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I Still Don’t Know What ‘Ratched’ Has to Do With ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Netflix’s origin story for Nurse Ratched could shed light on a character long demonized as a monster. Instead, we get a silly, campy, pointless thriller.

When Netflix announced it would be producing Ratched, a drama series that imagines the origin story behind Nurse Mildred Ratched, the villain of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I predicted to my editor what the show’s angle would be. “Ratched is often thought of as this ballbusting antagonist who won’t let Jack Nicholson’s cool antihero have any fun,” I told him. “And because of that, there’s this real misogynistic loathing of that character that’s very gendered. So I bet Ratched tries to humanize her, explaining how she had to work her way through a sexist medical system to prove her worth. She learned that to get ahead she had to drop her femininity and be more masculine, especially when working at a mental institution. I’m guessing she used to be this incredibly sensitive, emotional person, but society beat that out of her.”

Bear in mind, I wouldn’t have minded if Ratched had gone that direction. In general, origin-story narratives are pretty silly, filling in imaginary blanks in an iconic character’s past. (Turns out, straight-arrow Perry Mason used to be… a tormented drunk!) But a good one, like Better Call Saul, profoundly changes our understanding of someone we thought we knew. Done well, an origin story reminds us that the people we meet didn’t just emerge that way — they were shaped by a plethora of experiences, some wonderful and some horrible, that we’re not always aware of. People are often more complicated than we realize.

Unfortunately, Ratched doesn’t play out as I predicted, not that I’m sore that I guessed wrong. No, the disappointment stems from what producer Ryan Murphy and creator Evan Romansky opted to do instead. It’s stupid to get huffy when a sequel, adaptation, remake or origin story doesn’t completely follow the tone of its antecedent. (Look, folks, it’s fine if the Batmobile has guns on it now.) But moving so far afield from the spirit of the Oscar-winning film that inspired it, Ratched doesn’t seem all that interested in really tackling Nurse Ratched’s story. It just wants to do a garish, kinky, campy horror-thriller that has built-in clout simply by latching onto Cuckoo’s Nest’s legacy.

The movie, based on the Ken Kesey novel, came out in 1975 but was set in the early 1960s at a mental facility in Oregon where new resident McMurphy (Nicholson) immediately locks horns with Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs the institution like a den mother mixed with a warden. McMurphy hates her, and we’re meant to as well: She represents conformity and “the man,” whereas Nicholson is the spirit of individualism and defiance. Fletcher won Best Actress for the part, and the character, who comes across as unsympathetically shrewish and uptight, quickly became a cultural symbol of matronly evil. 

But how did she get that way? 

After eight episodes of Season One, Ratched doesn’t leave me any more certain about that answer. In fact, I think I’m even further away from knowing, and not in a good way. Maybe if I stick around for Season Two, which has already been given the go-ahead from Netflix, I’ll finally find out. Or maybe I can live the rest of my life never giving the matter another thought.

We’re in a coastal town in Northern California in the late 1940s, and several gruesome murders have just taken place: A psychopath named Edmund (Finn Wittrock) has killed a handful of Catholic priests, apparently as revenge on one of them who may have been his father after raping a nun. Edmund is shipped to Lucia State Hospital, which is doing some newfangled psychological studies of the mentally ill that’s led by Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), who believes the insane can be cured, even if it involves lobotomies. 

Into this world walks Mildred (Sarah Paulson), who talks her way into a job as a nurse, her pushiness instantly irking Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), Lucia’s head nurse, who likes to hold her position over everyone and doesn’t take too kindly to this new employee’s impudence. Mildred couldn’t care less: Her expressions brittle and her mind constantly in motion, she’s always five chess moves ahead of everyone else, and she’s working for Lucia for very specific reasons that may or may not have to do with Edmund’s arrival.

Mildred (Sarah Paulson), and Edmund (Finn Wittrock)

Stuffed with twists and gore, Ratched flaunts its influences, practically elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you know it’s cribbing from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann scores, The Shining and Murphy’s own florid style. The costumes are gorgeous, the period detail is exacting and everything is tawdry, sexy, juicy, melodramatic and a bit goofy. Once it becomes clear that Mildred plans to break Edmund out, the only questions are why she wants to do that and exactly how she’ll pull it off — and if any of the array of colorful adversaries in her path can stop her. 

On a superficial level, Ratched can be fun trash. Playing the shamelessly pandering California governor who wants Edmund to get the chair to prove he’s tough on crime, Vincent D’Onofrio essentially plays mid-career Orson Welles, all ham all the time, while Sharon Stone is an unscrupulous, quirky heiress plotting Hanover’s death and waltzing around with a monkey on her back. (I don’t mean she has an addiction: She has an actual monkey around her 24/7.) And Paulson plays up her character’s mysterious mischievousness, depicting Mildred as a mask who keeps her true feelings to herself as she outsmarts and manipulates all those around her. Does she really have feelings for the governor’s closeted aide Gwnedolyn (Cynthia Nixon), who sees in Mildred an escape from a loveless sham marriage? We’re never entirely sure, and so we have to keep watching.

Or perhaps you don’t. As opulent and sordid as everything is, Ratched feels like a lot of plot busyness and vague stabs at topicality in search of a good reason to exist. It doesn’t help matters that, this week, Romansky told Vulture that he came up with the idea when he was in his 20s and trying to market himself as a writer. “When you’re in grad school, you’re not thinking of writing something that you’re necessarily gonna sell; you’re thinking of writing something that’s hopefully going to get you representation,” he said. “I was really just trying to think of some sort of IP that I could reimagine as my own and would have a title that people would recognize and actually want to read.”

Aspiring writers have to get attention, so I don’t begrudge the guy for hitting on a clever conceit, no matter how depressing it is that IP gimmicks are now the path to a successful career. But Ratched’s larger thematic interests — the terrible treatment of the mentally ill, the sexism of postwar America, the cruelty of the foster-care system, the demonization of homosexuality — are mostly just grist for a pulpy tale of lusty hormones and idiosyncratic oddballs. And as much as Paulson gives the proceedings a bit of kick — her character’s relentless resourcefulness keeping her a step ahead of hitmen (Corey Stoll), nosy motel owners (Amanda Plummer) and Stone’s twisted heiress — what Ratched never does is make you think about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or the Mildred Ratched from the movie. 

On a fundamental level, an origin story ought to illuminate something underappreciated about the main character or remind us why we cared about her in the first place. It’s a work of empathy or insight that reveals more aspects of a person than a two-hour movie could. But the Ratched we meet in Ratched mostly feels like a Patricia Highsmith protagonist, a clichéd variation on the intrepid, tormented schemer who’s haunted by a terrible childhood. She’s a familiar construct, not a fleshed-out person.

When I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest recently, I actually wondered how its depiction of Nurse Ratched would be received if it came out today — there’s such a lack of compassion for the character that you might be tempted to think that the film is treating her unfairly, no matter the terrible things she does to McMurphy. There’s actually a need for a more open-minded interpretation of the character, one that considers her feelings as much as it does that of her patients. Ideally, that fresh take could have been Ratched, but it’s unfair to her in a completely different way than the movie was. The film reduced Mildred to a ballbuster. The show just sees her as an excuse for some cheap binge-y thrills. 

It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.