Film & TV

Nurse Ratched Will See You Now

Ratched (2020) Image credit to Netflix

By Chloe Chapman

Welcome to Lucia State Hospital, what’s your poison? Amphetamines? Lobotomies? Adultery? Lesbianism? Well, whatever your vice is, Nurse Ratched will know. And she will use it for what she wants. 
Netflix’s latest thriller has taken audiences by storm, with 48 million unique accounts streaming the series in the first 28 days – making it Netflix’s most successful original series in 2020. Based on the characters from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky’s take on the counterculture classic and aim to contextualise Nurse Ratched’s villainess by providing a backstory to the psychiatric nurse. The series deals with topics of institutional abuse of power, individual monstrousness and controlled femininity while exploring Murphy’s well-known American Horror Story aesthetic.

So, who is Nurse Ratched, and why have audiences been so compelled by her?

The series takes place in the late 1940s following the violent murders of 3 priests by Edmund Tolleson, the ‘clergy killer’. We are then introduced to Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson), a vibrantly well-dressed woman travelling to Northern California to con her way into a job at a mental hospital. Her intentions remain mostly unknown to the audience throughout the first episode, but she instantly establishes herself as a manipulative force to be reckoned with. Her ability to coerce her way into the nursing role by aiding a suicide and its coverup immediately unveils her well-known villain status. Soon we learn that Edmund is in fact her brother, and the series follows her down a path of destruction to try and rescue him from prison. The show is filled with plot surprises that kept me entranced and constantly questioning where the show was developing towards and how Mildred would keep control. 

Personally, I believe the most successful element of Murphy’s reversed engineered backstory and Paulson’s performance is their ability to make the audience begin to understand and almost sympathise with Nurse Ratched’s flawed nature. First all of, they humanise her character by strongly establishing her first name as Mildred, when in comparison to the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) film she is only briefly once called that  by her power rival McMurphy. They also reframe her as a repressed lesbian, struggling with her sexuality while also trying to ‘curepatients of the very same illness. Our framing of Mildred as an anti-hero becomes more established here as we see her develop a relationship with the Governor’s press secretary, Gwendolyn, and save a couple from distressing hydrotherapy. This helps align her character with the original feminist readings of Nurse Ratched as a beacon for everything traditional masculinity hates and that’s why she’s depicted as emasculating and oppressive. 

Furthermore, the depth of her character and the trauma she experienced provide an understanding for her harsh and cold exterior. Illustrated late in the series through a puppet show, we learn about the abuse within her childhood and her struggles as an orphan. This provides understanding as to why she frames herself as an ‘angel of mercywho really sees herself as a compassionate nurse and not the villain, despite her murderous and unethical ways of achieving what she wants.

This balance between mercy and evil is beautifully displayed through the series’ colour aesthetic and cinematography. Whenever Mildred is losing control of her morality the scene morphs into an acidic blue-green colouring to display the harsh reality surrounding her. The tone encases her as she loses control of her surroundings and her own mental struggles break free.

Tied with her controlled hatred in scenes like when Nurse Bucket eats her peach, Murphy still characterises her vengeful and manipulative ways that we’ve come to know from the 1975 film.

As a whole, the series provides an engaging prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and dissects the character of Nurse Ratched in a way that questions the line between good and evil. Her complexity as a villain is perhaps why she earns the fifth greatest villain in the American Film Institute’s ‘100 Greatest Heroes and Villains’.

Ratched first aired on 18 September 2020 and has already been commissioned for a second series by Netflix.

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