[Review] Netflix’s “Ratched” is a Psychological Body Horror Series and It’s One of Ryan Murphy’s Bestby Daniel Kurland
Against all odds, Ryan Murphy’s radical reinterpretation of the iconic and cold Nurse Ratched leads to one of the best series of the year.
“Save one life and you’re a hero. Save a hundred lives, well, then you’re a nurse.”
Let me preface all of this by saying I was not looking forward to a Ryan Murphy-led prequel series to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that attempts to explain why Nurse Ratched has the chilly demeanor that defines her in Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning film. Not only is this not a story that I think needs to be told (and almost misses the point of the character from Ken Kesey’s novel), but it’s also emblematic of the problem that film and television has increasingly embraced. Unnecessary origin stories to pop culture titans have become the trend, while original stories fall to the wayside. So let it be clear that I was more than ready to denounce Ratched as derivative ego-stroking that checks off the standard boxes on the Ryan Murphy Bingo card. Instead, Ratched is one of the best television shows of the year and it’s easily the greatest thing that Ryan Murphy has done in ages.
We didn’t need television series based on Hannibal, Fargo, or Psycho, yet I’m incredibly grateful that these pieces of art were developed. Ratched enthusiastically joins that list as this television series tells a haunting, tragic story that contains some of the most beautiful and terrifying imagery from out of anything that’s even been seen from Ryan Murphy’s career. Created by Evan Romansky, the premise and backdrop for Ratched feel tailor-made for Murphy’s standard fascinations. The series is set in 1940s Northern California where the lush glamor and fearless bravado of the times make for the perfect veneer for how much pain and fear is forced to hide underneath. Much like one of Dr. Hanover’s surgical test subjects, Murphy takes the many disparate elements of this universe and fashions together a Frankenstein’s Monster that feels like the sublime synthesis of American Horror Story: Asylum, Hollywood, and American Crime Story: Versace.
Ratched begins with Sarah Paulson’s Mildred Ratched as an outsider who practically has nothing and needs to repeatedly prove herself in more ways than one. She clearly faces an uphill battle, but the events of Cuckoo’s Nest already let the audience know where Ratched’s journey concludes and that she’ll somehow reach success. There’s very much a feeling of Ratched helping out this “island of misfit surgical tools” as she slowly gains more support on her crusade and gets to affect the lives of those around her. The tension forms from whether Ratched will change these lives for the better or the worse and if her precarious house of lies will topple down around her.
Mildred enters this story as a grifter of sorts, but it’s also impossible to not root for her as she attempts to erase the many horrors that occur within Dr. Hanover’s facility. Her means may not be morally sound and she’s a master of manipulation, but she does have honorable intentions with her plan. It’s just a matter of her not losing sight of these goals and allowing the end to justify the means in a way that’s done more good than harm.
Sarah Paulson is really fantastic here. Murphy always gets excellent performances out of the actress, but she delivers some of the best work of her career as Mildred Ratched. Paulson is in good company here and this entire cast is incredible. Cynthia Nixon, Finn Wittrock, and Vincent D’Onofrio do a lot of the heavy lifting here, but the real standout is Jon Jon Briones, whose Dr. Richard Hanover is presented as Ratched’s greatest opposition in her mission to reform the hospital. Briones excelled in his brief role as Andrew Cunanan’s father in ACS: Versace, but he’s allowed to do so much more in this role. His struggles with responsibility and identity mirror Ratched’s own and it’s fascinating to watch them continually circle each other, both as allies and enemies. It’s hard for anyone to steal attention away from Paulson here, but Briones manages to succeed.
A major question that the first season of Ratched examines is why people initially become monsters, as well as if it’s possible to cure these individuals. However, Ratched makes it clear that it’s just as important to understand what exactly a monster even is in the first place. Most of the oppressed individuals in this series are far from “bad” people, but are instead just confused and overwhelmed by the restrictive nature of society.
Ratched looks at how there’s a very thin line between man and monster, sane and crazy, and a lot of the time it’s access to resources and societal pressures that make the difference. There are characters in Ratched who are criminals and others who are on the run from the law, but the series highlights how even the most innocent characters can feel like frauds or that society is out to get them, whether that’s literal or just in a figurative sense. It makes no difference here and these public prisons can often make the private prisons that characters face seem even more suffocating. Ratched goes to some extremely exaggerated places, but it’s all aided by the fact that at its core this is really just a story about a fractured family who need each other more than ever in a dangerously broken world. However, despite the importance of family, it can also be a force that rots and transforms people into utter monsters.
Ratched is a series that is absolutely interested in character and identity, but it’s impossible for Murphy and his team to not turn off the horror side of their brains and take advantage of many twisted concepts that grow from this time period. It buries its metaphorical surgical tools into the plunging chest cavity of what it means to not just play God with patients, but to begin to police one’s own thoughts and prescribe what’s “normal” and what’s “wrong.” Previous works from Murphy, like AHS: Asylum and Nip/Tuck, have explored physical and mental health as a means of horror, but Ratched goes the furthest in this department. This series may advertise itself as a psychological drama, but it verges into body horror territory just as often.
There are some seriously disturbing visuals that fill this series as Dr. Hanover and his staff get loose and creative with archaic medical procedures like lobotomies, hydrotherapy, and amputation. This material hits even harder since it is steeped in actual medical precedence, but Murphy helps it tow the line with sensationalism. He periodically throws dramatic red and green gels over intense moments, which invoke a real sense of Grand Guignol horror.
One of the best examples of how Ratched powerfully combines very authentic emotional trauma with surreal visuals involves what’s supposed to be an innocuous marionette show for children. This simple presentation broaches devastating and dark territory in such a sanitized way that manages to make the content even more unsettling. It’s a brilliant sequence that structurally hides behind the naïvety of childhood when the actual subject matter is deeply concerned with the maintenance or corruption of that very innocence. It’s one of the most technically impressive sequences from the entire season on an art direction and set design level, but it’s also incredibly cathartic and is used to carefully reveal a crucial chapter from Mildred’s past. This Russian nesting doll of trauma that fluctuates between the clinical and the fantastical fuels many of the most powerful scenes in Ratched.
The stories and conflicts of oppression and acceptance in Ratched are themes that are present in all of Murphy’s works, but here they feel justified and like natural extensions of Kesey’s source material. It’s almost as if this adaptation was just waiting for Murphy to help will it into existence rather than retrofitting this narrative to reflect the things that usually fascinate him. It’s such a flawless pairing of creator with source material and it helps all of the content in Ratched resonate so strongly. Ratched doesn’t allow Murphy’s flair to get out of control and suffocate the powerful ideas that he’s trying to highlight here, which can frequently be a problem in his other projects. Nine episodes is just long enough for Ratched to thoroughly explore these themes and characters, but still leaves the narrative in a place where the audience is hungry for more, rather than tired of unnecessary digressions that feel like padding.
Ratched is a series that will definitely catch audiences by surprise, but it’s a marvelous magic trick of a television series that shouldn’t work, but does. The series is proof of Ryan Murphy’s evolving sensibilities and how he’s getting better at finding a team and narrative that can properly rein him in, but still allows Murphy to unleash himself during the proper occasions.
Ratched may not work for everyone, with its brutal moments possibly being too intense for some and its melodrama getting too close to soap opera material for others, but it’s a risk that’s worth taking. If nothing else, this morbid series is utterly gorgeous and every frame resembles a piece of art. It also features a murderers’ row of talent where everyone gives their all and there are no weak links. With a second season already confirmed, hopefully the evolution of Ratched will continue to defy expectations and forge its own path, rather than try too hard to turn into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or any of Murphy’s other projects. Ratched is in peak health and doesn’t need anything more than sunlight and bed rest, so Ryan Murphy better not get his hands on the ice pick between seasons.
This review is based on all eight one-hour episodes of ‘Ratched’s’ first season.
The entire first season of ‘Ratched’ is available September 18th, only on Netflix.