And Another Thing: <i>Ratched</i> Is Oddly Old-Fashioned, Despite Its Modern Gore

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about. 

How much TV do you watch just for the costumes? I think that was probably the only reason I stuck with all of Ratched — but to be completely fair to the series, the sets were also great. Over the course of a few days, I binged through all of the ’50s-set Netflix original, and I’m still not sure why. The first few moments of the first episode showcase a hideously gory mass murder: If you’re in the mood to witness a man’s face get caved in by a toilet seat, boy, do I have a drama for you!

I won’t feign familiarly with the wider One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest expanded universe. Haven’t read the book, haven't seen the movie, and even though her name pops up in every episode, I still wanted to call her “Nurse Ratchet.” But as with a lot of midcentury White American culture, I’ve learned the broad strokes by osmosis: Nurse Mildred Ratched is a sadistic psycho bitch who loves to fuck with people in mental wards.

But this is an antihero origin story, so no need to worry: You can rest assured Mildred suffered immense and horrific childhood trauma, thus neatly explaining away all of her adult psychoses. Sarah Paulson as Ratched is terse, tight, odd, intelligent and as bold a liar I’ve ever seen. This version of Mildred isn’t just in it to fuck with people; she has a plan. She’s quiet, silently plotting her moves a few steps ahead. Her manipulations, both subtle and not-so-subtle, of doctors, nurses and patients in a gorgeous Northern California private hospital are all in pursuit of a singular goal — not for the fun of it. 

This is a Ryan Murphy show, and what it lacks in overall cohesiveness and, like, having a point, it makes up by throwing a lot of crazy, campy spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Mildred is just one small component of the chaos surrounding this hospital; every patient and professional in there has an equally wild background, and the supporting cast of Grand Guignol bit players does hold a sort of grotesque charm. 

Jon Jon Briones as the hospital director with a secret is just an A+ mad doctor, a huge believer in the healing power of lobotomies to cure us of ills ranging from “homosexuality” to “being annoying.” Dr. Hanover’s hidden history is one of the most hellishly bizarre I’ve come across in any kind of media: book, TV, film, ancient myth, name it. One part the science of MK Ultra, one part Boxing Helena, Dr. Hanover messed-up big time. And I wanted to see a lot more of Sharon Stone as Lenore Osgood, a wildly wealthy and wicked grande dame with a pet monkey and a bone to pick with Dr. Hanover: The fucknut-crazy subplot between those two alone is worth its own series.

Sophie Okonedo, who I’m so used to seeing in classier parts, gets to play Charlotte Wells, a hospital patient and woman with dissociative identity disorder, then known as “multiple personality disorder.” I say “gets to,” because if I were an actor, it would be hard to imagine a role more fun than one where I have to shift my tone, body language, the energy behind my eyes, everything about my character, in a matter of seconds. Okonedo’s Charlotte (through no fault of the actor) isn’t exactly a sensitive portrayal of someone with this disorder; she’s raucous and violent, the epitome of a “normal” person who might “snap” at any moment and rampage. 

I know what you’re thinking: Does Mildred Ratched have a love interest? Oh boy, does she! Several, in fact, but Cynthia Nixon as Ratched’s furtive potential long-term partner (Will they? Won’t they? Who cares! Run away, Cynthia, that bitch is crazy!) seems like she belongs in a different show and universe entirely. Maybe there’s a wild backstory we just haven’t seen yet (perhaps her parents were circus performers and she witnessed an elephant crush them to death), but she’s just so aggressively not into weird, fucked-up shit like everyone else that her normality is almost more unsettling than the various murderers flitting about. The most disgusting thing about her is she wants a career in politics. 

The show dances around a point: “Isn't it fucked up how gay people used to be lobotomized?” “Can you believe the crazy shit people did to mental patients?” My answers, respectively, to those questions: Well, yeah, I know it is, and I can, all too easily! I didn’t need Netflix to teach me this. Ratched is an oddly old-fashioned show, in spite of the modern gore and violence. It’s very much gawping at the atrocities, like a jaunty little trip through a torture museum, pushing its face against the displays with glee and insisting, not too convincingly, that we’re so much less messed-up than people used to be. 

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!