Netflix began airing a new thriller series, “Ratched,” this September. The series creates a dramatic backstory for Nurse Ratched of the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) which features Jack Nicholson, and is based on the 1962 novel of the same name. “Ratched” is set just after World War II in 1947, about 15 years before “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Nurse Mildred Ratched’s (Sarah Paulson) narrative is that she was a war nurse on the front lines, with bonafide expertise in managing patient care. She strategically seeks employment by forcing the state’s mental hospital to hire her and in doing so, she ends up displacing the head nurse. Workplace power struggles between Head Nurse Bucket and Nurse Ratched are evidenced in patient treatment, as their tensions are misdirected into abuses and furthered by petty acts of revenge.
Much like how the sharp corners of the crisp nurse’s caps create uncomfortable and unnecessary points in characters’ physical profiles, the thriller pointedly suggests that there is something cold and dangerous in most of the female characters in the story: abusive adoptive mothers, false friends, heartless nurses and vindictive supervisors –– women are vilified in every iteration. The unjust portrayals of the female psyche fall short of being insightful or interesting, but are an unsurprising parallel to the one-dimensional view society has historically afforded women.
Even so, Nurse Ratched has the classic traits of a common hero: She has grit, focus, resilience, courage and talents that help her overcome perceived and real barriers to her success. In true hero fashion, her ego leads to mistakes, but it is unclear if they will be her undoing. She is obsessed with her mission of sparing her murderous brother Edmund’s life, and is desperate to prove her worth along the way. She is a hero we love to hate, however. She fails to deal with her own trauma, which clumsily ruptures in her sexual misadventures with men, romantic experiments with love interest Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) and eventually in her steely attack on a murder witness against her brother.
Even when rising action in the story slows, viewers’ attention is arrested by stunning visuals –– use of color, space and texture –– a satisfying sensory experience that propels the story along. The use of institutional surgical green uniforms and gray-green hospital interiors gives viewers the feeling that something systemic is inherently sickly. Vibrant greens show up in the clothes of characters, signaling envy, greed and evil. Rich red lipstick, jarring red blood and luxe red wallpaper are reminders of guilt, rage and power that create the perfect element of visual tension.
Generally, backstories are supposed to both create context and provide the missing narrative for the development of a character. Although the series explores many potential explanations for Nurse Ratched’s cruelty in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” including childhood sexual exploitation, violence, being orphaned, being manipulated, being underestimated and marginalized and being sexually disenfranchised, there is no definitive moment that vindicates her. Perhaps more insight will be forthcoming, as there is expected to be a second season to continue the character arc.
The series is average in terms of suspenseful story telling, but worth watching. Nurse Ratched’s skill of imposing order on disorder, be it of the mind or in society, gives the audience a certain added break from the chaotic landscape of COVID-19 –– and overall the series provides an artful relief from 2020 realities.