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‘Ratched’ is a Stylish, Bloody, Contradictory Mess

The Netflix original is barely consistent with itself, much less the novel it’s based on.
By  · Published on September 17th, 2020

Hello and welcome to Up Next, a weekly column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Liz Baessler takes a look at the Netflix series Ratched.

Ratched is ostensibly the backstory of one of literature’s most notorious villains: Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  But it is also, perhaps even more importantly, co-created by Ryan Murphy, of American Horror Story Fame. Dealing in a similar brand of exaggerated horror and harsh spectacle, and boasting many of the same actors (Sarah Paulson, Jon Jon Briones, Finn Wittrock), Ratched could very well be a lost season of AHS. 

Or, maybe more accurately given its setting and subject matter, it could be a straight remake of its Asylum season. 

Ratched is set in 1947, at the Lucia Psychiatric Hospital in Northern California. It follows Mildred Ratched (Paulson) as she begins her tenure as a nurse there. And it is, presumably, meant to illuminate the path she takes to become the intimidating and cruel Nurse Ratched of Kesey’s novel some fifteen years later. However, if there are any references to the book, they are few and far between. And if there are any signs of the character Mildred Ratched is destined to become, they are muddled at best.

This is the central tenet of what’s wrong with Ratched, and a flaw that can be applied to many of its problems. That is: Mildred’s motivations and intentions seem to change from scene to scene, and it’s nigh-on impossible to know what she’s thinking. At times brilliant and conniving, at times detached and cruel, at times desperately emotional and vulnerable, Mildred is possibly a mastermind pulling all the strings, or possibly a frightened and essentially good person only trying to do what’s best. And the show tends to change that on a whim, depending on what it needs out of a scene. 

The same holds true for nearly every other character’s motivation and presentation. Sometimes a doctor is an inspired altruistic healer; sometimes he’s a fraud and a dangerous autocrat. Sometimes a killer is a bloodthirsty lunatic; sometimes he’s a delicate soul in love who can’t bring himself to violence. Sometimes a lobotomy renders a patient unresponsive and drooling in a wheelchair; sometimes it doesn’t have any effect at all. This last disparity is a particular kick in the teeth for fans of the book. 

The show is so riddled with contradictions as to almost feel deliberate, and yet it doesn’t seem capable of that kind of depth. A much more likely explanation is that it’s so caught up in its own spectacle, it abandons consistency.

To its credit, it is quite the spectacle. The colors are rich and lush. The costumes, something I’ll admit to rarely noticing, are to die for. And the gross, extravagant horror of antiquated medical practices, maladies, and injuries are out in full, Murphyesque force. 

But that does not a cohesive show make, and this scene-to-scene cherry-picking of priorities makes for some truly bizarre moments, particularly when it wades into social issues. One glaring instance is in the introduction of a couple, a gay man and a gay woman, who are married to each other for convenience and social respectability. It is 1947, after all. This is all well and good, except for the fact that he’s black and she’s white, and interracial marriage was still illegal in California at the time. And no one, not the governor of California for whom she works, nor the law firm of which he is a senior partner, bats an eye. 

The show does this a lot, picking and choosing its adversities on a scene-by-scene basis, just as it picks character motivation. It feels the need to confront racism and homophobia, but in such a soft way that it often contradicts itself, forgetting the existence of the issues it’s not currently addressing.

Were Ratched to create an alternate 1947 America free from racism and homophobia, it would be one thing. But it engages with it just enough for it to have little to no impact, other than to draw attention to its softball presence. It’s the worst of both worlds. And this disjointedness between scenes makes for yet another strange byproduct: sometimes the same piece of information is relayed, multiple times, with little regard for the fact that the audience already knows it. 

In one particularly grievous example, we learn a dark secret about Mildred’s past in a long, highly-stylized flashback. It is, on its own, a neat little piece of storytelling that delivers its information nicely. But then, in the very next scene, Mildred rehashes this information again, in a drawn-out confession, straight into the camera. What’s bad is that it feels as though the audience isn’t trusted to understand what it learned in the scene before. What’s worse is that it’s boring. A long, emotional reiteration of everything we just found out, it takes all the air out of it, sapping it of its gravity and suspense. Nothing new is learned, and you find yourself desperate for it to be over. 

This is the worst example of this, but it’s a series rife with dream sequences, imagined futures and slightly different real futures, multiple flashbacks of the same scene, and confessions of the same information played over and over again to different people. It all adds up to a series that’s desperate to show as much as it can, without stopping to question what’s essential, and what could have been pared down. 

These aren’t the only bad things one can say about Ratched. But they are the most blatant. There are even some good things to say. The acting is, for the most part, excellent. Cynthia Nixon is a particular standout. The costumes are delightful, as is the scenery of Lucia Hospital. But on the whole, it is a disjointed, gratuitously violent spectacle and a deep dive into a character’s past that has little regard for or understanding of character. 

It’s a mess. A sexy, bloody, stylish mess.

Ratched premieres on Netflix on September 18th.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)