‘Ratched’ is the latest cultural product to make a hero out of a villain
Mildred Ratched, head of the men’s ward that imprisons McMurphy, protagonist of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is the most iconic evil nurse in film (and literary) history. Ratched, viewers and readers recall, is the healthcare equivalent of Pol Pot, a smug, overbearing control-freak single-mindedly committed to the slow demolition of what little self-esteem remains in the broken patients under her care. McMurphy’s and Ratched’s epic battle resounds with mythic absurdity: a clown and a tyrant vying for ultimate control over a very small pond. McMurphy is no ordinary psych patient. But how did Nurse Ratched become the virtuoso sadist that presides over his ultimate destruction? Netflix seeks to answer this question with its new original series Ratched.
Taking a second look at–and justifying the actions of–the villains of yore is a going concern. It’s well suited to an era wherein people are reconsidering everything from sex to statues, usually rejecting the status quo. Call it The Transgressive Take: a perspective custom-built to deconstruct anything, even the very idea of villainy itself. Any villain, the argument goes, is just a misunderstood hero, forced by circumstance to commit acts of evil. This same line of reasoning that works so well in law courts and second-act political careers also works in movies and TV. The latest season of Castle Rock gives us the origin story of Annie Wilkes, the psycho ankle-breaker of Misery. Maleficent is her own franchise. The musical Wicked recasts the Wicked Witch of the West as a showstopper-belting heroine. And now we have Ratched.
From the moment she shoplifts an expensive ensemble and bulls her way into a meeting with the director of the brand-new Lucia State Hospital on the strength of a forged letter, Mildred Ratched demonstrates a Machiavellian ruthlessness. She has all the requisite qualities of a perfect nurse, but a soul permanently warped by the horrors of World War II service. We later find out her parents abandoned her as a child. Childhood abandonment, PTSD and an unstable, transient life with a history of violence combine to form the classic foundation of the psychopathic personality. And where it comes to showcasing that, Mildred Ratched rarely disappoints.
Ratched series creator Ryan Murphy has beautifully designed the setting for this compelling character. Lucia State Hospital provides a gorgeous, 1940s retro-Deco space well suited to colorful set-piece and lingering tracking shots reminiscent of The Shining. The show uses this surreality to good effect in highlighting the varied mental states of Ratched and other characters like her superiors, Dr. Hanover and Nurse Bucket. And the plot, framed within the narrative architecture of Cuckoo’s Nest, lends the entire experience the queer warmth of a visiting a nostalgic haunt only to learn that forces have well-maintained and lovingly refurbished it on purpose. At once foreign and familiar, the whole series quivers with the loony, understated energy of a Twin Peaks/Carnivale cross-over episode.
As suggested by the “tangled thread” motif of the opening credits, Ratched’s interpersonal machinations are part of a grander design–one of sufficient urgency to almost excuse her conspiracies. Over the eight-episode season one arc, we learn the details of Mildred’s past, of her family life and service during the war. Her life is a fragmented reflection of the Andrews’ Sisters generation: those who mine dysfunction in the traditional nuclear family of those years will be quickly humbled.
Our anti-heroine’s damaged sexuality sizzles throughout like background radiation. She exhibits a stew of control issues, man-hate and vigorously repressed lesbianism. And although a mind-blowing orgasm would do her (as all of us) a world of good, Mildred is too uptight to ever let go. So she clings to her self-control and wields it like a club, using it to sexually humiliate a man and fellow hotel guest and then brusquely rebuffs Cynthia Nixon’s lesbian overtures outside a dyke bar that mysteriously materializes among the Redwoods of 1950s Northern California. But never fear: reality, like emotion (and emotional reality) are as transient here as in Ratched’s fractured past. She’s a mess who lived through a war and, having survived that mess, emerges to “take charge” of the post-war mess she encounters by exercising unconditional control over every chess piece on the gameboard.
Watched is also a fractured mirror of another period piece about female identity. Inhabiting the same era as Mona Lisa Smile, the women of Ratched grapple with the same brittle complexities of expectations, style and status. But where the former resolves these tensions within conventional relationships contained on the polite world of the college campus, the latter is an X-ray of its subterranean equivalent. The women of Ratched grapple with madness, venality and high crime. If there is a resolution of tensions, it comes with rebellion, revenge and murder.
Like the coeds in the Julia Roberts picture, Ratched just wants to be loved. Her journey there just leaves a higher body count.