Nothing in Ratched works. Not the overbearing score desperately trying to replicate the splendor of Bernard Herrmann’s work with Alfred Hitchcock. Not the consistent insistence on shoving various shades of green into every frame. Not the acting, even when executed by performers who have been dynamic elsewhere. Not the rudderless scripts. Not the approach to post–World War II American life. Before even finishing its fledgling pilot episode, the new Netflix series — conceived by Evan Romansky and shepherded into existence by Ryan Murphy — loudly and brashly proclaims itself a mess of the highest order. Yet the most instructive scene in terms of the tangle of issues plaguing this misguided series comes later.
Partway through episode six, Sarah Paulson’s Nurse Mildred Ratched shares her harrowing backstory with the woman she is seemingly falling in love with and can lie to no longer. A tour through sexual violence, abuse, and the horrors that can occur in the foster-care system, delivered by Paulson direct to camera, this ploy for audience sympathy via Mildred’s trauma-laden backstory may have met its aims if it didn’t follow on the heels of a marionette show that has already told the exact same story in the exact same rhythm to the exact same effect. But this scene’s problem is larger than mere repetition. It underscores the central issue poisoning the entire series: an adherence to creating a gritty, traumatic backstory that flattens a character who didn’t need one.
Ratched is bursting at the seams with baffling decisions that reflect not only a blatant misunderstanding of the character and the world she inhabits but a profound mistrust in the audience. It draws a harsh line between trauma endured in childhood and trauma inflicted as an adult, an insulting premise that deadens the experience of trauma rather than giving audiences a view into how the pains of our past shape our present. But that isn’t all that surprising since Ratched has nothing novel to say about any of the ideas it picks up and marvels at before throwing them out the window and turning its attention back to more visually rote, narratively hollow sex and violence. There is nothing redeemable to be found within the folds of these eight hours of television. Nothing! Please, do not let idle curiosity trick you into delving into this wretched enterprise. Haven’t we learned over the last six months how precious life is? Why waste it on a show that demonstrates such little interest in the interiority of its characters that you feel insulted on the actors’ behalf?
The most glaring issue is the most essential: Nurse Ratched herself, an exceedingly confused character who becomes whatever a scene needs her to be with little internal logic to be found. Inspired, supposedly, by the character of the same name in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel and Milos Forman’s 1975 film — which earned Louise Fletcher an Academy Award for the role — the Mildred depicted in Ratched is recognizable in name alone, a World War II nurse who forces her way into working at the salubrious-looking Lucia State Mental Hospital, run by Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and housing Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), a famed serial killer with a deep connection to Mildred. It’s this connection that powers her wildly inconsistent decisions, sending us on a journey that balloons from a simple origin story to a wan, useless game between increasingly grotesque players.
In the hands of Forman and Fletcher, Nurse Ratched was a forceful emblem of the intertwined systems of mental hospitals and nursing. She’s a cog that keeps the machine working, exacting and by the book. Fletcher gives a tremendous performance that’s placid, even icy, on the surface and barbed underneath. Her character isn’t a simple villain but a rich, dynamic figure that calls into question the ways a person can become part of obliterating systems that forcefully shape and even end the lives of others. In Ratched, her character is a rogue force who doesn’t just ignore going by the book — she sets the book on fire for her own ends. Whom Ratched helps and whom she hurts don’t always track. In the first episode, she leads one patient to suicide and gives another the wrong medication in order to swoop in with a heroic act to make herself look good. A few episodes later, when she helps two lesbians escape the clutches of the hospital’s hydrotherapy treatment, I was left confused — if she finds such therapy barbaric and has genuine goodwill toward patients, why would she be comfortable leading a man to suicide? Paulson is ultimately unable to create an emotional through line for the character.
Ratched presents 1947 America as a hardened vision of people powered only by their traumas. Visually, the series, whose first episode is directed by Murphy, is obsessed with lacquered, even calcified imagery that never communicates information effectively — the show is particularly fond of inconsequential split screens — and whose only interest is in calling attention to its own hardened, impenetrable looks. On a deeper story level, the show reveals itself to be keenly aware of the horrifying history of how queer men and women were treated in hospitals and psychiatry, a field which pathologized our desires, and yet incapable of creating a coherent thought about that history. (Race is more confusingly drawn, with scant, unsatisfactory mentions or examples of racism in its race-blind world-building, as if the characters are largely unencumbered by its dynamics.) The history of lesbians moving through the mental-health field during a time when they’d suffer profoundly for seeking help for something natural and unfortunately heavily pathologized could have been an intriguing study. It’s a rich history worthy of study and empathy. But this history is treated as a disjointed backdrop for Ratched’s machinations and her own struggle with her sexual identity. There’s something galling about taking the very real and very harrowing history of mental hospitals in America and whittling it down to a story about the one-dimensional trauma of serial killers and confidence artists.
Ratched loves to layer on thick a tragic backstory, in the process obscuring who these characters really are, either because they are wholly one-dimensional or so archly constructed they are rendered inhuman. What should engender sympathy is stripped of meaning by the writing, which makes a joke out of melodrama. Not one actor is doing memorable or engaging work. Finn Wittrock as Edmund Tolleson aims for menacing and conflicted but comes off as an empty-headed brute. Judy Davis as Ratched’s rival, Nurse Betsy Bucket, confuses flailing her arms and exasperated sighs with meaningful acting. Amanda Plummer as Louise, the owner of the motel Ratched is occupying, feels like a disparate bag of ideas rather than a whole character. Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells, a woman beset by the most insulting rendition of multiple personality disorder (now referred to as dissociative identity disorder) I have seen in a very long time, gives a sloppy, loud performance that harshly underlines the failures of the writing: the insistence on shifting characters dramatically to fit the plot comes to a head with her character. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch such a caricature of a mentally ill woman, especially one who becomes violent in ways that mischaracterizes these very real experiences.
The nature of origin stories is to argue that there is something meaningful about its central character. That their life reveals something worthy of study. That they are unique. But Nurse Mildred Ratched was an intriguing force in the 1975 film for the exact opposite reason: She illuminated the might of systemic forces. In the hands of Murphy and his collaborators, though, she becomes a banal villain whose traumatic backstory is a cravenly wielded tool rather than a venue for genuine exploration of the horrors she endured. There are no moments of honesty in Ratched. There is no cunning or intelligent design. There is no guiding theme rendering anything with import. There is neither tension nor suspense. The longer you make the slog through its endless-feeling eight episodes the more it becomes apparent what a profound waste of time this exercise is.