It was inevitable that Ratched would have scenes and subplots that feel like deleted bits from American Horror Story: Asylum. The similarities in concept are too much for it not to, especially the manner in which Ryan Murphy likes to blend body horror and sexuality. The subplot in “Angel of Mercy,” revealing that Dr. Hanover participated in LSD treatments that led to multiple amputations of his patient, is straight out of Asylum and grisly in ways only Murphy projects can be. While the climax makes for a very watchable episode of Ratched, the concern at this point in the series lies at its center: The show seems less interested in its title character than in everyone around her. Let’s hope that shifts soon.
“Angel of Mercy” starts by spotlighting what is arguably the show’s greatest asset: its production design. Ratched just looks incredible. Take the mansion of Ms. Osgood, who prowls a home of high-priced art and objects as only Sharon Stone can. Ten years ago, this part might have gone to Jessica Lange, but it’s great to see Stone get something juicy in the Murphy-verse. Her Ms. Osgood is visited by Corey Stoll’s Charles Wainwright, and it’s revealed that Ratched’s neighbor at the motel is a PI who has been hired to find her new boss, Dr. Hanover. Osgood has a dark history with Hanover, and she paid Wainwright $10K to find him — if you’re curious, that’s over $100K in 2020 dollars. Not bad for tracking down a guy kind of hiding in plain sight. She offers the private dick what would be $3 million in 2020 money to kill him and then we learn her son has amputated arms and legs. And kind of an attitude problem.
Back to the Lucia Mental Hospital, where Nurse Bucket brings some lilies of the valley into Hanover’s office. It doesn’t go well, but her boss does give the head nurse an assignment: to help with treating the lesbianism of Ms. Cartwright (Annie Starke), who appears not to be responding to her lobotomy. Nurse Ratched ushers Cartwright into the basement of the facility with her colleague Huck (Charlie Carver), where Nurse Bucket awaits. The treatment involves basically boiling the patient alive and then throwing her into a vat of ice after. It’s called hydrotherapy, and it naturally offends both Mildred and Huck, even as Bucket pushes their concerns away. She’s totally ending up boiled, right? Other than foreshadowing, the scene unites Mildred and Huck in their hatred of the vicious cruelty of the unwell. That could matter down the road.
“Angel of Mercy” allows for a bit of development for Briggs, who, it turns out, has been living a marriage of convenience for years with a gay partner. She climbed the political ladder; he was made partner at work. Murphy explores the history of American homophobia more intensely with each passing year, most recently in 2020’s Emmy-nominated Hollywood, and Cynthia Nixon is very good in these scenes, but it’s still hard to figure out exactly why she’s drawn to Mildred. It’s just a tad too underwritten at this point, although both actresses are good enough to make this work with just a few more scenes together.
Briggs also gets a scene with the governor, who affirms that he wants Edmund “the Clergy Killer” Tolleson to be put to death for his crimes. That could be a problem because of how much Hanover wants to prove he can fix Edmund and even how much a nurse named Dolly (Alice Englert) wants to, well, fix him in her own way. She takes Edmund his meal, and he’s thrilled to see someone new, young, and pretty. He tells Dolly that a side effect of his medicine is a three-day erection, and she “treats” it, giving him a hand job through the bars while he grunts in her face. It’s very Murphy. Importantly, the guard who watches it all happen tells Huck, who tells Ratched. She doesn’t like sinners. Uh-oh, Dolly.
Ratched probably worries that she’s becoming a sinner herself. In the weirdest scene of the season so far, Ratched and Charles engage in a kinky bit of role-playing in her motel room. While she’s explaining the scenario, the show flashes back to what looks like something that really happened to Ratched while she was serving as a nurse in WWII, a moment when she had to amputate the leg of an injured soldier. Why Ratched would pull this moment out of her memory banks to turn herself on isn’t exactly clear. Is it part of her savior complex? Does she get aroused by saving the wounded and injured, even in ways that would devastate both people? As she fantasizes about the injured man, the soldier in her fantasy turns into Briggs, startling Ratched, who may not understand her own sexuality. Charles gets the job done before saying, “You were the worst lay of my whole life, and this is too fucking weird.” The list of people Nurse Ratched may end up killing before the season ends continues to rise.
The final stretch of the episode returns to Hanover, who was nearly killed early on by a deeply incompetent Wainwright — his best strategy is just to open fire outside a gas station? — and discovers that Nurse Bucket and others are naturally wondering where that patient Ratched had talked into killing himself ended up. Ratched saves Hanover, and the two drive down the shore to Monterey, where his past with Osgood’s son is revealed. Strap in. This is going to get wild.
It turns out Hanover had been hired to treat Henry Osgood (Brandon Flynn) for something called piquerism, a real condition in which people gain sexual gratification by pricking people with needles. (It’s almost hard to believe this wasn’t part of Asylum.) Henry was becoming more and more violent — he even stabbed the gardener! Hanover’s treatment idea? LSD. This guy is full of bad ideas, and it gets worse when Henry puts a high dosage of the drug in the doctor’s drink, too. Then they go on a really bad trip that ends with Henry becoming convinced that he has someone else’s arms … so he cuts off his and then cuts off the gardener’s limbs to replace them. Hanover is too messed up to stop any of it and even tries to sew the arms back on after he wakes up a bit. Not sure about the science there, doc. Anyway, the revelation is that Nurse Ratched now knows Hanover’s biggest secret. What will she do with it?
• Murphy hands off directing duties for this episode to his regular collaborator Nelson Cragg, a cinematographer on a bunch of Murphy-verse series, and it’s hardly noticeable. The show has a consistent quality sheen to it that helps pardon some of the screenwriting flaws.
• Speaking of those, this show has been advertised as relating “the creation of a monster.” Does anyone feel it’s doing that yet? Mildred Ratched has had arguably the lowest amount of character development of the major characters and is essentially the same person as in her first scene, other than, perhaps, in coming to terms with her sexuality. It could be a major problem for the back half of this show if the reason Ratched becomes a “monster” is because she realizes she’s a lesbian. Murphy has stumbled tonally before with stuff like this. Let’s hope he doesn’t here.
• Back to the fun stuff! Who’s going to die first? Dolly? Charles? Bucket? Huck? It feels like this first season could end in a bloodbath. And it’s going to be a hot one.