“Do you believe the human mind can be cured?” Mildred Ratched, the main character of Ratched (2020), asks Doctor Hanover in her interview for a position as nurse at Lucia State Hospital. Mildred, a battle-hardened nurse whose resume includes experience on the Pacific Front of World War II, says that she has not seen the mind cured and doesn’t believe it is possible, but that it is all she wants in the world.
Ratched is based on the iconic villain found in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and the 1975 film of the same name. This new Netflix show follows the backstory of the notorious Nurse Ratched as she arrives in Northern California to begin work at Lucia State Hospital, a mental institution, out of the desire to save her brother who is incarcerated there. Through persistence and cunning, Nurse Ratched is able to manipulate her relationship with the head doctor, Richard Hanover, and his assistant, the head Nurse Bucket, and bend the hospital to her will. As the story unfolds, the plot traces Nurse Ratched’s character development, including the cruelties of her childhood that hardened her and the institutional injustices that made her warped and cynical, leading to her final development as a monster to her patients.
Sarah Paulson’s acting is the highlight of the show. Paulson’s interpretation of Nurse Ratched produces a character whose mannerisms are almost graceful enough to be attractive, but whose potential charm is ruined by her needling words and bitter edge. It’s a style reflected in the other female characters of the show as well: natural personality and beauty restrained by tight hairstyles, unflattering uniforms, and performative femininity that is stilted and awkward. The bright, pastel colors of Saint Lucia’s Hospital give the show a whimsical, period mood which quickly turns dark once the practices of old-fashioned mental hospitals become apparent. Although not a historical show per se, the juxtaposition of the nostalgic setting with the original cruelties of mental institutions reflects the reality that curative and disciplinary goals can be confused with each other in the treatment of disability. The stylistic attention to detail in characters and costumes continually remind the viewer that this is a story about institutions and a character who decides to defy the institutional structure by playing by its rules so that she can come out on top.
Although all these nuances in acting and style yield an objectively well-made show, the series itself is uncomfortable to experience and often downright difficult to watch. While viewers are prompted to sympathize with Nurse Ratched’s bitterness and instincts for self-preservation, there is no promise of redemption for her or any of the other characters. Scenes including suicide, lobotomies, and the daily, casual harsh treatment of patients are portrayed with the same banal attitude that the hospital staff adopt in dealing with these disturbing situations as part of their professional obligations.
Disturbing content on its own does not ruin the quality of a film, and main characters do not need redemptive qualities in order to make for a good story. In Classical tragedies, however, the element of catharsis brings the play to a satisfying conclusion. In other words, a good writer can artfully elicit emotions of pity and fear from the audience that are released at the conclusion of the play. I would also say the element of catharsis is key in the development of an anti-hero. In Ratched, pity and fear are largely overshadowed with disgust, calling into question the entertainment value of the show.
- Development: Ryan Murphy
- Starring: Sarah Paulson, Finn Wittrock, Cynthia Nixon, Jon Jon Briones, Charlie Carver, Judy Davis, Sharon Stone
- Producers: Paul Zaentz, Todd Nenninger, Eric Kovtun, Lou Eyrich, Eryn Krueger Mekash, Sara Stelwagen, Tanase Popa
- Cinematography: Nelson Cragg, Blake McClure, Andrew Mitchell, Simon Dennis
- Editors: Shelly Westerman, Peggy Tachdjian, Ravi Subramanian, Ken Ramos, Danielle Wang
- Production Company: Lighthouse Management + Media, Ryan Murphy Television, Touchstone Television