Netflix UK TV review: Ratched
Cast and costumes7
Ivan Radford | On 18, Sep 2020
“I wish I got to Mildred Ratched before the world got to her,” remarks someone halfway through Ratched, Netflix’s prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If that sentence made you do a double-take, this brazen, bloody piece of pulp fiction is likely not for you, because Ryan Murphy’s exploration of Nurse Ratched’s origins is less One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and more American Horror Story: Asylum 2.
Sarah Paulson steps into the shoes of the formidable nurse, who became a screen icon everyone loved to hate in Milos Forman’s 1975 film. Based on Ken Kesey’s novel, the movie was a countercultural cornerstone, serving as a moving, rousing study of institutionalised power and what happens to humanity in the face of that power being abused. What made Nurse Ratched such a cruel figure was part of the systemic horror on display. To try and explain that away with a back-story, in some ways, misses the whole point.
If you can accept Ratched on its own terms, then, the show fares much better, although it’s still got its own problems. We begin in 1947, with a triple-murder committed by Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) that leads him to be assessed in the Lucia State Hospital, which is overseen by the eager Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). Shortly after, Mildred (Sarah Paulson) turns up, interview letter in hand and demanding a job.
We discover immediately that this letter is fake and Nurse Ratched isn’t really a nurse at all, but some corpse hiding and blackmail later and she’s donning the uniform and getting the job she wanted anyway. Watching Sarah Paulson connive and plot her way through the system is an absolute joy, from her frosty stare that could kill to her brightly coloured outfits that slay. At a glance, she can see through people to work out what buttons to press to make them feel vulnerable, and seemingly nobody is immune to her soul-sapping chemistry – not even Judy Davis as Dr Hanover’s long-standing number two, Head Nurse Betsy Bucket.
What’s curious, though, is that Mildred Ratched starts out the show as the kind of cold, cunning figure we expect – and, over the course of the season’s eight episodes, thaws into something more resembling a human. On the plus side, Paulson gets some meaty material to sink her teeth into, including an attraction to Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon), the secretary for the sleazy Governor George Willburn (Vincent D’Onofrio, on scene-stealingly repulsive form). On the downside, it takes Nurse Ratched further away from the character she’s purportedly destined to become – it’s interesting and exciting to see a queer reclaiming of a pop culture icon, but it’s also confusing to see how exactly Nurse Ratched will eventually become the authoritarian tormentor in Cuckoo’s Nest, who has no sympathy for closet homosexual patient Dale Harding.
There’s a chance, here, to explore the inhuman classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, and some brutal water therapy is deployed to literally chilling effect. But it’s foolish, in some ways, to expect nuanced grappling of such issues as the treatment and diagnosis of mental health issues from a show in which every other room is bathed in gothic red lights and Sharon Stone turns up a couple of episodes in with a pet monkey.
From Jon Jon Briones’ doctor who just genuinely wants to help people to Nurse Bucket’s devotion to her scientific hero, there are complex motivations at play from all sides, even in an ensemble largely filled with terrible people. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Sophie Okonedo making a remarkable entrance as a character with dissociative identity disorder, but as we spend time with Alice Englert’s unconvincingly naive nurse Dolly or spend time watching Ratched and Edmund interact and trade childhood memories, the show can’t disguise its tendency to vamp and riff on its influences at every opportunity.
Playing out with a heightened, De Palma-esque style, the stunning production design – complete with split screens in key confrontations – is gorgeous to behold, from Corey Stoll’s smug private detective being silhouetted in a dark office to the grand, opulent architecture of the hospital. But there’s a superficial element that comes with that over-arching extravagance, and the final episodes tee things up for a second season that doesn’t quite resolve its cartoonish approach to its sensitive subject matter, dubiously positioning certain characters as villains, let alone Mildred’s perhaps tragic narrative arc, which is one part surprising and one part inconsistent.
Co-creators Evan Romansky and Ryan Murphy find gold in what is undoubtedly a mixed bag – Nixon’s scenes with Paulson are so tender and tense that they could almost come from entirely different programme – but you suspect that the pill would be easier to swallow if it didn’t come with the Cuckoo’s Nest attached. In a way, you wish they got to Mildred Ratched before the original film and book did.
Ratched is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.