Originally written for theculturecrossing.com here.
A prequel for Ken Kesey’s character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Louise Fletcher’s Academy award-winning portrayal of the original Nurse Ratched became an iconic New Hollywood’ villain. She embodied the stern female face of the establishment. This in contrast to Jack Nicholson’s cheeky, rebellious male protagonist.
Kesey’s Nurse Ratched embodied a new evil. The bureaucratic ruler, the leader of the establishment. Perhaps more psychotic than the inmates of the asylum she ruled over. Which raises the question, could murphy, the modern prince of the pomp and perverse do justice to Kesey’s monochrome matron?
SPOILERS: You have been warned, there are spoilers ahead.
A fresh adaptation
The 1975 character’s ice-cold demeanour gave a convicting depiction of a systematic ruler. Ratched’s patronising dialogue and manipulation tactics were at the forefront of her arsenal as a villain. The 2020 version is no different.
Set in 1947, in Season One we meet Mildred Ratched (Murphy muse, Sarah Paulson) on her way to the Lucia State Hospital. This is several years prior to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Her witty monologue at the gas station attendants’ expense gives both vigour and a slight nod to Kesey’s creation, as Ratched is as fierce as ever. So far so good, as we are then introduced to the genocidal Edmund Tolleson (another Murphy favourite, Finn Wittrock).
Here we see Murphy’s influence and a clear separation from the source material. Ken Kesey’s text played on emotional turmoil on vulnerable characters to elicit a response from the audience. Whereas here, we see Tolleson murder 3 priests in the space of 5 minutes.
Undeniably engaging and on-brand of a Ryan Murphy show. The seeds are planted for the rest of the series and its clear, were growing something very different than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
A visual feast
The shows strongest feature is undoubtedly its appearance. The nods to Hitchcock combined with the Douglas Sirk melodrama of the mid-century. This sets the show apart from any other grandiose Murphy creation.
Pose, AHS, Glee and many other Murphy projects maintain a strong visual identity, and Ratched joins the ranks. The technicoloured California coastline, the teal green nurses’ uniforms, the art deco hospital design and Silence of the Lambs-esq wine cellar/jail. They all position the show as a rich display of gothic grandeur.
The redundant explanations
As the series continues, the further backstory is revealed and what starts off steady, soon turns into a bumpy ride. Following the development of Mildred and Gwendolyn’s relationship, Mildred recounts the horrors of her many abusive foster parents to the audience. Yet, this is via the medium of… puppetry.
Murphy’s bizarre choice of storytelling does serve its purpose. It offers the background of Mildred and Edmund, yet the puppets lay out the history of abuse. Then actors retell the story and finally, Mildred recounts the whole series of events we just saw, in one long face to face monologue. The one unique element of the puppet show becomes diluted into a tiresome series of repetition, that could have been avoided.
Once the two narratives of Mildred and Edmund are tied up, there is a simple race to the finish as she is trying to save him from death row. But, Edmund is given a logical past that relates to his current actions. He has been made a monster and has only ever killed for revenge, whilst we are left wondering what Mildreds’ end game is? Save her non-biological brother and hide him forever? Save her new girlfriend and run away with her? Or is it to take over the hospital and maintain control to relate back to the original text?
Mildred is shown to be a fantastic manipulator that slowly becomes unravelled. All done as she loses control throughout the series, yet the audience also loses grip of why we are watching and what we want to happen.
The first series had a decent arc, that sadly becomes more convoluted than it needed to be. The final episode is set in Mexico. This, unfortunately, involves a dream sequence. Setting up the Mildred vs. Edmond narrative for Ratched Season Two already feels like a misstep.
Yet, it was an enjoyable binge watch that deserves some leeway due to the outstanding cinematography and design. The jury is still out on if this Rached (turned Mexican bother-hunter) will ever relate back to the original. We will see if Ratched Season Two will correct some of its initial wrongs and draw us back in for more than just the flamboyant design…