Netflix Review – Ratched (2020)

You may remember Nurse Ratched as best portrayed by Louise Fletcher in Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (based on the novel by Ken Kesey). A famously cold-hearted tyrant of the psychiatric ward, Mildred Ratched has become a cult icon and symbol of institutionalized corruption. Forty-five years later, Sarah Paulson has treated us with a stunning performance as the former army nurse, written by the creators of American Horror Story (2011-Present). Netflix have confirmed a second season of Ratched’s origin story, acting as a TV prequel to the Oscar-winning 70’s classic.

A Hitchcockian thriller with undercurrents of film noir (the shadowy detective in a Bates-style motel), Ratched is a stylish psychological drama. Across eight episodes, Ratched relentlessly worms her way up the career ladder, in ways that are less than legal (or moral, for that matter). Although the original Nurse Ratched is a nefarious villain, Netflix have taken a more anti-heroic approach to Mildred’s backstory. Not only does this make her more relatable to viewers for a story spanning multiple episodes, but allows for an engaging character arc into villainy.

Ratched’s primary motivation is easy enough to sympathise with: she wishes to free her incarcerated brother, who only committed his crime in a traumatised state of revenge. Their tragic, dysfunctional upbringing enables a bridge to form between our pity and her questionable choices; we may not fully agree, but at least we partway understand. Ratched’s mental instability is masked by her intellect and self-assured nature, making her an almost unreadable character. Exhibiting clear sociopathic traits, viewers are never quite sure what is genuine and what is manipulation. Of course, this only grips us more, curious to know what game she’s really playing…

Creator Evan Romansky strikes a niche balance between binge-worthy television drama and old-school theatre. Intensified emotions, live orchestra music and soliloquy-like dialogue add an elegance to the show, enhanced by the striking vintage wardrobe. One scene in particular stands out as a dazzling piece of action and melodrama–electrifying viewers with harsh violin strings against a bloody and unexpected showdown, masterfully sculpted in slow-motion.

Deriving clear inspiration from Hitchcock’s classic thrillers, Ratched utilizes an occasional but heavy use of colour symbolism. As the screen glows in hues of red or green, a nightmarish atmosphere envelops us, alluding to something dreadful afoot. Romansky doesn’t hold back the grisly details, interrupting the stylized aesthetics with one of the worst deaths in TV history—skin literally peeling like fruit from one of Ratched’s boiled victims. That said, Mildred and her crazed brother, Edmund (Finn Wittrock), still show occasional signs of humanity, determined to complete their mission that we can’t help but root for.

Despite the odd scenes of repetitional exposition, Ratched is a bold and bizarre show that never fails to shock. From unanaesthetised amputations under the influence of LSD, to severe multiple personality disorder, Ratched dares to indulge in exaggerated entertainment. What makes the story even more interesting is its reference to real historical treatments: lobotomies, hydrotherapy and acid really were used to treat psychiatric patients.  Though hopefully not to the same degree…