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New Netflix series Ratched is escapism into very familiar territory. That territory is American Horror Story. Creator and director Ryan Murphy of course is the man behind the long running AHS franchise, and although that series has waned slightly in recent years, Ratched feels like an obscure recreation. All the elements are there, from intense drama to unexpected violence, and that twisting storytelling that Murphy has a gift for. It is addictive viewing for fans of the macabre, but others may feel let down by the expectations of the name Ratched.
This eight-part series, and indeed the character of Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson), are based on the character made famous in the book, play and later the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. So, Ratched acts as a prequel to the familiar, and tyrannical figure made memorable through the Academy Award-winning performance by Louise Fletcher.
However, as prequels go, it is far removed from the Cuckoo’s Nest nurse, and at times the viewer is left feeling confused as to the connection. This approach is really only Ratched in name, and not a tribute to Fletcher’s memorable asylum nurse. A lot of that is down to the emotive performance of Sarah Paulson, who pumps far too much humanity into the character. This Ratched is far more vulnerable than her steely, stark movie counterpart.
Across eight episodes, audiences watch the rise of Mildred Ratched, as she positions herself through deception and pure will. It begins as you might not expect, with the explicit massacre of four priests by the twisted Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock). After his capture we are introduced to Nurse Ratched, a driven, confident and controlling character. She becomes our focus as she travels to a serene Northern Californian location seeking employment in Lucia State Hospital, an asylum which now houses Tolleson. From here, there is a plethora of characters to engage with, alongside graphic lobotomies by the eccentric Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). Hanover, is a damaged drug addict with a heart, who uses methods that are barbaric but with the ultimate goal of trying to help and understand.
After several twists and turns, the story unfortunately falls into monotony. This is through extended backstories which attempt to bring more character depth into the narrative, and explain why these characters exist within this framework. Overall these meanderings into the past disrupt the flow of certain episodes. It also makes for pretty heavy going. The viewer also may find the eccentricity of characters overwhelming – they are all battling personal demons. From kooky motel owner Louise (Amanda Plummer), to apparent Ratched love interest Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon in her finest role to date), to the competitive Nurse Bucket (Judy Davis) – perhaps the most sincere nod to the original character – Murphy spends equal time on each.
The most curious inclusion is the character of Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) and her hired hitman Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll). At times the characters are there to galvanize a backstory, but they also give a broader insight into the theme that evil is not born, but created through conditioning. Through both we are shown the beginnings of Nurse Ratched as a field nurse during the war, alongside who the unhinged Doctor Hanover really is. There is also a cameo by Rosanna Arquette as Anna, a healthcare worker who gives credence to the connection between Ratched and the murderous Tolleson. The use of a puppet show to give insight into the horrific upbringing of both is pure AHS: a gothic surrealism that is Murphy’s calling card of graphic storytelling.
If there is one thing that makes Ratched clever and alluring, it is its stroke of nostalgia. Murphy here is paying homage to the bygone era of classic cinema, something that lifts this series up. The use of Hitchcock-esque split screens is used to build tension along with the Norman Bates-styled motel where Mildred stays. There is also nods to Stanley Kubrick’s claustrophobic horror The Shining in both the music and in the series’ long corridors which are doorways to the terrifying. Against all of that is the overpowering tones of emerald which illuminate and dominate Ratched, at times transforming her into a Wizard Of Oz witch. All of these homages combine to create magical moments within the series. This isn’t, however, entirely satisfactory.
Ultimately, this Nurse Ratched is not the character from the Ken Kesey novel or the movie that followed. This Ratched balances empathy and evil, and that makes her detached from the original character. A second season is already planned which may bring her back to the original. However, from this batch of episodes, that seems unlikely. That said, fans of Ryan Murphy will likely revel in this series. Indeed, it often feels like a crossover of a primal Nip/Tuck with American Horror Story. It is just that those looking for aspects of a character from a much loved 70’s movie will be disappointed.