‘Ratched’ on Netflix: Wildly Entertaining or a Fraudulent Prequel? Well, Maybe Both.
Ratched — an origin story about Mildred Ratched, the nurse protagonist of Milos Forman’s film adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — is the third Ryan Murphy production to premiere on Netflix this year.
Now, no one would blame you for experiencing Ryan Murphy fatigue, least of all me. Between the ongoing American Horror Story/American Crime Story franchises, the groundbreaking Pose, the political satire (if there’s even such a thing anymore) of The Politician, and the revisionist history of Hollywood — all of which he oversaw or directed or wrote or executive produced in varying capacities — he’s hard to escape.
The problem isn’t Murphy, per se, but our expectations of what a “Ryan Murphy production” is. And, of course, saturation. After a subpar season of AHS, I haven’t quite gotten around to the second season of The Politician and nearly skipped Hollywood entirely. Did I need a version of Tinseltown’s past where the outliers — the queers and every iteration of people of color — became the triumphant creative tastemakers and not merely relegated to supporting roles, if that?
Turns out I did. And it was enlightening.
Not about the show itself, which turned Hollywood’s ugly systemic racism and homophobia onto its head, but about my response to it. Hadn’t I already seen this before? The themes aren’t new to the Murphy canon; the execution looked as Technicolor as Pose or Glee. Some of the actors were new to his troupe yet, like always, it was the old-timers that carried it through. All of this is to say that I had already decided, sight unseen, that there would be nothing fresh here. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. And I was wrong.
Ratched, which stars the formidable Sarah Paulson in the titular role, has even more against it than Hollywood. It has to compete with the American Horror Story franchise — that’s what it most resembles — plus it has to overcome our thoughts and memories around Louise Fletcher’s Academy Award-winning performance in the film. Well, it does for the older viewers in the audience. Millennials and those younger will not have that burden.
So can Ratched be both a wildly entertaining series and a fraudulent reading of the fictional character that does an immense disservice to the 1975 film? Yes.
Taken on its own, it’s a psychotic romp: this story of grown-up orphans emotionally connected through historical trauma is set in 1947 at a California psychiatric hospital along the central coast. Lucia, as it’s called, is overrun with characters.
The salty head-nurse, Betty Bucket (the delicious Judy Davis), is in love with the head of the clinic, Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones, who could use a more villainous mustache to twirl). Nurse Dolly (Alice Englert) is in love with Lucia’s most infamous patient, the mass murderer Edmund Tolleson (who we secretly know to be Mildred’s “brother”). Charlotte Wells and her multiple personalities, all rendered brilliantly by Sophie Okonedo, becomes the prime focus of Dr. Hanover when she arrives at the clinic.
There’s political intrigue in the guise of the governor of California (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), his publicity head, who are using the institution by withholding much-needed funding in exchange for Dr. Hanover to declare Edmund Tolleson fit to stand trial (and thus to get the death penalty). And a side story featuring Sharon Stone as an old white heiress whose only emotion is money, and her entitled brat of a son, is a masterclass in the macabre. Stone, beautiful and brittle, is having a high time with her outré outfits and a monkey that she loves more than her kid. She turns her character, Lenore Osgood, into a world-class eccentric.
Paulson is, as always, fantastic, though I can’t reconcile her depiction of Nurse Ratched to Louise Fletcher’s more tough-minded and less sentimental version. In the film, Nurse Ratched is a villain by default — she’s a professional doing her job and limited by the bureaucracy of the institution. We hate her, absolutely, but her perfunctory “badness” isn’t at first apparent. It’s accumulative; she’s hardened by age and experience and the lack of empathy that follows.
“I think it wouldn’t have been interesting to me to explore the parts of Mildred Ratched that aren’t porous,” Paulson has said. “In the movie, she is calcified, there’s a hardness, nothing ekes out, and I remember when I first saw the movie thinking that she was absolutely a villain and evil and all this stuff,” she said. “And then when I rewatched it before we started, I thought, you know this is a woman who is a victim of a patriarchal infrastructure in this hospital, and could it be considered that she didn’t have any choice about whether or not she can access her heart in her way, if she could bring her femininity and her womanhood to the job.”
I think Paulson was right to approach this iconic character through the cracks in her armor, and she plays what has been written with intelligence and grace. Yet Mildred Ratched in this guise is already a manipulative and dangerous agent; what she does is calculated, disarming, and destructive. Her actions, self-serving, have a predetermined outcome. In the film, how Ratched interacts with the protagonist, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), is business as usual and more horrifying for it. Her intent is to heal, though she’s hamstrung by what Paulson rightly suggests is the patriarchal infrastructure of the institution, and that disconnect is what leads to tragedy. The impact of the film against the series is wildly different, and I worry that those who watch this version of the character of Mildred Ratched before exposure to the film would lose the efficiency and conflict of Fletcher’s portrayal.
Yet Murphy and Paulson (and Davis and Stone and Okonedo and the rest of the cast) — make their Ratched a compelling watch (not to mention a great display of the powers of sisterhood). To my mind, they are distinctly different and interesting characters who diverge more than they overlap — less sisters and more like third cousins — though in each telling they demand and, sometimes, reward your attention.