Ratched: Netflix Series Review
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Jon Jon Briones, Cynthia Nixon, Judy Davis, Sharon Stone, Finn Wittrock, Alice Englert
Streaming globally on Netflix from 18th September 2020
“Like, imagine if Wes Anderson did American Horror Story, but gayer”. That was how i described Netflix’s Ratched when Heather asked my opinion. In case you couldn’t tell from that; On the whole, I’m into it.
While it may have an American Horror Story hangover, for better and for worse, it’s a gorgeous series, carried by its character.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Nurse Mildred Ratched is a name known throughout cinema and popular culture as the tyrannical, calculating head nurse of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Be it the book or film version, it is incredibly hard to like or sympathise with Mildred Ratched. Enter Evan Romansky, Ryan Murphy, and Sarah Paulson.
Set before the infamous events of Kesey/Forman fame, Ratched is essentially the villain origin story of Nurse Mildred Ratched. Don’t worry though, no prior knowledge is required. A 1940s image of the perfect woman, and therefore the ideal caregiver and nurse, Mildred heads to Lucia to begin work in a psychiatric hospital. Events, of course, take a turn; shadows become longer and more sinister, and what is done in the dark makes its way to the light. Infiltrating the system and playing everyone to her advantage we see how, to coin the hook from Netflix’s own description; “true monsters are made, not born”.
Ratched is an undeniable brainchild of Ryan Murphy (not least down to Sarah Paulson’s involvement). As a fan of American Horror Story in its heyday, it’s can sometimes be easy to forget that Ratched isn’t simply another instalment, here to atone for half of the latter seasons. Conveniently, they are now available on Netflix, too.
This is no bad thing, really. Ratched takes the best bits, the iconic bits, the bits that really worked in AHS and runs with them. The aesthetic, the atmosphere, the score, the cinematography – it hits all those much loved sweet spots. We get luxurious, maximalist colours contrasted with violence, blood, and the darker sides of human nature. It’s a veritable visual feast.
Doctor Doctor, Give me the News
Another element that can occasionally hark back to its Murphy-born sibling is something that I will always support; female pleasure. Throughout Ratched, we see that sex is not just here to satiate men; it’s about how women experience desire, what they want, how they want it, and how they get it. There were more examples of women receiving pleasure or commanding a sexual encounter in Ratched than their male counterparts. Even if a man has to be involved, the focus remains upon the woman participant or his butt.
Take Dolly, the young, pretty trainee nurse. While she hangs on the precipice of the “crazy sexy hot” pitfall, she commands her sexual encounters, takes what she wants, and knows what works for her. She even has a bit of backstory beyond Her Man, too, as a treat!
Thankfully, it is becoming more common for us to see WLW relationships in media that don’t cater exclusively to the omnipresent and insidious male gaze. Don’t get me wrong, we still have an unjust and long way to go, but we will take what we can get. Ratched offers us some respite. In fact, the only time we see breasts isn’t gratuitous or overly sexualised…in fact, it’s a cadaver. It’s a quiet but noted and deliberate choice for which I am particularly thankful.
Set in a time where homosexuality was seen as something to be “cured”, Ratched’s exploration of the handsy, uncomfortable grapple with sexuality (be it your own or that of another) is storyline that we have seen before, but is no less important to tell. Not every non-heterosexual relationship need be borne of suffering and hardship, although it’s all too often a reality. That’s a long-form piece for another time, though. At least here we get a couple of happy endings…kind of.
However, we digress. It’s clear that Murphy flipped through his Rolodex (do people still have those?) for some familiar faces in Sarah Paulson and Finn Wittrock (and that little Lily Rabe cameo – I saw you, girl. I may have fever-dreamed the Lady GaGa one though – let me know what you think…). However, we have some new additions whose reputations truly precede them.
Sharon Stone as Lenore Osgood, a mother hell-bent on revenge and absolution, is as calculating, terrifying, gorgeous, and opulent as you would expect from the critically-acclaimed sex symbol of the 90s. Her performance is decadent and vicious, draped all in velvet and silk, nuance and pain. Gorgeous.
Then, we have Cynthia Nixon as Gwendolyn Briggs, the Press Secretary for Governor Millburn (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is running for re-election. Her character is played beautifully, softly, and with love. It’s clear this role meant something to Nixon. Also, I gotta say that she doesn’t necessarily suffer at the hands of the Harry Potter Curse – y’know, where you play That One Iconic Character for so long that they are all anyone can ever see you as, despite your evident talent. Having said that, as it is blisteringly clear that I am a Miranda (always wanted to be a Carrie, of course, but c’mon it’s just so obvious I’m a Miranda), there was never a doubt that Gwendolyn Briggs would waltz right into my heart.
Judy Davis’ portrayal of Nurse Betsy Bucket is another feather in Ratched’s cap. Nurse Bucket can be seen as something of a flash-forward into Mildred’s future, and acts as an anchor to the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest universe. A battle-axe of a matriarch, Nurse Bucket rules over the hospital, wielding her power like an (often) deadly weapon.
Bucket’s relationship with the illustrious Dr Hanover (played to perfection by Jon Jon Briones), who founded the hospital and works to “better” the lives of his patients, in part echoes Gwendolyn’s relationship with Governor Millburn. We get a sharp, clear lens put over the still too pertinent problem of women who work tirelessly for powerful men, for nothing but abuse and a lack of any gratitude in return. The power balance begins as heavily tipped towards the Powerful Men, but those scales don’t stay that way for long, and it fuels me to see. One of my favourite quotes of the series addresses this. You’ll know it when you hear it.
It’s a Man’s World
Speaking of men, Jon Jon Briones and Finn Wittrock provide some stand-out moments. Romansky uses them perfectly as he tests his mettle in one of my favourite writing tropes; somehow managing to elicit pangs of empathy for people who are, on the whole, terrible. I love that.
While full of twists and turns and all the aforementioned good stuff, there are still some pitfalls that can’t be ignored…
I didn’t become truly invested in Ratched until about four or five episodes deep. The score, the cast, and the wildly satisfying aesthetic kept my engine ticking over, but it didn’t put my pedal to the metal until nearly half-way through. Good job I like a slow-burn.
Representation in Ratched
One of my first observations needs a section all its own. Just like its sibling AHS, there is a reliance in Ratched on presenting and using physical or anatomical abnormality for “shock” value. That’s not okay. As Huck, the handsome and kind porter, turns around to reveal his severe burns for the first time, all the camera work, soundtrack, and lighting imply that we need be shocked, taken aback, even scared or unnerved. His features are the primary focus of his character and serve to “other” him through their continued and pointed inclusion.
While we love Huck very quickly (it’s impossible not to), it is hard to look past the fact that much of his character is based around his injuries first, and the fact he is a war veteran second. It need not matter how “nobly” he got these injuries, and it need not be addressed constantly in a negative way. Disability or a physical anomaly is not the worst thing that can happen to someone. It’s 2020, do better. There is another example of this, but we aren’t about to spoil anything big. Again, you’ll know it when you see it.
We also see issues of drug abuse and race touched upon (feather-lightly brushed over, in fact) with a truly amazing performance from Sophie Okonedo. However, one could argue that Ratched at times tries to do exactly what I’m doing here; cover too much all at once, to the detriment of something along the way.
The Ratched Universe
Ratched is a lavishly, carefully created show. It wisely takes the parts that work from its relatives, but it picked up a few of their bad habits, too. Even so, it tries hard to assert itself as its own beast, even within the confines of an existing character. Could this have been done without Mildred Ratched? Probably (Season Two of AHS, anyone?Watch it, but persist. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and watching it in one go can be kinda emotionally exhausting. It is beautiful looking (cast members aside), and I reckon that overall, it has the substance to back up its undeniable style.
Ratched is available to stream globally on Netflix from September 18th 2020.
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