It’s almost a shame that Ratched is coming out this September. Ryan Murphy’s latest project for Netflix has enough stylized creepiness and ancient torture devices to make any Halloween fan squirm. As a deep dive into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s iconic villain, Ratched is a messy yet ambitious study into repression. But as a spiritual sister to American Horror Story: Asylum, Ratched is everything fans have been missing from AHS‘s creepiest season.
Created by Evan Romansky and Murphy, Ratched seeks to explain who Nurse Ratched was long before Louise Fletcher gave us nightmares. The series takes place in 1947, right as Nurse Ratched starts to scam, manipulate, and bribe her way into a psychiatric hospital in Northern California. The drama (all eight episodes were provided for review) never seems to settle on whether this corrupt and eccentric woman is the hero or the villain of her own story, the aggressor or the victim. Watching Sarah Paulson navigate those extremes is chilling.
As the drama starts, it doesn’t follow a fully-formed monster but a desperate woman teetering on the edge between good and evil. Though she infiltrates this hospital with a noble mission, she does so as a force of calculated chaos. It’s not uncommon to see Mildred Ratched provoke patients for seemingly no reason or befriend a co-worker one minute, stab their back the next, then offer a faux friendly hand to help them out of the very peril she caused. These inconsistencies work together to make Nurse Ratched more terrifying in her unpredictability. She’s a woman who doesn’t have a plan, but a vague outline of one; yet that won’t stop her from doing anything she sees fit to achieve her half-formed goals. Unfortunately for Jon Jon Briones’ hospital head Dr. Richard Hanover, that often includes murder.
These moments are a far cry from the methodical and terrifying warden who would later rule Oregon State Hospital. Yet these bouts of series-wide instability echo Nurse Ratched’s own unstable mind. The way Ratched presents it, Mildred’s own forced repression fuels every one of her unsavory actions. Her secret love of women causes her to be especially cruel to a homosexual patient, and use one of her motel neighbors as a sort of sex-driven therapist. Her fear of vulnerability teaches her to be distant and cold about her personal life as she coaxes the most intimate secrets out of everyone around her. And then there’s the character’s iconic and obsessive love of order. Every horrifying action can be traced back to Mildred’s own demons, but that doesn’t make her actions any more forgivable.
But where Ratched really shines is through its stylized love of gore. Like the Asylum season of AHS, but with a bigger budget, each scene stands as a gorgeous collection of horror. Nausea-producing acts such as lobotomies on live patients, boiling people alive through hydrotherapy, and graphic mutilation are chronicled in perfectly composed shots. It’s next to impossible to watch the series without an unsettling mix of repulsion and awe.
That was always one of the main takeaways of Asylum, another Ryan Murphy season that dwelt on the spiral of repression. As Bloody Face was slaughtering people in more elaborate ways and Paulson’s Lana Winters was struggling to stay alive, there was always a question of what if? What if Bloody Face had gotten the help that he needed to overcome his childhood abuse? What if Lana was able to live openly as a lesbian woman? What if Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude was given actual tools to combat her alcoholism instead of the black and white morality of the Catholic church? If the world was different and more accepting all of this energy and hurt could have been used to create something positive. Instead it was wasted on creating new and elaborate methods of pain.
Ultimately we know that’s the same disturbing path Mildred Ratched will take. This is a woman who will go on to drug patients and strip them of bare necessities at a whim, creating a hostile environment where the people she’s supposed to help see more benefit in attacking each other than questioning her. Nurse Ratched is and always will be a monster. But as fun as it is to watch her reign of terror, it’s equally important to note the societal and institutional failings that cemented this warped path for her.
All episodes of Ratched premiere on Netflix Friday, September 18 at 3/2c a.m.