The novelist Ken Kesey based the character of Nurse Ratched, the villain of his 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” on a real person—a nurse whom he once met while working the night shift in a psychiatric facility in Oregon. But, as Kesey later admitted, he greatly exaggerated the woman’s cruelty in his story for theatrical effect, twisting her into a symbol of autocratic control and blithe barbarism, who takes quiet pleasure in torturing her patients through a combination of medicinal control and psychological manipulation. When the director Milos Forman was casting his 1975 film adaptation of the book, he initially struggled to find an actress to take on Ratched—Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, and Ellen Burstyn turned the role down, considering the character to be too maniacal and unfeeling. The role ultimately went to Louise Fletcher, a lesser-known actress whose most prominent work was in television Westerns a decade before. Fletcher, for her part, said she found the role of Ratched (which earned her an Oscar for Best Actress) to be terribly opaque and difficult to play. “I envied the other actors tremendously. They were so free, and I had to be so controlled,” she told the Times in a 1975 interview. “The still photographer kept taking pictures of all the crazies and putting them up in the hospital dining room. I asked why he didn’t take pictures of me and he said, ‘You’re so boring, always in that white uniform.’ ”
In retrospect, both Kesey and Forman’s characterizations of Nurse Ratched—as the frigid embodiment of an institutional femininity that serves to both neuter and negate men’s wily impulses—were shaped by the snickering machismo of their times. Ratched, whom Kesey described in one interview as a “big castrator of a nurse,” is seen as the mean mommy to Jack Nicholson’s merry prankster Randle McMurphy, the block of ice standing between him and a good time. But did a caricature as crude as Mildred Ratched need to be reclaimed? And to what purpose? These are the questions I found myself asking as I sat through eight hour-long episodes of “Ratched,” a new Netflix drama created by Evan Romansky and produced by Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy as part of Murphy’s gargantuan Netflix development deal. “Ratched,” starring Murphy’s frequent collaborator Sarah Paulson in the titular role, is an origin story, the making of a villainess. The series, which Netflix ordered for two seasons upfront, intends to follow Mildred over the course of two decades, beginning in the nineteen-forties (the first season only gets so far as a few months; according to Paulson, Randle McMurphy might not surface until Season 4). The rise-of-the-antihero genre is an old trope, going back to special editions of comic books that would explain Lex Luthor’s bloodlust or the childhood neglect at the heart of the Joker’s nihilism. But only recently has the genre expanded to include reviled female characters; Disney’s “Maleficent” franchise, for example, or the upcoming “Cruella de Vil” film, starring Emma Stone. The idea behind these projects tends to follow a formula: this woman wasn’t always a monster, a harpy, a shrew. She, too, was young and beautiful once. There was not always a worm inside the apple.
“Ratched” is not subtle about what caused the rot at the core of its protagonist. In fact, it hits you over the head with the inciting incident: first in multiple flashbacks, then in the form of a marionette show, and then, finally, in a maudlin monologue in which Paulson divulges her deepest trauma, lest the viewer remain confused. What you learn, through these several retellings, is that Ratched was an orphan who bounced around the foster system, alongside another boy whom she considered to be her brother, until the pair landed in a particularly twisted family. What she confesses about her childhood, without giving too much away, is classic Murphy, a grisly story of sexual abuse and violence that could have been pulled directly from the shock-and-saw playbook of his macabre “American Horror Story” anthology franchise. “Horror Story” consistently tried to push the boundaries of what a show could present on cable television. At its best, as in “American Horror Story: Asylum,” a season that closely resembles “Ratched” ’s subject matter and in which Paulson played a plucky journalist, the formula was an intriguing carnival sideshow of gross and garish delights, depending on your tolerance for masturbation and mutilation. At its worst, it was an aggressive bombardment of off-putting funk, too slick and self-satisfied in its quest to titillate and nauseate as many people as possible.
“Ratched” is not just an extension of the “A.H.S.” ethos but a bubbling cauldron of all of Murphy’s well-established obsessions. It has the snappy, acid-tinged dialogue of his misanthropic comedies like “Glee” and “The Politician,” with every character classically trained in the art of the wicked one-liner. It features the body horror and operating-room theatrics of his plastic surgery drama “Nip/Tuck.” (In an early scene of “Ratched,” viewers are treated to seeing a frontal lobotomy, performed with an ice pick through an eye socket.) And it is a splashy, mid-century period piece, much like Murphy’s shows “Feud” and “Hollywood,” that waggles its opulent set dressings and generous costuming budget in the viewer’s face like a fan dancer working overtime. When the show begins (after a brief, bloody cold-open murder spree that I will not spoil) we meet a pristinely dressed Mildred Ratched as she drives along the central California coast in a shiny blue coupe. A wide panoramic shot pulls back to reveal the grandeur of the ocean, waves crashing against the rocks. Paulson’s costumes, as an extension of this visual feast, are sumptuous and cinched; she seems to have an endless supply of fashionable jewel-toned wool garments with prim little fascinator hats to match.
Romansky and Murphy seem to have pulled much of the show’s soundtrack directly from Bernard Herrmann’s orchestral pieces for “Vertigo.” We know immediately, however, that Mildred Ratched is not the type of restrained, opaque woman who populated Hitchcock’s work. Her first lines are directed at a gas-station attendant, telling him he reeks and needs to bathe. She checks into a roadside motel alone—another self-conscious Hitchcock reference, this time to “Psycho”—and then continues on to her destination, a gleaming psychiatric facility run by Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), a lobotomy enthusiast who is addicted to self-administered anesthesia, and his sidekick Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), the long-suffering head nurse with a hangdog appearance and an air of superiority. Nurse Ratched asks Dr. Hanover for employment, and, when denied, devises a devious plot to finagle her way into a job. By the end of the pilot, having secured her position, she descends to the basement to visit the hospital’s newest inmate, a psychopath named Edmund Tolleson, who brutally murdered four priests. We learn that this is the “brother” whom Nurse Ratched grew up with, and that she has hatched a plan to help him break free.
It takes all eight episodes for Ratched’s sibling heist to come to fruition, but by that time the plot has become so convoluted that it barely matters. There are story lines involving dunking patients in boiling water as a form of gay conversion therapy, patients committing suicide, a woman with flamboyant multiple personalities, hotel-room surgeries with blunt instruments, acts of sexual deviancy between a convicted murderer and a libidinous nurse-in-training. A smooth hitman (Corey Stoll) who has come to town to hunt down and kill Dr. Hanover occupies a motel room near Mildred’s and they begin a sordid affair complete with naughty, Tennessee Williams-esque roleplay. California’s governor (Vincent D’Onofrio, looking like a late-career Orson Welles) takes a special interest in Dr. Hanover’s facility as part of his new campaign, and his personal secretary (Cynthia Nixon) takes a special interest in Nurse Ratched. The two slurp down oysters and visit hidden “lady bars” in the woods. This clandestine sapphic affair, the most touching part of “Ratched,” seems to want to channel the suppressed yearning that Todd Haynes brought to the portrayal of mid-century queer romance in “Carol,” but it lacks the subtextual elegance that made Haynes’s film crackle.