What makes a villain? That’s a question many people find themselves asking. Very few people are born villainous; usually something pushes them in that direction. Especially when it comes to film and television villains. Nurse Mildred Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history. And the new show Ratched by Ryan Murphy takes a look at her tragic backstory. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, it’s all style and little substance.
The sadistic head nurse created by Ken Kesey in Cuckoo’s Nest is alive and well, albeit younger in this new version. She is expertly played by Ryan Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson, and is just as cold and calculating as ever. Sadly, the exploration of her backstory is lackluster at best. The show, created by newcomer Evan Romansky, is over the top, which is great, but there’s little to ground it. The acting is incredible, but even amazing acting can’t cover for a story with so many unnecessary plot twists and turns.
Mildred is given up by her parents at a young age. In the foster care system, she meets a young boy, Edmund, who becomes her brother. They are both treated horribly by all of their foster parents. And as we find out in a very bizarre way, they suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their adoptive parents. The treatment turns Edmund into a murderous sociopath and Mildred into a manipulative, largely unfeeling woman. Using sexual abuse as a reason for both characters’ moral failings feels lazy and unoriginal.
After Edmund murders several priests, including the man who is his biological father, he ends up at Lucia State Hospital for mental evaluation. Mildred connives her way into a job there as a nurse, to reunite with her long lost brother. This sets all of her motivations throughout the show.
Like many of Murphy’s other works, Ratched is incredibly aesthetically pleasing. It’s not a world devoid of color by any means — like the yellow dress Mildred wears during her interview at Lucia. Or even the blue of the nurse’s uniforms. Every female character’s hair is tightly coiffed and expertly waved. Every choice is deliberate and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The striking visuals provide an interesting contrast to the gratuitous and gorey depictions of violence. It’s full of bloody murders, and electrocution, and grotesque medical procedures.
One of Ratched’s biggest issues is that it’s ableist as fuck. Back in the 1940s, society viewed mental illness horribly — mentally ill people were simply locked away. Lucia’s head doctor, Dr. Hanover, is maniacal is his obsession with the ways to “cure” people of their mental illness. He gleefully performs multiple lobotomies, which were popular at the time. But their representation of Dissociative Identity Disorder is lazy and poorly researched. The character Charlotte, played by the utterly brilliant Sophie Okonedo comes to Dr. Hanover for help, and he treats it with a sick fascination. The writing makes it nothing more than an acting exercise as she slips from child to bully to a Black woman who endured severe racist trauma. They also treat physical disfigurement with a rather gross “tada” reveal.
As a queer woman, I was excited for the lesbian relationship between Mildred and Gwendolyn, played by Cynthia Nixon. It’s rare that you get two openly queer actresses playing queer women on screen. But to have two actresses as good as those two? That’s a really big freaking deal. Unfortunately, my excitement didn’t last for long. The good thing is they don’t do anything problematic with the relationship. But that’s really the only good thing. After they meet, Gwendolyn invites Mildred for dinner, suggesting a restaurant known for oysters. In a scene that feels like it’s emulating Carol, Gwendolyn suggestively feeds Mildred raw oysters. It may be good if you can stop cringing long enough to actually watch it.
Mildred doesn’t have much experience in relationships in general, so her affront with Gwendolyn’s insinuation that she’s also a lesbian isn’t shocking. Especially when you take into consideration the time period. To the writer’s credit, her hesitation never turns violent or cruel. As their relationship evolves, you can tell that it’s an attempt to give Mildred some sort of humanity, but it still falls flat in my opinion. Their relationship, much like the others on the show, lacks any sort of emotional depth or nuance.
Ratched handles lesbianism in the 1940s with 2020 sensibilities, which is a welcome change of pace. One of the patients, a housewife, is at the mental hospital after her husband catches her engaging in sex with a female neighbor. Even after a lobotomy, they’re still there because Mildred catches her engaging in a sex act with another female patient. It leads them to being sent to “hydrotherapy.” Really, it’s putting the patient into a giant InstantPot. After the grossly inhumane treatment, Mildred helps the women to escape. Her burgeoning feelings for Gwendolyn lead her to tell one of the women that she’s like her as they are driving away.
This isn’t the first Ryan Murphy show I’m watching, so I understand how he works. Because of this, there’s something about Ratched that didn’t surprise me, but still upset me. For some reason, Murphy and team don’t really know what to do with their actors or characters of color. Diversity is important, but the way he treats it, I almost wish he didn’t bother. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but I will say that pretty much all of the characters of color don’t make it to the end of the last episode. They’re merely devices to move the plot forward, but it’s clear they’re disposable.
First, we see Gwendolyn’s husband, a mildly effeminate Black man with whom she’s in a lavender marriage, since they’re both gay. Against his suggestion, she tosses him aside to pursue Mildred. There are two lobotomies we see onscreen. And the first is on the one Black male patient at the facility, played brilliantly by Joseph Marcel. Edmund savagely slays the lone Black security guard in the middle of a hospital dance. Even Dr. Hanover is brutally murdered by Okenedo’s Charlotte. In that example, both characters are victims at the hands of Mildred’s desperate and deliberate machinations. It’s a gross abuse of power for the creative team, even when it’s something you can expect.
Ratched, for better or worse, is already getting a season two. It seems the creative team is planning at least four seasons. We likely won’t see Mildred’s arch enemy Randall McMurphy until possibly season four. Honestly, the show could end right here, and no one would be missing anything. Sometimes, TV show creators need to learn when to leave well enough alone.
Ratched is currently streaming on Netflix.