Netflix’s new original show, “Ratched,” offers a compelling look into a deeply complicated, intelligent and enigmatic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” character who navigates working at a psychiatric hospital while also pursuing her own veiled agenda.
Set in 1940s California, this historical psychological thriller centers around Nurse Ratched (Sarah Paulson), the character from the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey and 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson. Lucia State Hospital, the mental institution and primary setting, seems to outsiders to be a futuristic utopia dedicated to innovative psychological sciences; however, many sinister agendas and characters lurk within. Upon Ratched’s arrival at the hospital, Lucia’s secrets slowly emerge, and Ratched manipulates them to her advantage.
Despite its setting, “Ratched” goes beyond presenting the classic haunted, creepy mental institution, pushing the trope farther by underscoring salient topics including capital punishment, historical homophobia and discrimination of LGBT groups, Catholic church sex scandals and ethical healthcare. Rather than oversaturating the series with superficial drama, these plot points are seamlessly woven into the identities of Nurse Ratched and the diverse cast of characters.
As Nurse Ratched spins a web of lies, the audience must guess which of her interactions are authentic and which are calculated falsehoods to advance her career. Watching the show, the viewer constantly questions the characters’ motivations, views and actions, resulting in an extremely engaging viewing experience.
In the midst of all of the action, Nurse Ratched’s fascinating backstory, including her childhood and her time spent as a nurse in the Army, reveals itself sporadically through flashbacks. As a result, two stories unfold within the season, but they are inextricably intertwined because Ratched’s present actions seem compelled by her past experiences. Nurse Ratched and the other character’s stories continue to unravel until the last episode. The constant plot twists, cliffhangers and surprising connections make the show thrilling and incredibly bingeworthy.
In some ways, “Ratched” is reminiscent of “American Horror Story,” with which it shares producer Ryan Murphy and cast member Sarah Paulson, as well as a similar horror-inspired aesthetic. Yet “Ratched” is much more thrilling than it is scary or gory (although the show is not devoid of graphic, gory content).
Amid the more violent and disturbing elements of the show, characters such as Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone), a rich woman obsessed with her pet monkey, and Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), a rigid nurse who serves as Nurse Ratched’s primary rival, provide comedic relief through their behavior.
The show also portrays a plethora of strong female characters, such as Nurse Bucket, Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) and Nurse Ratched herself. Briggs, the governor’s secretary and Ratched’s lover, exemplifies how women can outwit the men around them. Their social positions, while perhaps somewhat idealized for the time, allow women to align together and create an interesting gender divide in the series.
The patients at the hospital, most notably Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), who suffers from multiple personality disorder, also succeed in realistically portraying the struggles of mental illness and shed light on the historical treatment of people with mental disorders. The show’s depiction of Nurse Ratched grappling with her own sexuality as she is working in an institution that is performing different methods of conversion therapy adds a complex dimension to the plot.
Paulson shines playing Nurse Ratched. She captures the broad emotional range of the enigmatic character: cold, impenetrable, singularly focused, but also at times deeply emotional and empathetic. Nurse Ratched’s poker face when confronted with the extremely harsh treatment of people at the hospital is almost unbelievable. Paulson’s delivery of Ratched is captivating and convincing, and the main reason the show draws in viewers.
“Ratched’s” period costumes, Nurse Ratched’s in particular, are stunning. Her signature monochromatic hat, cape and sweater sets underscore her formidable personality and are so fun to look at that they are reason enough to watch the show. Somehow, the orderliness of the hospital staff’s elegant uniforms and the hospital’s neat and impeccably decorated rooms create an even deeper contrast with the discord occurring within Lucia State Hospital’s walls.
One area where “Ratched” is perhaps frustrating to the viewer is the failed redemption arc of the character Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock). Originally brought into the hospital after murdering priests, Edmund is humanized through his failed affair with Nurse Dolly (Alice Englert) and affection for the animals in the hospital’s barn. After discovering that Nurse Ratched had planned to kill him humanely to protect him from a more painful execution in the electric chair, Edmund breaks out of the hospital and becomes a serial killer. This change in personality feels abrupt; although it is not surprising that he becomes angry, it seems strange that he would murder complete strangers just to send a message to Nurse Ratched, especially since the flashbacks earlier in the season revealed that his original killings had been purposefully done to avenge his mother.
Despite this discrepancy, “Ratched” succeeds overall in entertaining viewers by drawing them into the dramatic and eerily whimsical mystery of Nurse Ratched’s world.