▶ Ratched is available to stream on Netflix now.
“It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen,” states narrator Chief Bromden at the outset of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With this aside, Kesey reminds us that the account with which we’re engaging is multiply unreliable – the events depicted are fictional to begin with; they’re filtered through a single character’s perspective; and that character is a patient in a mental health facility. Whatever ‘truth’ is captured, therefore, is emotional, or symbolic – a matter of interpretation.
The same principle might be said to guide the practice of backfilling the story of an existing fictional character via a spin-off prequel or ‘origin story’. The likes of Bates Motel, Hannibal, Young Wallander and Perry Mason don’t necessarily happen in the same reality as the works that introduced us to their protagonists, but seek nonetheless to reveal new truths about those characters. Plus, of course, piggybacking on the name recognition and cultural capital of a pre-existing phenomenon.
This Netflix six-parter metes out the same treatment to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s pitiless ‘Big Nurse’, Mildred Ratched, portrayed to Oscar-winning effect by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman’s 1975 film.
Created by Evan Romansky, and developed for Netflix by its prolific star producer Ryan Murphy, Ratched reimagines Mildred as an enigmatic, impeccably controlled femme fatale who, 15 years before the events of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, manipulates her way into a job at an eccentric, high-end mental hospital.
Mildred has her own reasons for wanting the role, but once in position she becomes a catalyst for other dramas. Hardened veteran Nurse Bucket (Judy Davis) is antagonised by her presence; closeted local government official Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) falls for her; and she becomes a bit-part player in the tumultuous private life of her boss, Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones).
An onslaught of graphic violence at the beginning of the pilot episode not only establishes part of Mildred’s backstory, but sets the tone for a show in which lushly beautiful, jewel-coloured outfits and decor coexist with lurid spasms of grand guignol.
Readers familiar with any extant telling of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest might recall that the story isn’t big on either interior design inspo or gory horror. They might also note that it’s an odd origin story that starts with its protagonist already four years older than she should be 15 years later. They would be right – and they would be advised, if they approach Ratched at all, first to jettison any expectation that it will harmonise with its source text.
This is a reimagining that doesn’t so much reveal new layers of an existing character as paste on enough new ones to totally obscure what was there before. Since the creators of Ratched haven’t attempted any continuity between their sleek, exotic, self-seeking protagonist and the scrubbed petty bureaucrat of the novel and film, there’s little point in taking them to task for the lack thereof.
It is a bit strange, though. This Mildred isn’t so much a rounding-out of the original character as her opposite: a scheming, knowingly evil glamour puss, rather than a flatly rule-bound apparatchik whose narrow horizons and lack of empathy allow her to believe that she is doing good.
As Mildred, Sarah Paulson – Murphy’s most frequent collaborator – is at once showy and static, a sort of Stepford grande dame, positioned in the role rather than playing it. In mask-like make-up and get-ups fit for a cut-out paper doll, she’s programmed to respond with smooth bitchiness to the improbable prompts of the dupes around her (“I admire nurses more than anything! They really are God’s angels!” “Yes; yes, we are”).
It’s particularly apparent how hemmed-in Paulson’s performance is when she’s sharing the screen with either Judy Davis or Amanda Plummer, whose work lifts the whole show, bringing to the roles of Nurse Bucket and Mildred’s landlady Louise respectively a spontaneity and comic verve that’s lacking elsewhere.
It doesn’t help Paulson that the show bounces uncertainly between portraying Mildred as an amoral supervillain, a sympathetic misfit (“People like us – places like this are maybe where we belong!”, she tells a scarred colleague), and a vigilante rebel bucking a cruel system.
From this unstable centre, storylines branch off that feel laboured even as they conjure the extreme and absurd. Courting, presumably, the attention of an online generation at once hard-boiled and sentimental, Ratched alternates graphic depictions of particularly startling paraphilias (piquerism! trepanning! amateur amputation!) with soapy tales of repressed sexual identity.
If Murphy has a point, it is presumably that same-sex attraction was itself not so long ago regarded as a mental illness or perversion. Given that more than one current political discourse places it at risk of being so categorised again, that’s a valid message – but whether it’s well-represented by this garish, arch, overstuffed production is debatable.