Nothing in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series Ratched connects to Miloš Forman’s 1975 masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest except the title character. For one thing, the series takes place in St. Lucia Hospital in Northern California in the late 1940s, while the movie was set in Oregon State Hospital in the 1960s. The film makes a pitch for individualism in the face of an overwhelming authoritarian rule, while the show is meant to illuminate how the era’s brutal mental-health treatments proved detrimental to doctors and patients alike. But instead of engendering empathy for the mentally ill, Murphy’s Ratched does exactly the opposite.
The eight episodes of Ratched’s first season, which airs in full Sept. 18 on Netflix, feature divine post-War World II dresses set against striking blue and red tableaus. Opening as a neo-noir, the series is akin to American Horror Story, but with much less surrealism. And that’s where the positives end. Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson), fresh from the army, arrives at St. Lucia with a letter of employment from the hospital’s head of medicine, Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). The catch: Dr. Hanover doesn’t know Nurse Ratched. She forged the letter, which head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) quickly realizes. Actually, Mildred’s interest in the hospital stems from its newest patient, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), who’s under psychiatric evaluation after murdering four priests.
Mildred and Edmund’s personal connection comes to dominate the series, and veers the story away from the patients who creators Evan Romansky and and Murphy mean to spotlight. Murphy’s Ratched fails at storytelling by making a classic character incomprehensible, while leaning into problematic stereotypes around race and mental health.
In this origin story of Cuckoo’s Nest’s infamously brutal nurse, Paulson gives her all. But Romansky and showrunner Ian Brennan sketch Mildred as an inconsistent character. During the first two episodes, the show’s strongest, she’s a master manipulator who closely resembles Louise Fletcher’s 1975 portrayal of the character. While staying at a seaside hotel run by Louise (a batty Amanda Plummer), she embroils herself with detective Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll). At the behest of Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) — a wealthy businesswoman with a disabled but demented son (Brandon Flynn) — Wainwright pursues Dr. Hanover, who’s raising funding for his fledgling hospital through a perverted governor (Vincent D’Onofrio) hellbent on his own re-election campaign.
Mildred leverages the involved parties through blackmail and murder, in a bid to have Edmund declared legally insane. But when Mildred morphs into an empathetic nurse, and later a devoted companion to her lover, we’ve spent so much time with her as a manipulator that her change never feels believable. The difference between growth and inconsistency comes from the external circumstances that affect a character’s internal workings. But in Ratched, there are no narrative events to explain Mildred’s sudden changes in personality. She simply turns into a new unrecognizable character in every episode.
As a series, Ratched changes without reason as well. The show initially critiques the barbaric methods used to treat mental-health patients. In the second episode, two lesbians — Ingrid (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Lily (Annie Starke) — arrive at the hospital to rid themselves of melancholia. They befriend Peter (Teo Briones), a young boy suffering from hallucinations. Joseph Marcell (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) plays a patient with delusions of being an actor. All of them believe they require a lobotomy, a procedure now famous for permanently incapacitating JFK’s sister Rosemary Kennedy. Nurse Bucket also preaches humane treatment through tranquilizers. But past the first two episodes, the show rarely addresses the other patients. They fade unceremoniously into the background, never to be heard from again. Where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tried to give voices to the mentally ill, the show refocuses toward the nurses and Dr. Hanover.
In the process, Ratched relies on troubling stereotypes. Huck is kind and generous to a fault, but he’s disfigured by burns on the left side of his face. Mildred treats him as a hapless angel, even going so far as to say his life lacks purpose — an old stereotype about special-needs patients. The series also assumes people with mental-health issues naturally pose a risk to others. Sophie Okenedo is thrilling as Charlotte, a Black woman with multiple personality disorder stemming from racial trauma, but she’s also painted as menacing. Why is a Black woman made permanently dangerous, while Mildred — a white woman with her own traumas — allowed to change? Too often, Murphy, Brennan and Romansky offer redemption selectively, and with obvious prejudices.
By the final three episodes, Ratched has given up on story logic. The show forces exposition by explaining a child sex ring through marionettes. Bucket and Mildred’s adversarial relationship takes an unexplainable turn. And Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), an advisor to the governor, develops an unearned bond with Mildred. Even Edmund — a killer supposedly defined by how weary he is of spilling innocent blood — runs roughshod over that most basic character trait. The final shot, which involves a Mexico desert and three characters with no prior connection to one another, is so beyond believability that it’s almost impossible to follow along.
Ratched betrays its characters at every turn because the show refuses to follow its own worldbuilding. The series’ refusal renders the potentially promising character of Mildred Ratched unintelligible, even as Paulson tries to deliver on her potential through sheer force of will. It makes the relationship between Mildred and Edmund comical. And the writing so often silences the mentally ill — people who have already been muted too long — that viewers have to wonder whether they were ever meant to be more than window-dressing. Murphy’s Ratched — an origin story no one really asked for — fails to deliver an intriguing re-imagining of the character, or even a reason for its existence.
The first season of Ratched is now streaming on Netflix.