazy, after all, just blue-eyed victims of their bigoted times.
This selective empathy has soured many of Murphy’s shows, but it feels even more frustrating here, precisely because “Ratched” has such potential to talk about issues that can’t be pithily articulated in a tagline. The character, even divorced of the future self who will face the happy-go-lucky counterculture hero of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” offers opportunities to discuss gender, power, love, and identity—and yet the show that bears her name is unworthy of her.
All episodes screened for review.