On its face, it’s not a bad idea. Take one of cinema’s greatest villains—Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, head nurse at an Oregon psychiatric hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—and unpack her backstory. How did this killjoy functionary end up at the facility, with her mild-mannered tones and chilling glares? Why isn’t this conventionally pretty woman in her 1940s hairdo raising kids and tending to a husband in the early years of the ’60s? How is it that maintaining order is all that animates her, when the suffering of her patients is plainly obvious? What might drive such a passive-aggressive, purportedly caring character?
Ratched, from creators Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky, attempts to answer that question. The reveal, without spoiling too much, involves repressed lesbianism, an abusive upbringing, and a brother with a tendency towards violent revenge. Murphy, who’s Netflix’s marquee showrunner, has combined nostalgic cultural touchstones with exploitative violence and queer horror to great effect in the past. A televisual bludgeoning of taboo tropes is kind of his hallmark.
But what’s striking about Ratched is just how scattershot and incoherent its characterization is, both as a backstory for Nurse Mildred Ratched—played by Murphy’s muse Sarah Paulson—and as a narrative. At the beginning, Paulson’s Ratched has a more murderously cruel streak than we ever saw in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; over time, bizarrely, the series softens her, humanizing the nurse into a character with some dimension. Neither persona seems remotely related to the original Nurse Ratched; Paulson’s various Ratcheds do not even seem related to each other. Ratched turns Ratched into whatever it feels like it wants in that moment: a long-suffering sister, a vengeful caregiver, a repressed lesbian, an enthusiastic lesbian, a master manipulator, and even a caring nurse.
Paulson does her very best to connect the dots, but her Herculean effort to hold the narrative together with her bare hands cannot mask how little the writers seem to have considered Ratched as a character beyond a uniform and a haircut. Paulson makes quite an impression, especially in a scene in which she delivers an ice-pick lobotomy to the camera, and we’re looking up at her uncompromising face before being permanently addled with a metal skewer. But a collection of impressions do not magically turn into a character arc. Over the eight-episode first season, the show flails from set piece to set piece, investing as much as it can into production details to cover just how little inspiration is in the plot. Alarmingly, the show has been greenlit for 10 more episodes, according to Deadline.
Most of the action takes place in a small Northern California town, where Ratched rapidly insinuates herself into the state psychiatric hospital headed by narcissistic fabulist Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). Ratched has no trouble making herself indispensable, partly because the hospital is under scrutiny by the state’s governor (Vincent D’Onofrio), until he and his assistant Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon) realize they can turn the institution into a political asset. Dr. Hanover needs their approval, because he is eager to unleash new and exciting therapies onto his patients: lobotomies, hydrotherapy, LSD dosing, and more.
The abuse of the mentally ill is an awful footnote of human history—one that Ratched mines for multiple gory scenes. (It’s an arena that Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum also covered in 2012 and 2013.) One patient diagnosed with “lesbianism” is sentenced to a lobotomy before being shunted off to a terrible hydrotherapy treatment, in which she is submerged in too-hot water for half an hour and then dunked into an ice bath. Ratched is at times put off by these methods, and at times inclined toward their vicious ends. The reason she has come to this small town is to seek out her brother Edmund (Finn Wittrock), a murderer sent to the hospital for evaluation. She won’t allow Edmund to be subjected to the same treatment as other patients—but she will use some of these methods to exact revenge.