Ryan Murphy’s Ratched: Stylish, but surprisingly hollow

by guest movie reviewer Gabriela Delgado

They say the devil works hard, but Ryan Murphy works harder. The renowned showrunner has made a long, prolific career out of highly stylized television shows packed with the perfect dose of fan favourite actors, dark humour and in-your-face, gratuitous horror. Ratched, Murphy and Evan Romansky’s newest Netflix series, centred around the Head Nurse character from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, has all three, and yet, these elements aren’t enough to save it from a weak, nonsensical plot and an array of inconsistent characters.

In my mind, Sarah Paulson can do no wrong. To be perfectly honest, I don’t hate her as Mildred Ratched, an ex-army nurse who heads to Lucia State Hospital in search of the job of a lifetime. Ultimately, Paulson does her best with what she’s given. She looks particularly great in the many, vibrant 1940s outfits and hairstyles, delivers vulnerability and coldness when it’s needed, and drives the show as well as she can throughout the 8 episodes of the first season. Her acting and the truly beautiful aesthetic choices in the show are the two main reasons I kept watching until the end, but the same can’t be said for her actual character and her absurd actions.

Admittedly, I knew nothing about the character of Nurse Ratched before deciding to watch the show, so I did my research. What various Internet sites seemed to agree on about Mildred Ratched’s character, was her representation as a symbol of corruption, of the consequences of drowning in one’s own power and authority.

The Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is ruthless, manipulative and tyrannical, using her position within Salem State Hospital to get her way at any cost. She represents the terrible, true side of the kind of institution she serves, a place where those who are vulnerable are meant to find help, and yet, are destroyed rather than saved.

Murphy’s Ratched wants to show us how she got there, I can see the wheels turning within the show as it desperately tries to find the correct balance between humanizing her and explaining how she got to her breaking point, but unfortunately, this only confuses the viewer and makes Mildred Ratched as inconsistent a character as she can be.

Is she the stylish, cold woman who would do anything for her brother, from burning people in hot water to sawing someone’s head off? Or is she the closeted lesbian, desperate for some love and kindness from the only woman she’s ever loved, Cynthia Nixon’s Gwendolyn Briggs? Murphy insists that these two people can converge in the same woman, but Ratched’s attitude changes from one scene to the other are so black and white that it’s difficult to imagine a middle point.

Sarah Paulson as the titular Nurse Ratched

Just like Paulson, the other actors do a fine job with their half-written roles. Judy Davis as Nurse Betsy Bucket, Charlie Carver as Huck and Alice Englert as Nurse Dolly stood out to me the most within a cast of almost cartoon-like characters, but unfortunately we don’t get to see much of the last two.

Perhaps the worst offender is Sharon Stone’s Lenore Osgood, a character so ridiculous within the already over-the-top atmosphere of the show, that her every appearance took me out of the story several times. Her B-plot is so farfetched, so insane, that for a second it made me feel like I was watching an episode of American Horror Story, and not one of the good ones. The way her story entangles with Dr. Hanover’s (Jon Jon Briones), the head psychiatrist at Lucia State Hospital, was intriguing at first, but the frankly preposterous ending it gets is far too stupid and embarrassing.

Finn Wittrock’s Edmund Tolleson, Ratched’s unstable, murderous brother, suffers from his sister’s same brand of inconsistency, tittering from victim to perpetrator in the same breath. One minute he’s crying over falling in love and the other he’s trying to get his sister to touch him inappropriately. Is he a just man-child or does he have an actual illness? We never find out.

On the topic of mental health, which is overtly shown within the context of the Hospital, I was terribly disappointed to see so many missed opportunities fly by. The horrors the patients of Lucia State are subjected to appear completely self-indulgent, like a pretty spectacle of blood and gore that exists solely for the viewer to enjoy, shedding little light on the hospital staff’s atrocious treatment. I wasn’t expecting revolutionary representation, or medically-correct depictions of the many mental illnesses in the show, but the way DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) was presented made me uncomfortable, and frankly, angry.

For years, the DID community has been trying to fight the stigma put upon them, the idea that they are dangerous and possibly criminal, and Sophie Okonedo’s character of Charlotte Wells does nothing to fight this erroneous portrayal. Furthermore, the fact that her character was used as a last minute plot device in the last two episodes was insulting and upsetting. We’ll see how her character develops in season two, if it does at all.

The show also tries to get us interested in the behind the scenes of the hospital, of how the regional government is using it for its own purposes, but this ends up being insignificant, nothing more than to move the plot along rather than a genuine criticism. The debate on the death sentence, the use of the electric chair and how it’s a spectacle for the people, is an interesting topic, but the way it’s discussed is too on-the-nose and it gets discarded when the story doesn’t need it anymore.

But despite its faulty characters, the show is gorgeous. The colours are so vibrant in every scene that I couldn’t help but stare at the nurses’ vivid cyan uniform whenever they appeared, and their bright, almost neon, red lipstick whenever they spoke. Every outfit Sarah Paulson wore—I want it. The setting makes for a perfect scenario of dark Americana mixed with noir, from the motel Ratched and various other characters stay at, to the ‘life on the road’ future that is hinted at towards the end.

Lucia State Hospital itself, a spa turned mental asylum, is a good enough ironic setting to mention—its long, white hallways and pristine rooms hide the ugliness of society perfectly. The show also did interesting effects with the lighting during crucial scenes. As if watching a play, a green light would fall over the characters changing the usual energetic, colourful tone to a darker, more suspenseful one. The green lighting, accompanied by the graceful, thrilling score composed by Mac Quayle, are enough to set a terrifying scene.

In style, Ratched gets an A+, but unfortunately, it isn’t just a fashion magazine laid out for us to ogle at Sarah Paulson, it’s a disappointing multimillion dollar endeavour with a messy plot and messy characters. Funnily enough, it reminds me of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Tim Burton version—colourful, stylish and crazy, with a story and characters so unrealistic that you can only fully enjoy them after putting on rose tinted glasses and giving up on any expectations Cuckoo’s Nest might’ve given you.

In other words, this isn’t your mum and dad’s Nurse Ratched, this a wacky, flashy Ratched, and she’s pretty… but there’s not much there.