Showrunners: Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan
Starring Sarah Paulson, Cynthia Nixon, and Judy Davis
Ryan Murphy does Hitchcock proud in this nightmarish One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel series.
Full disclosure: There should be no reason for Ryan Murphy’s (American Horror Story, Feud) Ratched to exist. When one thinks of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the last thing you’re thinking when the closing credits roll, is, “I really wonder if Nurse Ratched was always the master manipulator, prior to this story?”
When the first trailer for the Netflix series hit the internet, most comments were of the “But WHY?” persuasion (and rightfully so); it felt like Murphy was trying to take a character from a classic and inject said character into an American Horror Story-esque tale for no reason other than because it’s an existing IP. Had Hollywood officially lost its marbles? Well, After binging the entire season of the Sarah Paulson-led thriller ensemble, readers, I can honestly say: “Boy, were most of us wrong.”
There’s something about the sweeping story of Ratched that immediately pulls its viewer in, wasting no time in putting us right in the middle of danger. Following the brutal murders of multiple priests, Edmund Tolleson (AHS’s Finn Wittrock) is sent to an asylum to determine whether he’s fit to stand trial for the killings. It’s that opening event that sets the series on the ground to experience; Tolleson’s story is crucial to the story of Paulson’s title character, Mildred Ratched.
Driving to the asylum Tolleson is being transferred to, we meet Ratched, a woman guarded and on the defense with everyone in front of her. Paulson plays Mildred with a devilish charm; she’s short with her answers and from the very first interaction with head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), so we know that Mildred is a master manipulator. She slyly talks her way into the office of the asylum’s doctor, Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and, over the course of the first episode, charms her way into becoming a staff member. What Mildred does best, is talk her way in (and out) of any situation she chooses; there’s an upper hand to the character and Paulson relishes in the way Mildred is written. Ratched, above all else, listens and watches, seizing every single opportunity to find a way up the ranks (inspired by something we don’t quite figure out until the opening episode reveals it: Edmund is Mildred’s brother!).
Murphy’s most impressive skill is in finding an ensemble that brings these sweeping tales to life, and Ratched is quite easily the best example of just that. Every role is layered and filled by actors who BREATHE these roles; there really isn’t a single weak performance in the entire season. Wittrock plays Edmund as damaged yet sensitive, a man so abused as a child that he would cut the eyes out of priests and then smoke a cigarette like nothing happened.
Judy Davis is excellent as Bucket, who for the majority of the show, is Ratched’s arch-nemesis; the game back and forth of trying to outdo the other is one of the show’s many compelling elements. Briones adds such a nervous energy to Hanover, a man so wrapped up in cracking mental illness, that he utilizes barbaric methods to do so, ordering scolding hot baths for patients, lobotomies, and so on. Sharon Stone joins a couple of episodes in as Lenore Osgood, an elegant, very wealthy woman hellbent on having the literal head of Hanover on her mantle as revenge for past wrongdoing. Cynthia Nixon’s Gwendolyn Briggs is the right hand to the governor of California and quickly becomes infatuated with Mildred, sparking a forbidden love story throughout the series, all while we’re dealing with brutal murders and a constant Hitchcock-like mystery that sees every character hiding something.
Having such an excellent supporting cast sets Paulson up for success in this one and it would be an understatement to say that she knocks it out of the park. From the first moment we met Mildred, Paulson adds such a layered presence to the show. It’s rare to have a character walk the line between protagonist and antagonist so well, but as the series goes on, you find yourself rooting for Mildred, all while she does atrocious things. Ratched is vindictive, manipulative, and downright cruel, but there’s a sensitivity to the character that makes sense, as the story unfolds. One of the best elements of the series is in its ability to make you think one way of a character before pulling the rug from underneath you. You love certain characters who end up being quite bad and there are characters you despise that see excellent redemptive arcs. Caught in the middle of trying to climb the ranks and save her brother, Mildred uses anyone and everyone in front of her, even at the cost of her own happiness at times and there’s a tragedy to that.
Elegant costumes, stunning cinematography, and talent brings the show’s era to life, and it’s easy to get lost in Ratched; you find yourself believing in this world and its characters before a single thing happens, and that serves the story well. The violence is brutal and there are quite a few sequences that feel like they’re straight out of a slasher film. Murphy and Company never hold back the grim realities of murder and betrayal. The music, the attention to detail, and the excellent mystery in front of you invokes Hitchcock in many ways; the show FEELS like it would play perfectly alongside Vertigo or Rebecca and then some.
Murphy has been accused of being too self-indulgent in his past work, but while there are layered mysteries and enough subplots to fill the Grand Canyon, Ratched never loses itself in trying to be anything other than what it is: A throwback to the days when stories kept their audiences guessing, right up until the very end. Every character has secrets and skeletons in their closets in this one and as each episode goes, on, we learn that Edmund and Ratched aren’t the only ones with those secrets to hide. The show quickly becomes a guessing game of how Mildred will use what she knows to serve her purpose. Seeing the character one up quite literally EVERYONE in the show makes for good television and the best part of each episode (and the show in general) is how it leaves you wanting more and more.
While we all love us some American Horror Story, after watching Ratched, one thing is for certain: Murphy has outdone himself with taking a recognizable character like Mildred Ratched and creating an even more layered take on the cold-as-ice nurse. Larger than life, Ratched is a sweepingly epic story of revenge, manipulation, and flat-out getting away with murder (and God, I’m dying for more!).