Review: ‘Ratched’ fashions beautiful yet unnecessary villain origin story

Riddled with lobotomies and hydrotherapy as well as a particularly disturbing scene where a doctor performs a Frankenstein-like surgery on a patient while they are both tripping on LSD, Netflix's original series "Ratched" is not for the faint of heart. Photo courtesy of Netflix

By Madalyn Watson | Editor-in-Chief

Although the Netflix original series “Ratched” is entertaining, it fails to pay a proper homage to its namesake. Created by Evan Romansky and developed by Ryan Murphy, the psychological thriller-drama became available to stream on Sept. 18.

Riddled with lobotomies and hydrotherapy as well as a particularly disturbing scene where a doctor performs a Frankenstein-like surgery on a patient while they are both tripping on LSD, the series is not for the faint of heart. The series has inspired new interest in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” since it acts as a prequel and tells the backstory of the terrifying Mildred Ratched.

With the incomparable “American Horror Story” actress Sarah Paulson playing the starring role as well as Murphy, the creator of shows like “AHS” and “Glee,” on board, audiences were immediately drawn to the series — even if they knew nothing about the source material.

Who is Ratched?

Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” introduced the character of Nurse Mildred Ratched; Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of her in the 1975 film of the same name cemented Ratched as an iconic villain in pop culture.

Regarded by many as one of the best films of all time, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” won the academy award for Best Picture in 1976. Fletcher and Jack Nicholoson, who played patient Randle McMurphy, took home the awards for Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively.

McMurphy, a criminal that pleads insanity, is admitted into the hospital where he rebels against Ratched’s oppressive regime and encourages the other patients to refuse her authority. A viewer not paying close attention may think that she is just doing her job, running the psychiatric hospital, but Nurse Ratched’s need for control over her patients is overpowering.

Ratched is a stern, cold and authoritarian woman. With a voice barely above a whisper, she commands the men in the ward. She uses a condescending tone to demean and dehumanize her patients, and she often uses semantics as a weapon to subdue those who oppose her.

A villain’s origin story

In the Netflix series “Ratched,” Sarah Paulson steps into the role of a younger Ratched many years before the events in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” unfold.

The year is 1947. The former army nurse, Mildred Ratched, arrives in Northern California seeking a job at a psychiatric hospital. While the hospital struggles with funds and prepares to house a famous killer, Ratched manipulates her way into the action.

Although Paulson deserves recognition for her roles in movies like “Carol” and “Blue Jay,” Lana Winters from “American Horror Story: Asylum” is her greatest role so far, so I can’t help but wonder if this role is supposed to acknowledge this.

In “AHS: Asylum,” Winters is a journalist who is admitted to Briarcliff Asylum under false pretenses after she tried to expose the hospital’s dark secrets. Winters is submitted to all sorts of torture from electroshock therapy to being abducted by a murderer.

Both of Paulson’s roles are lesbians at a time where homosexuality was considered a mental illness or sin. Both are hard-working, career women at a time when it was less acceptable. The series “Ratched” even makes an allusion to Paulson’s previous character when a gas station attendant and several other characters ask her if she is a journalist.

“Ratched” made me realize how much I love seeing Paulson in these types of roles. A strong, hard-working woman who has come to terms or is in the process of coming to terms with her sexuality. In many ways, I consider Winters an inspiration; I would not say the same about her newer character.

In the first couple episodes, the younger Ratched resembles her older self in the original book and film. She is calculating and cunning; the way she holds herself is as if she believes she is superior to everyone else in the room even when she is not.

However, Paulson’s version of Ratched is feeling and emotional which is in stark opposition to Fletcher’s original interpretation of the role. The goals that drive Ratched forward in the story are purely based on her feelings of love, remorse and regret.

While some may argue that Ratched still has decades to age into the monster she becomes in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” this doesn’t make much sense. After just one season, the character has already been through so much pain, violence and abuse. I cannot imagine any events going forward that would make her even more jaded than she already should be.

Beautifully hollow

After watching the first season of “Ratched,” I have come to terms with the fact that the series does not make much sense when put up against the source material. The creators use the concept of Mildred Ratched as a jumping off point, but they are not tied to the original character.

Although there are many similarities, there are enough discrepancies that I conclude that this Mildred Ratched is not the same woman as the villain in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The original Ratched didn’t need a backstory and I believe that going into the original film with this series in mind would severely alter your impression of it.

The series does not connect with the film, so what? It depends on what you are looking for in “Ratched.” If you are looking for an extension of the fear associated with the ’70s drama, I would skip it. But if you want an entertaining watch to tide you over until it’s appropriate to fully celebrate the spooky season, this series might be the fix you’re looking for.

One highlight of the series is the vibrant colors featured in the design, sets, cinematography and fashion. Murphy’s style has always guaranteed elaborate, out-of-this-world design, but with “Ratched” it goes above and beyond. The psychiatric hospital where most of the first season takes place is supposed to be a former rest spa, equipped with natural springs outside and extravagant interior design.

In addition to the set design, the fashion featured in the series is eye-popping. Ratched even has her signature “devil horns” hairstyle, but it fits the fashion of the ’40s. In fact, the demented nurse is chic and fashionable. In the first episode, she sports a mustard yellow suit with a matching hat — that I would wear today if I could afford it.

Another way that color is incorporated into the series is through lighting and cinematography. In the first couple episodes, characters are shrouded in colored light that reveals their emotions to the viewer. Unlike the book which is narrated by one of the patients, audience members have no way of seeing inside the characters’ heads.

Depending on the color — whether that be red, blue or green — the audience can begin to understand Ratched’s intentions and the way her mind processes certain events in her life. In one scene, she is bathed in a green light which appears to allude to a shot from the original film.

The aesthetic visuals in “Ratched” provide a mask that hides all the darkness lurking behind and beneath what the naked eye can see. Similar to Ratched’s facade, the series puts forth this bright concept with its use of set design, fashion and scenery while the real root of the show is hidden in the dark shadows.

Trigger Warning: “Ratched” features several references to sexual assault, child abuse, murder, torture and suicide. The show also features several formerly practiced medical procedures such as lobotomies and hydrotherapy that may be difficult to watch. In addition, the series does not have the best representation of many mental health issues because it takes place in the 1940s when health professionals had little understanding of the way the mind works.