Netflix’s Ratched steps back in pre-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest times to detail nurse Mildred Ratched’s deadly rise to power. The eight-episode first season packs on a ton of manipulation, time-specific social commentary, and a more in-depth look at Ratched’s life through her eyes and those around her. Ratched builds a tangled web of abuse, delusions, and murder that will keep viewers guessing this infamous antagonist’s next move until the very end.
Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives at Lucia State Hospital shortly after a shocking crime leads to a dangerous new arrival. The criminal in question, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), exhibits the classic killer vibes. Though he is very different from Mildred, their past connection isn’t too hard to ascertain prior to its reveal. Mildred Ratched is unsettling and menacing in a passive aggressive way, quickly weaseling her way onto the nursing staff.
At first, it seems she has a singular goal in mind. But Ratched soon finds herself embedded in the lives of those around her, particularly Edmund, head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), nurse Dolly (Alice Englert), Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), rich tycoon Mrs. Osgood (Sharon Stone), and Governor Wilburn’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) press secretary Miss Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon). The show takes a couple of episodes to gain its steam but once it gets there the suspense doesn’t let go.
Ratched brings politics into the fold, which complicates Mildred’s plans as the facility tries to maintain a certain public appearance. The series slowly peels back the layers on all of its main players while simultaneously examining the horrors of psychiatric care during this era. The pyramid of corruption inverts many times. Those who seem to be the worst among humans show layers of heart. Others who appear only surface-level terrible are more deeply sinister than imagined.
Mildred reflects two sides of a coin by publicly subscribing to puritanical and heteronormative standards while privately parsing through her own emotions. This is largely seen as the series heavily explores anti-LGBT beliefs of the time. All of it is meant to draw some important juxtapositions for several characters, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch the attempts at “curing” patients.
People are inexplicably drawn to Ratched in various ways despite her massive emotional wall with barbwire made of lies. She speaks sharply on others’ actions and diagnoses while being unable to come to terms with her own trauma and misguided notions of mercy and morality.
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Ratched takes a look at the scope of her life and makes a brilliant puppetry analogy. Mildred goes from being under horrific people controlling her life to becoming the puppet master herself, for better and worse. Everyone around her believes they are in control but in reality she’s pulling majority of the strings. And if someone goes off script, it usually ends in disaster.
It’s a thought-provoking and wonderfully layered look into her psyche and motivations that gives the character a new level of depth. The revelations about her life certainly don’t negate her actions but rather provides a foundation for her train of thought. There’s also the constant question of whether a fictional antagonist’s story and motivations must always be anchored with logical reasoning.
Ratched’s pacing feels a little slow at times. However, it always finds a way to snap the viewer’s attention back into focus. This is largely in part to its absolutely stunning performances. Briones infuses Hanover with a heavy dose of corrupt scientist and a person who has clearly lost his way due to his own ego. Wittrock invokes nightmares with a blank, chilling stare and an undercurrent of rage. There isn’t a single on-screen match up that isn’t absolutely brilliant, whether it’s main players or tertiary characters. It’s incredibly fun to see Paulson and Davis do rounds of verbal sparring at Lucia.
Paulson and Stone’s energy is similar but, unfortunately, the latter’s story is far too sporadic. Ratched builds intrigue with Osgood’s hunt for justice before backgrounding her altogether. By the time she resurfaces, the viewer is being thrown out of the current timeline into a narrative that has lost some of its sheen.
The chemistry between Paulson and Nixon stands above them all. They make a captivating and vulnerable duo with a brilliant storylines between them. Ratched and Briggs are drawn to each other despite being on opposite sides of a situation. Briggs draws out the light in Ratched, leading her towards facing her pain. Ratched sheds a dark shadow in Briggs’ life while simultaneously aiding her in stepping into a clearer light. Their pairing will absolutely be the center of many Ratched conversations.
Unfortunately, the series uses its few Black and Latine characters as nothing more than pawns for violence and schemes. One woman, Charlotte (Sophie Okonedo), goes through a harrowing kidnapping that triggers her multiple personality disorder. She comes to Lucia for help after a misdiagnosis, and gets helpful and surprisingly humane treatment.
However, she is soon subject to another violent act. A Black employee dies violently in front of her, causing her mental anguish. The employee is simply “collateral damage” in an escape plot. Nurse Ratched then uses Charlotte to take care of her dirty work by killing a person during a dissociative episode. To her, Mildred exhibits kindness but from an external view its quite disturbing and manipulative with a horrifying ripple effect.
Mildred’s attempts to manipulate all sides of the situation seems to lead to nothing but despair. But thanks to good ole misogyny, it’s not over yet. In fact, the biggest enemies of all are men. The cards are on the table but Mildred Ratched has the best hand. However, there is no real winner in this twisted scenario. Unresolved threads pop up for an ending that leaves the door open for more.
Ratched is a thrilling and uncomfortable exploration into the life, drama, and mind of Mildred Ratched. Everyone has an origin story and hers is certainly one worth watching.
Featured Image: Saeed Adyani/Netflix