Nurse Ratched, the nurse at the heart of the Academy-Award winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is one of cinema’s most notorious villains. Ryan Murphy found the character compelling enough to create Ratched, which casts Sarah Paulson in Louise Fletcher’s original role. But oddly enough, the new Netflix series is not the nurse’s first television appearance.
That would be Once Upon a Time.
Yes, the ABC show about fairytale Disney characters coming to life in the real world also features Nurse Ratched in a minor, recurring role as played by Ingrid Torrance.
Once Upon a Time, which ran for seven seasons on ABC, is very loosely about fairy tale characters floating around a small town in Maine without their memories. The show flip-flops between the real world and the fantasy one, as the characters try to break their curse.
Ratched appearing in Once Upon a Time isn’t actually as weird as it might sound. Throughout its seven season run, the series creators pulled not just from Disney movies and fairytales, but also from literature such as the Wizard of Oz, Greek mythology, and Arthurian legend. Ken Kesey’s book is definitely not as fantastical as the other examples, but it is a book so, sure, Nurse Ratched appears in Once Upon a Time with the likes of Elsa, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, Captain Hook, the Mad Hatter, and others. Nurse Ratched is only named a couple of times, but we know she’s not just a random nurse, because scripts for the series refer to her as Nurse Ratched.
I never kept up with Once Upon a Time, but if you spend a lot of time in the Disney fandom space, you pick up enough random tidbits about the series to feel like you kept up with Once Upon a Time. So I wondered to myself: can I get the full Once Upon a Time experience by just watching the Nurse Ratched scenes?
Here’s how my self-imposed experiment played out:
[Ed. note: This article contains very vague and vastly out-of-context spoilers for six seasons of Once Upon a Time]
Nurse Ratched makes her debut in the final moments of the 12th episode of the first season, which means I started watching Once Upon a Time in earnest in the final moments of the 12th episode of the first season. The Evil Queen lady (Lana Parrilla) saunters up to the psychiatric wing of the Storybrooke General Hospital and hands Nurse Ratched a rose. Nurse Ratched, whose name isn’t mentioned yet but, and I want to stress this, is Nurse Ratched, says something about how no one ever visits a particular patient. And that particular patient is … Belle (Emilie de Ravin), the star of many Once Upon a Time GIFsets. Why is she here? I do not know, nor do I find out, because I am only watching Ratched’s scenes, so it’s time for the next one.
Nurse Ratched returns to OUAT in the season 1 finale. We’re back at the psychiatric wing again, which is underground and creepy. She’s at the desk, just doing her job, when Sebastian Stan, who plays Jefferson, the Mad Hatter character in eyeliner, comes in and gives her some tea. One sip knocks her out. Jefferson then breaks into the hospital to free Belle.
Nurse Ratched returns in season 2. Belle is back in the psychiatric wing, though it now looks like a real hospital instead of a dungeon. What happened between seasons? I’m not sure, because I’m only watching Nurse Ratched’s scenes. She meets with this hot lady in a fur coat (Meghan Ory) and after she throws a fit, Nurse Ratched comes over to sedate her. Ratched tells the lady in the fur coat that Belle has “been like this the whole time” and that they’ve had to keep her heavily sedated. Ratched escorts Belle out of the room.
Later in season 2, Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is looking for Belle, but finds an empty hospital bed. Let me emphasize once again just how much of a makeover this hospital has gotten in this mean time: in season 1, Belle was kept in a cellar with only one tiny window, but now she gets a bed. Anyway, Rumple is like “Where is this patient?” and Nurse Ratched is like “Well, she should still be here” and he’s like “THEN WHERE IS SHE?!” and then Ratched runs off to look for Belle. She seems intimidated by him, which is not the cutthroat ruthless Ratched we know and love.
Ratched does not appear at all in season 3. Whatever happens during season 3 of Once Upon a Time stays in season 3 of Once Upon a Time.
When we get to season 4, Ratched is once again behind the desk of the psychiatric wing. She does not say anything. Also, the hospital is creepy again. Evil Queen and some other evil-looking lady (Rebecca Mader) walk past Nurse Ratched, but where they go, I do not know, because I am basically watching Once Upon a Ratched.
Season 5 is the most hoppin’ season for Nurse Ratched, as she appears in four different episodes. The season kicks off with a Kid played by Jared S. Gilmore actually calling Nurse Ratched by her name! Confirmation! He’s trying to find his mom, so he walks into the creepy version of the psychiatric wing and spills his drink on her so that Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), who in the show is a very attractive dark-haired man in eyeliner, can sneak in. I don’t know who he goes to see, but poor Nurse Ratched’s uniform is ruined.
But she bounces quickly back from that loss, appearing in that season’s sixth episode to deliver lunch to one of the patients — the evil-looking lady from season 4, who is apparently still in this place. The patient is apparently pregnant and really craving onion rings, but Nurse Ratched delivers a plate of frankly bland looking vegetables, saying that the mayor has instructed her to only feed this prisoner organic, locally grown vegetables, because she’s apparently pregnant. This pisses off the patient, who sends Ratched off. Where is the domineering Nurse Ratched we know and love? Why is she such a pushover?
Ratched uses her nurse skills in the eighth episode, when the pregnant lady starts to give birth. By that, I mean, she frantically goes to the door then summons the woman’s sister and a man who I think is her baby daddy (Sean Maguire). Apparently, everyone’s a little freaked out because she was only two months pregnant but now is going into labor! It’s because of dark magic, she says, but … whose dark magic? Well, we won’t find out, because it’s onto the next Ratched scene, where she holds the lady’s hand as she gives birth!
In season 5, episode 10, the hospital is back to looking like an actual normal hospital instead of a horror movie — though that could be because we’re in the maternity wing and for some reason Ratched has a shift covering this desk too. Hospital shifts, am I right? The formerly pregnant lady marches in and Ratched is like “You can’t be here!” and then the evil lady waves her hand and Ratched passes out. Evil lady seems like she’s on a mission, but I am not sure what she’s looking for. Probably a baby?
Nurse Ratched’s final appearances are in season 6, the show’s penultimate season. In the third episode, the Evil Queen (who is no longer evil?) heads down to the psychiatric wing and takes a casserole dish from Ratched. This is another moment where they mention Nurse Ratched by name: Evil Queen comments that compared to the cup of noodles Nurse Ratched serves, her lasagna is fit for a king, which will hopefully get the patient to talk to them. Technically this spills a bit over from when Nurse Ratched was on screen, but I’m letting it slide because she was directly mentioned.
In episode 16, Ratched once again commandeers the desk in front of the creepy psychiatric wing. Evil Queen and Henry go down to see a patient and Ratched comments that this particular patient has never had any visitors. Spooky! Evil Queen and Henry think this patient will help them. Ratched unlocks the door, revealing a dude named Isaac (Patrick Fischler) who is typing at a typewriter.
In Ratched’s final appearance, we see main character Emma Swann painting a swan. Ratched comes in — which means this is taking place in the psychiatric wing, probably, which now features some nice windows — and tells Emma that her son is here to visit. Ratched leads her out to the waiting room, which has definitely been spruced up since last time we saw the hospital. Henry and Emma talk a bit about how none of their friends and family are real, because Emma thinks all of the fairy tale stuff is a delusion.
This is the most plot we’ve gotten from watching the Ratched scenes, because Ratched is hovering in the corner and going to make a reappearance. There is something about a Black Fairy wiping Emma’s memories, but Emma insists that she’s just unwell. They recount the events that I presume happened in earlier seasons (he ate a poisoned apple turnover at one point, but Emma saved him with True Love’s Kiss). Ratched comes back to give Emma her medicine. She looks pretty domineering, but also doesn’t really interfere with Henry showing Emma some cryptic notes. Ratched walks away right as some new evil-looking lady (Jaime Murray) hovers over Henry, so now we’re stopping.
Once Upon a Time does have a seventh season, but it’s a soft reboot set in Seattle and focuses on adult Henry. So Ratched’s time in Once Upon a Time ends when the show’s time in the town of Storybrooke ends. If there is any knowledge that this experience has given me about this show, is that it takes place in a hospital more than I thought it would. I’ve also learned that there are more evil women than I originally thought. But other than that, I don’t know if I learned anything from this experience that I did not learn by osmosis online. If anything, it’s only brought up more questions.
I will say, however, that watching it for approximately ten seconds across six seasons has sparked an interest in me. Who are these mysterious patients that keep showing up? Why does the psychiatric wing look like a dungeon sometimes and a normal hospital other times? Are there more hot men in eyeliner? Is this the intrigue of Once Upon a Time working its magic on me, a susceptible Disney fan?
All seven seasons of Once Upon a Time are streaming on Disney Plus. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ratched are streaming on Netflix.