sarah paulson

Ratched Delivers The Very Best and Worst of Ryan Murphy

The Netflix series fires on all campy horror cylinders but struggles to cohere.

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A Ryan Murphy show is like a croquembouche: a towering showpiece of style and confection that dazzles the senses. But once we start picking off the pastry puffs, we’re left with something that isn’t quite a cake. It’s a collection of tasty little nuggets that fail to cohere into a singular satisfying experience. It’s an entertaining spectacle, but at the end of the day is just a mess of glued-together balls likely to give you a sugar hangover.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Who doesn’t love a lavish, escapist spectacle with enough sex, violence, and withering looks to fuel an army of GIFs?

Which brings us to Ratched, the third Murphy Netflix original following the underwhelming Hollywood and The Politician. Ratched tells the origin story of Mildred Ratched, the head nurse of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on Ken Kesey’s novel. Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, became a symbol of institutional power and sadistic cruelty. Ratched the series aims to tell the tragic origin story of one of cinema’s most iconic villains.

So let’s start with the good: Ratched is a stunning watch. From the lavish costumes to the production design to the music, the series is a rich Technicolor treat for the senses. Sarah Paulson, in the titular role, delivers a tour de force performance in the title role. Paulson, who seems genetically engineered for period pieces, easily balances Mildred’s manipulations with a deep reservoir vulnerability and trauma. The queen of Ryan Murphy’s repertory players does the most with her lead role, pivoting seamlessly from sympathy to malice in a single scene.

And she’s joined by a stellar cast of supporting actors. When Mildred Ratched arrives at the luxurious art deco palace that is the Lucia psychiatric hospital, she meets Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), the institution’s sole doctor who is spread too thin. Between pioneering the lobotomy and trying to secure funding from the boorish Governor Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio), Hanover is frazzled and distracted. It’s the perfect opportunity for Mildred to manipulate her way into a nursing job, much to the chagrin of bitter and suspicious head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis).

Once employed, Mildred witnesses firsthand the horrors of trepanning, hydrotherapy, and the brutality of psychiatric treatments meant to “cure” homosexuality and other perceived illnesses. It’s familiar territory for Murphy and Paulson, who delved into conversion therapy and mental hospital abuses in American Horror Story: Asylum. But while AHS was straight horror, Ratched melds its horror with soapy melodrama, psychosexual angst, and film noir affectations.

The resulting effort plays like Hitchcock meets Dario Argento with a splash of Douglas Sirk. Mildred holes up in a cliffside motel, where she encounters hard-boiled private investigator Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll). She also strikes up a tentative friendship with Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) the governor’s press secretary who finds herself inexplicably drawn to Mildred.

If those aren’t enough tropes, then there’s mysterious wealthy widow Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) with her pet monkey, seeking violent revenge. These characters become entangled with the arrival of notorious serial killer Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) who is being evaluated at the hospital.

But like most Ryan Murphy shows, the characters are forced to contort themselves to fit the plot machinations. This gives the series a frustrating inconsistency, as the characters frequently betray their own drives and motivations to service the scattered story and its myriad subplots. And oh, how the plot scatters. Unruly patients, macabre childhood trauma, drug use, amputations, and severed heads in hatboxes abound. But Mildred Ratched remains inscrutable, her motivations opaque.

There is so much to enjoy in these 8 episodes, but it’s at the expense of real character development and a coherent plot. The series ping-pongs between moments of gore and salaciousness that don’t add up to very much besides absurdity. With terrific performances, rich production design, and the signature WTF horror camp that Murphy does so well, Ratched almost matches its own ambitions, but falls just short of the mark.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Author
Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.