RATCHED Explores How Mildred’s Childhood Shapes Her Life

Spoilers ahead for Ratched season 1

In one episode of Ratched, Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) speaks to a priest about Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), the infamous clergy killer who murdered four priests and happens to be her brother. Mildred says, “He wasn’t born a monster. Someone turned him into one.” We can easily relate this quote to Mildred’s life and current persona. Ratched explores how her horrific and violent childhood takes her from a person who sought love, friends, and a place to call home to the stoic nurse we later came to know.

In the series, Mildred Ratched is a former military nurse seeking employment at Lucia State Mental Hospital. She manages to always get her way through lies, manipulation, and blackmail. Under the supervision of a head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), Mildred takes care of patients in her twisted way. At the same time, she has a secret goal. She wants to help Edmund to escape the hospital. 

Mildred’s childhood trauma and experience during the war influenced her as an adult. She seems unfeeling but she’s actually a very hurt, vulnerable woman with a violent past. In one scene we see Mildred and her love interest Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon) watching a puppet show. Suddenly, Mildred is triggered by the puppets and imagines the show is telling the story of her abusive childhood. She becomes visibly upset, stands up, shouts at the actors, and runs off.

Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched walks near steps in a navy blue dress and green gloves

Courtesy of Netflix 

Subsequently, Ratched finally sits down with Gwendolyn in a restaurant to open up about her past. Her parents abandoned her at a very early age. Mildred and her foster brother Edmund were verbally, mentally, and physically abused by several foster parents. Then, in their last foster home, they were forced to perform sexual acts onstage together in front of pedophiles and perverts. These vicious events exceedingly affected her personality and explain her desire to save others who are in pain.

As a (fake) military nurse, Mildred would euthanize men who were suffering and begging her to kill them. In her mind, she believed she was saving them from pain. She carries this philosophy to Lucia as an “angel of mercy”—a moniker given to her by Huck, a fellow nurse. Viewers frequently see Mildred cope with flashbacks of badly wounded soldiers. All of this seems to point at her having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which, according to Mayo Clinic, is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event that includes flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety. 

From the moment we meet Mildred, we learn that she will do whatever it takes to get herself in the hospital. Mildred’s exterior is exceptionally proud and self-confident, which leads almost everyone believe in her every word. Her voice is monotone yet firm; she’s assertive and resolutely stands her ground. For example, when Governor Wilburn inappropriately touches her, she is not afraid to tell him to stop. Mildred Ratched is not afraid of him – or any other man. 

She’s also very observant. When she assists Dolly and Edmund with their secret meetings, she knows precisely what Bucket does during lunch break. She tells Dolly where Bucket will sit, what she eats, and how her reading material changes each week. 

Mildred Ratched and Nurse Bucket site in a breakroom with green chairs

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Ratched mainly wants to rely on herself. The people around her are almost a constant disappointment. This detachment is yet another sign she likely has PTSD from her past. Mildred also uses those military stories to fuel her toxic sexual fetishes as she does morbid role playing during intimacy with a man. It’s like a re-enactment of the terrible things she has witnessed. 

Mildred is precise, at times cold, and dangerous. She performs a lobotomy on an innocent priest who survived the massacre committed by Edmund. The wet thud of an ice pick and his groaning doesn’t daunt Mildred. It’s quite possible that the abuse she endured numbed the way she now embraces violent situations.

Many of her actions, including the lobotomy and contribution to Wainwright’s death, are not about her at all. They are focused on freeing Edmund and renewing their childhood bond. Ratched’s desire to have a brother dim her vision of a true darkness inside Edmund. The desire to have a brother dims Mildred’s vision of a true darkness hidden within him.

He admits to her that she’s the only person who doesn’t see the real him. But, from her perspective, Edmund is the only person who truly knew her. She spent a lot of years and energy to search for him, neglecting her own happiness in the process. This realization makes it easier for the audience to sympathize with her. 

Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

She’s usually unbothered by gruesome procedures in the hospital, but that soon changes. Mildred breaks her facade when Lucia patient Lily Cartwright is subject to a brutal procedure to “erase homosexual impulses.” The nurses strap her into a steel bathtub full of 117 degree water to somehow “cure her lesbianism” and desires for her lover Ingrid. 

The procedure disturbs and agitates Mildred – a first for the nurse. She eventually works with Huck to help the women escape so they can be together. The exceptional compassion and warmth that Mildred possesses for them grips viewers’ hearts. It’s clear that Mildred thoroughly understands their despair and desire to be themselves.

She starts to embrace her own feelings for Gwendolyn after suppressing her sexuality for years. This is likely from both the way society saw lesbians as well as her sexually abusive past. Gwendolyn opens Mildred up in a new way and becomes the first to hear about Mildred’s ominous past, horrifying childhood, and her actions at Lucia.

Mildred Ratched character sits at table with Gwendolyn Briggs

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

However, Gwendolyn and others like Nurse Bucket have to deal with another symptom of Ratched’s past – constant lying. Gwendolyn eventually calls Mildred out for the way she treats others, pointing out that her past isn’t an excuse for current actions. Fortunately, Mildred acknowledges her words and understands Gwendolyn’s feelings.

“I understand that the world has not been kind for you, and I’m sorry for that, I truly am, but that doesn’t give you the right to dissemble at every possible opportunity to the people around you whose only mistake was to care about you.” 

As the first season comes to the end, Mildred is safe, happy, and in a loving relationship. However, one threat remains – Edmund pledges to find her and kill her for the attempt to euthanize him.

Ratched was already renewed for the second season. So viewers will be able to see more events in Mildred’s future. Thanks to the storytelling of Evan Romansky and Sarah Paulson’s exhilarating, dark, and touching performance, we are finally able to understand the past, struggle, and Mildred Ratched’s brutal life events that shaped her personality. 

Featured Image: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

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