***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
1975 saw the release of director Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The movie went several Oscars, including Best Picture (beating “JAWS”–blasphemy!) and a well-deserved Best Actress award for Louise Fletcher for her iconic performance as the cold, dominating Nurse Mildred Ratched. Her bland, rounded face and cool eyed-stare was the epitome of emotional indifference as she oversaw the ‘care’ of mostly voluntary patients of an Oregon mental hospital. Ratched sought to keep her patients in an eternal state of sedation … where they posed no challenge to her velvet-gloved iron-fisted rule. Her status is challenged when convicted statutory rapist Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred to her care from prison to get, what he assumes, will be a more lenient sentence. In short, McMurphy is wrong. In their ever-escalating power struggle, Ratched ultimately wins.
Director Milos Forman (“Amadeus”), a Czech immigrant, often spoke of how uncannily the book/play/film spoke to his personal experiences of living under Communist rule in the former Eastern Bloc. The name of the “Nurse Ratched” character became synonymous with oppressive medical ‘care’. The film was gritty and real, perfectly capturing the cold, clinical environment of hospitals of the period (the 1960s and 1970s). When I first heard Netflix was producing a prequel series focusing on the earlier life of Nurse Ratched, my ears perked up. What I hadn’t factored in was that the series was being developed by scream TV producer Ryan Murphy (no relation to Randle McMurphy) of “American Horror Story” fame. As I got into the series, it was clear that this would be only another chapter of American Horror Story, and would have very little to do with the actual Nurse Ratched character or of Ken Kesey’s novel.
The opening of “Ratched” begins rather gruesomely, as traumatized drifter Edmond Tulleson (Finn Rittrock) lies his way into a clergy house, where he proceeds to kill nearly every priest in residence, leaving only one survivor. That lone survivor is able to ID Tulleson, leading to his rapid arrest, capture and death sentence. That sentence is temporarily commuted when Tulleson is remanded to the custody of a luxurious, ‘state of the art’ Northern California mental hospital, which is run by neurotic, put-upon, drug-addicted Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones).
We then see seemingly aloof Nurse Ratched drive into the postcard-perfect town, seeking employment at the local mental hospital. Mildred Ratched checks into a sleazy seaside motel, overseen by crazy, drunken manager Louise (Amanda Plummer, chewing all the scenery). Using her military service as an army nurse to bluff her way into an interview with Dr. Hanover, Mildred soon ingratiates her way into the absent-minded Dr. Hanover’s confidences, much to the ire of the other nurses, particularly the openly resentful head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis).
Note: The period flavor of “Ratched” seems more derived from stylized period movies of the 1940s than anything close to the grittier realism of the 1975 source film (or 1962 novel). The series is also drenched in a thick, surreal color palette that is visual dazzling, if overdone.
Ratched is hired on a probationary basis that quickly turns permanent, when (fictional) California Governor George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio) hopes to make the humane treatment of mental illness a campaign agenda by throwing financial support to Dr. Hanover’s ‘modern’ treatments, which includes live-boiling of patients in sealed hot tubs, and other hideously barbaric aversion therapies.
Note: Once inside the hospital, it’s clear the use of the Ratched character is merely an excuse to rebrand a new chapter of “American Horror Story” set in a 1940s mental institution. The clean, serene lobbies and offices of the hospital are more like something out of “The Shining”… a luxurious piece of real estate masking unspeakable evils within. This stylized-horror sheen is not in keeping with the grittier, more politically charged “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Imagine if Bates Motel had gold-plated toilets…
Wilburn is joined on his fact-finding tour by aide Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) who shares an instant connection and attraction with Mildred, who deeply suppresses her own latent lesbianism. A violent incident that turns deadly at the hospital during the gubernatorial tour is cleanly and efficiently ‘taken care of’ by Mildred, which places the frazzled Hanover into her cool-headed debt. The governor’s entourage is never made aware, and a funding commitment is made to the hospital and Hanover’s research.
The goal of Mildred’s multiple deceits in eventually securing the head nurse position, which she steals from a resentful nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), arrives in the form of mass murderer Tulleson, who is transferred to the facility from the state penitentiary in the hopes that he can be ’cured’ instead of punished (that’s the stated purpose, anyway). We later learn that the lethal drifter is, in fact, the foster brother of fellow orphan Ratched, and is the closest thing she has to a biological sibling. It’s her hope that by conning her way into increasing positions of responsibility at the hospital, she can somehow see her brother ‘cured’ and released (or, at the very least, facilitate his escape, if freedom isn’t an option). The only other option facing Tulleson is the death penalty.
Mildred settles quickly into the hospital, becoming both fascinated and repulsed by the myriad of extreme treatments she witnesses at the hospital (including graphic lobotomies and live-boilings). Soon, the storylines of “Ratched” quickly turn into overcooked melodrama as Mildred’s cautious relationship with Gwendolyn slowly escalates, caged animal Edmund engages in a dangerous, sister-sanctioned fling with Nurse Dolly (Alice Englert), and the increasingly paranoid Dr. Hanover realizes someone really is out to kill him…
Note: I found the budding romance between the tightly wrapped Mildred and the more liberated Gwendolyn to one of the more successful elements of the series, primarily for the performances as well as how easily that storyline could’ve dovetailed with the ‘real’ story of the Mildred Ratched we see in the 1975 film. Mildred’s sexuality in the 1975 film is a complete enigma. It’s very possible that Mildred, who slowly learns to love openly in this series, suffers a major setback which causes her to revert to the sexually stifled woman we see in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The attempt on Hanover’s life comes via the camp form of Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone, in full Barbara Stanwyck-mode), who hires hitmen to extract revenge on the not-so good doctor, who fled the Philippines under the birth name of Dr. Manuel Banaga. Years before, Banaga treated Osgood’s son, Henry (Brandon Flynn), a cruel young man with an affinity for randomly piercing people (mainly staff at his wealthy mother’s opulent estate). Treating the young man with tiny quantities of LSD, the tables are quickly turned when the mischievous Henry spikes Banaga’s drink with the an overdose of the drug, sending the doctor into a hallucinogenic frenzy. The crazed Banaga winds up cutting off the young man’s arms after the young man’s murder of a servant. In his frenzied state of mind, Banaga tries to re-attach the murdered servant’s arms to the freshly mutilated Henry, which leads to massive rejection and infection, costing the young man his legs as well. For this, Lenore seeks the doctor’s head … literally.
Note: The beheading/revenge element of the story feels like something from a third-rate Hannibal Lector knockoff than an addition to the canon of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The introduction of the supervillain-silly Osgood family destroys the last vestiges of realism within this series.
Things go from complex to full-tilt chaos with the arrival of multiple personality patient Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo, giving the best performance of this formidable ensemble cast). Wells’ spectrum of personae include a childlike trauma survivor, a fervently anti-Nazi Jesse Owens, and even a pompous opera singer. She quickly attaches herself to Dr. Hanover, who genuinely believes he can help the fractured, traumatized woman become whole again. Things also get even more complicated as new head nurse Mildred begins to work on both Dr. Hanover and former rival Betsy, with each made to believe that the other has feelings for them. What poor Besty doesn’t realize is that Hanover is being blackmailed by Mildred (who knows where the bodies were burned) to accept Betsy’s overtures of affection.
Note: The comic subplot of Betsy and Hanover being manipulated into courtship is simply too broad to be taken seriously, and feels like a Masterpiece Theatre production of “Three’s Company.”
Things get surreal very quickly as Mildred arranges a morale-boosting, patient/staff ‘Spring Fling’ mixer which has “bad idea” in bright red neon signage written all over it. Mildred’s plan is carefully orchestrated to manipulate Betsy’s feelings for Hanover, Nurse Dolly’s feelings for Edmond, Hanover’s own blackmailed debt to Mildred, etc. The hope is for heavily guarded mass murderer Edmond to be present at the dance, where he would later use a planted razor blade (hidden in the decor) to escape. Well, of course, everything goes to hell, as Edmond and an unexpectedly rebellious Nurse Dolly do a Bonnie and Clyde on everyone, slitting a kindly guard’s throat, re-traumatizing a recovering Charlotte (the murdered guard was dancing with her at the time) and sending all of Mildred’s plans straight into the crapper. Edmond and Dolly go on the run, where he will now certainly face the death penalty for certain if recaptured.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
Further complicating things is the subplot about Lenore wanting the head of Dr. Hanover, and the failure of her hired hitman to do so. Eventually Mildred takes up the renegotiated $100,000 contract, but it’s a traumatized Charlotte who winds up doing the deed (with Mildred taking credit, of course). Meanwhile, Gwendolyn and Mildred take their relationship to another level, but with predictably disastrous results (a seemingly playful date to a children’s puppet show turns positively brutal). Things go from bad to worse, as the recaptured Edmond is on the loose yet again, seeking revenge on Mildred, who sought to humanely euthanize her brother rather than see him face the electric chair. Lenore is then killed by her own butler on her son Henry’s instructions, but leaving nothing to Henry in her will (getting the last campy laugh). Mildred, however, gets her money for delivering the good doctor’s head to the late Lenore, and she flees with a cancer-stricken Gwendoline to Mexico. A temporary happy ending … until Season Two, no doubt.
Eight episodes of “Ratched” see this series devolve from creepy, period crime-drama to broad, camp, Technicolor farce. At this point, cameos by a young Hannibal Lector or even Freddy Kruger wouldn’t feel entirely out of place in the over-the-top shenanigans. Does it play well enough on its own? Sure, I suppose it’s entertaining enough, but as a character-study prequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Netflix’s “Ratched” is an abject failure. There is simply no relation, beyond lip service, to the 1975 film (or Kesey’s book) at all. What we get instead is a gruesome, black comedy homage of heavily stylized 1940s period melodramas, with a generous helping of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” tossed into the mix as well. Not bad per se, but not exactly what was on the menu…
I suppose the lesson here is to read up on what you’re getting into before you commit yourself to something based on a pop culture hook. Netflix’s “Ratched” exploits the name of the Nurse Ratched character in order to create a new chapter of “American Horror Story” set in a mental hospital. The cult cred of Nurse Mildred Ratched is used as a borrowed ladder, and little more. Even the character’s lifetime spent as a nurse is now undone, with Mildred being exposed as an unschooled fraud. That said, there are some elements of this series to recommend. The prime of which is a cast laden with star power, beginning with “American Horror Story” veteran Sarah Paulson, even if she’s not playing anything close to the steely-eyed tyrant seen 15 years later in that Oregonian mental hospital. Paulson’s early attempts to capture Louise Fletcher’s icy-cool demeanor very quickly lapse into the trademark nervousness and neuroses seen in Paulson’s other characters from “American Horror Story.” This is more of a writing-fault than an actor-fault.
Other actors of the series, such as Sharon Stone, Judy Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Amanda Plummer and Jon Jon Briones are all in full camp mode, playing their roles with a wild theatrical panache better suited to the 1940s films of Douglas Sirk (“All That Heaven Allows”) and Michael Curtiz (“Mildred Pierce”). “Ratched” homages that style of filmmaking far more effectively than it does Milos Forman’s gritty, realistic 1970s Oscar winner.
The music of the series is credited to Mac Quayle, but is largely repurposed music from iconic composer Bernard Hermann, specifically his scores from 1960’s “Psycho” and 1962’s “Cape Fear.” It’s not even homage…it’s just cut-and-paste. As a fan of Hermann’s strings-heavy scores, I didn’t mind hearing it again, though I was perturbed to see someone else being credited with the show’s so-called ‘original’ music.
“Ratched” is set in a very heavily-stylized 1940s that existed only in cinema. As a result, the series feels too disconnected from its source material. Instead of the “Mildred Ratched: The Early Years” we get “Mildred Pierce Meets Psycho,” which is fine, I suppose, but it’s not what I was looking forward to with this series. Imagine if 1941’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” was repackaged as the ‘official’ prequel to 1973’s “The Exorcist” and that’s where I stand with “Ratched” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
COVID-19 Safe Viewing.
The 8 episodes of “Ratched” Season One are (of course) available for streaming on Netflix. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 200,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!