For anyone who has seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched’s presence lingers. Lousie Fletcher’s handling of the complicated cinematic villain has stood the test of time. She’s cold. Militant. To many, she has no heart. And years later, the character is considered one of the most memorable villains in film history, ranking fifth in AFI’s series 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains. However, little has been done to really examine how Nurse Ratched became this way. In Ryan Murphy’s latest series for Netflix aptly titled RATCHED, we get an examination of the character years prior to us meeting her in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While it does take time for the series to hit its stride in its initial episodes, it’s not long before you’re hooked and wondering what’ll happen next. Tapping into a film noir sensibility that I didn’t realize I needed, the suspense and gradual peeling of the story’s layers kept this reviewer guessing in a good way. And, with an enigma like Nurse Ratched, the dissection and layer-peeling of her character are well worth the ride.
Sarah Paulson‘s performance is a gleaming beacon in RATCHED. Paulson and Murphy have been frequent collaborators, with their work on Murphy’s anthology horror series, “American Horror Story.” While many viewers have been familiar with Paulson’s skills, I have to say that this may be one of Sarah Paulson’s best performances yet. Her portrayal of Mildred Ratched is necessarily layered and complicated. This is a woman with many secrets. A woman who wears many masks. As she lays out traps and schemes away, it’s difficult not to want her to succeed. A woman who has no problem killing people if they get in her way. A woman who encourages behaviors if it’ll help her get what she wants. While still a villain, Sarah Paulson’s Mildred Ratched is someone you want to succeed. Even when you know that it’s the wrong thing to root for.
However, Paulson is not alone in delivering a strong performance. RATCHED carries an immensely strong and game cast, with some notable highlights. We see the return of fellow Murphy collaborator, Finn Wittrock, as Edmund Tolleson. We meet him as a potentially sociopathic murderer. But, as the story unfolds with him as well as others, we realize that some killers are made rather than born. Judy Davis’s Betsy Bucket is a catty hoot. You can’t keep your eyes off of her, especially when Bucket wages war against Mildred. Jon Jon Briones’s Dr. Richard Hanover is a complicated man. He seeks to help his patients, but his own past and the political manipulations of the state follow him around every corner. Sharon Stone’s Lenore Osgood is more of the odd one of the ensemble. Osgood is separated from the world of Santa Lucia Hospital. Yet, it is through her character’s vengeful actions that Mildred is able to make progress with her own plans. And I have to mention Sophie Okonedo’s performance as she had the challenge of portraying multiple people. To say that it was a feat would be an understatement.
While the performances themselves are huge strengths for the series, the production and costume designs are almost characters in their own right. One of Ryan Murphy’s strengths has been visual aesthetics and RATCHED is no exception. Part of the success is due to him bringing back production designer Judy Becker. From the glamourous Santa Lucia Hospital to the dingy, lived in motel rooms to the sterile, voyeuristic lobotomy room, each location has a specific feel and energy that resonates onscreen. The film noir influence on the set design is also a highlight, with the most notable element being the incorporation of lines in areas that produce those distinctive noir-esque shadows. Combine this with the extraordinarily green color palette (contrasted with deep, angry reds) throughout the series, and you have something delicious to visually consume.
Because of the visual palette utilized in the production design of RATCHED, it makes sense that the costuming would have to match and compliment that. In taking in the entire series, it is clear how collaborative all design teams were to make sure everything meshed together. Given the more green-focused palette utilized In the visual aesthetic, it’s hard not to notate the different color variations of the hospital staff. While maintaining the green visual palette, it is a nice touch seeing the different variations across the staff. Mildred Ratched’s distinctive wardrobe outside of the hospital setting also clues the audience into the type of person she is. Her clothes are a way to complete her persona, the image she portrays to the outside world. It’s an element she can readily control and, like many of us know, what we wear can convey a lot to strangers without saying a word. The usage of creamier browns and corals used in other costume variations onscreen help make the greens used in the overall palette pop while also visually grounding the series so it doesn’t feel too unreal.
Last but not least, I can’t discuss visuals without bringing up makeup and hair. With RATCHED taking place in 1947, there are certain elements in the makeup and hair department that are heavily influenced by the history of the period. The utilization of red lipstick on women in the show highlights the boom in lipstick usage post-World War II. The show also utilizes a fair amount of prosthetics, especially with Charlie Carver’s character Huck, a veteran of the war. Having received extensive scarring in the war, it is important to portray that external damage properly and the makeup department made it seem seamless. This coupled with lobotomy patients, burn victims, etc., you can see the makeup department’s handiwork shine.
RATCHED does take a couple of episodes to find its footing. Part of that has more to do with introducing us to the players involved in the series. There is a substantial group of characters to introduce ourselves to. However, with such a strong cast and clearly defined costuming/styling choices, it doesn’t take long to know who is who. There’s also time taken in laying out the stakes for the viewer. Each character has their own agenda. And, as we watch the threads start to unravel and reveal themselves, the suspense heightens. The metaphorical spiders are waiting for us to fall into the webs that have been woven to snatch us. Honestly, the most fun part for this viewer was each new reveal along the way. So, despite how long it does feel like it takes to get hooked, the payoff, in the long run, was worth it.
Thematically, there is a lot to take in throughout the course of RATCHED. The most apparent subject matter is mental illness. In the 40s, psychiatry was a fairly green field of study and the criteria for what made up a mental illness was broad. During the series, the audience will uncomfortably learn how society used to treat homosexuality as well as other inconvenient or socially unacceptable behaviors like daydreaming. The treatments utilized in the series are what was used in history and some variations are still used today. Another important theme to take away is the failure of the system, especially for marginalized people. This theme coincides with the idea that monsters are sometimes made, not born as a result of their circumstances and experiences. While the series is a character study of Mildred Ratched, Evan Romansky, Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Salt, and Ian Brennan give us plenty of food for thought.
One of the things that did throw me off storytelling-wise was the season finale’s last fifteen minutes. Without revealing too much, there are a couple of storytelling cliches used that might annoy the audience. If you’re not a fan of dream sequences, parts of this seasonal wrap-up will irk you. However, there were a couple of positives to be gained from those techniques. We get a sense of Mildred’s mindset even though this particular chapter in her life seems to have wrapped up. And, it provides set up for an already-greenlight second season of the series, which some might enjoy. Oh, and depending on what team you are by the end of the season, you may enjoy seeing your favorites group together as misfits before the credits roll.
RATCHED excels once it establishes its characters and we get the opportunity to unravel each individual’s agenda and see where their paths lead them. However, all paths come second when placed next to the titular character. The glue that holds everything together is Sarah Paulson’s take on Mildred Ratched. With a multilayered performance that will be spoken about for years to come, she brings a humanity to the character that feels earned. While we may not have been interested in knowing the background of the character before, audiences will feel compelled to know more as Paulson’s performance pulls them in. The stunning film noir aesthetics and the hefty subject matter the series manages to illustrate throughout the course of the series are like icing on top of the cake. RATCHED is a series that people shouldn’t pass on.
RATCHED, the eight-episode series, premieres on Netflix on Friday, September 18, 2020.
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