Creator Ryan Murphy can be hit or miss, but I absolutely love many of his shows—Nip/Tuck, Feud: Bette and Joan, and American Horror Story, especially. He hits the mark again with Ratched, a Netflix series that explores the backstory of the infamous nurse who was first introduced in the 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She was then was cemented into the pop culture lexicon thanks to the 1975 film of the same name with Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the healthcare hellion. Forty-five years later, the incomparable Sarah Paulson takes on the mantle, and she kills it!
The wildly imaginative Ratched begins in 1947, as ex-Army nurse Mildred Ratched arrives in picturesque Northern California to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital. The place is ostensibly run by haughty Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), but it’s really Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) who calls the shots. Mildred is fascinated yet shocked by the latest fad experiments being conducted by the staff on its troubled patients—everything from lobotomies to scalding hydrotherapy.
The criminally insane patients are kept under lock and key in the basement prison—but only one in particular interests Mildred. He’s dubbed “The Clergy Killer,” named so after his ruthless slaughter spree targeting men of the cloth. His name is Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), and you’d better believe there’s a compelling reason for his significance to Mildred.
The cast is a dream come true, and each of them are so perfect in their roles—Sharon Stone, Cynthia Nixon, and Vincent D’Onofrio to name only a few—but since this show is like a striptease as it reveals its secrets little by little, I will not spoil the surprises by saying more here.
I have watched most of Murphy’s shows, and while this is definitely one of his most excellent, it is different in that there’s very little of his trademark black humor and no nods to his love of song and dance numbers. Instead, Ratched is a breathtaking, intricately-woven homage to film noir, the era of Technicolor, and especially the cinema and style of the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
- When Mildred blows into town, her first stop is a lonely motel set seaside.
- Eagle eyes will catch tips of the hat to Hitchcock’s Marnie (seeing red) and Vertigo (splashes of green, and spinning spirals).
- Sharp memories will put together Ratched writer Jennifer Salt’s appearance in the 1973 film Sisters, directed by Brian De Palma (known as the “cut-rate Hitchcock”)—which was scored by Vertigo composer Bernard Hermann. Both Sisters and Ratched use split-screens for effect.
- There’s a two-episode arc with winks to Badlands, the lauded 1973 true-crime tale based on the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The Badlands are in the Dakotas, where a portion of Vertigo was filmed.
There’s more, but you get the gist. Film buffs will be in blue heaven.
But what if you’re not a film buff? Not to worry; Ratched boasts a strong story with twists and turns galore. Plus, there’s a buffet of eye-candy featuring drop-dead gorgeous 1940s costumes, cool cars, and exquisite décor. There are several plot threads, but the series never feels at loose ends. We do get Mildred’s backstory as promised and find her to be a complex woman who may resort to evil at times, but she always has a plausible reason for her perceived misdeeds.
Ratched is a tour de force for Paulson. She never ceases to amaze me not only with the wide range of roles she so convincingly portrays, but she works so much, her schedule must constantly crash her calendar app. Mildred is a woman of many thoughts, deeds, and agendas, and Paulson portrays them all with stunning accuracy, embodying her with confidence from her crisp cap to her sensible shoes. While the legend of Nurse Ratched has become a caricature in pop culture, Paulson imbues her with genuine character.
Need I say more? Binge it!