Published Sep 24, 2020Ryan Murphy certainly seems to know who he is. The mind behind a seemingly endless string of television projects like Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, Nip/Tuck, American Crime Story, Hollywood and more has a distinct style — which aids in his successes, but is also the root cause of his failures. In typical Ryan Murphy fashion, his most recent project Ratched is style-forward, but follows in the path of his recent duds, lacking in substance and the sense of self-identity that Murphy's successes are known for.
Ratched follows a re-imagining of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's infamous villain Nurse Ratched like we've never seen her before, a decade and a half before the events of Ken Kesey's novel. The first two episodes follow Nurse Ratched (here Mildred Ratched, played by Sarah Paulson) in late 1940s America as she cunningly worms her way into a nursing position at the mental institution where multiple murderer Edmund Tulleson (Finn Wittrock) is being held. A meeting of the two reveals them to be siblings, and, through a series of disturbing events, it becomes clear that Mildred will sacrifice anyone crossing her path if it means freeing her brother.
If only Ratched stayed on course. By the third episode, our protagonist — who just previously fed a senior patient low-blood pressure medication to induce vomiting so she could play the hero, pushed an ill patient to suicide, and performed a forced lobotomy on a man she kidnapped — voices outrage at a fellow nurse for performing hydrotherapy on a female patient admitted for lesbianism. Around the same time, we're introduced to Ratched's love interest: Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), the campaign manager of a governor up for election (Vincent D'Onofrio). In an attempt to humanize the sociopathic Nurse Ratched, Murphy has written her as a repressed gay woman struggling with her self-identity.
It seems that Murphy wants to have his cake and eat it too — having Paulson switch between the stoic, manipulative Nurse Ratched one moment, then the empathetic, traumatized Mildred Ratched the next. The show administers the same treatment to Edmund Tulleson, who first appears as a psychopathic Hannibal Lector type, then switches to a deeply troubled, underdeveloped Lennie from Of Mice and Men, then appears midway through the series to be a gentle but disturbed Norman Bates. Murphy spins viewers on their heads as he asks them to identify with one of the most love-to-hate literary villains of the 20th century, and see her as a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. This is one tall order, and one he proves he is wholly unprepared to accomplish.
One of the show's most glaring faults is the character of Charlotte Wells. Played by the fantastic Sophie Okonedo, Wells is a woman suffering from a case of trauma-induced "multiple personality disorder" (more currently referred to as dissociative identity disorder). She admits herself into the institution, desperate to find help for her disorder. Doctor Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), the owner of the institution, administers hypnotherapy on Wells — which briefly frees her from her other personalities, and she confesses to the doctor that her trauma stems from a race-based attack against her by a group of white men, who kidnapped and beat her for nine days.
A disorder that should be held with the utmost respect and delicacy due to its extremely stigmatized history is depicted as volatile, unpredictable and dangerous. Wells is not only subjected to multiple traumas that set her further back in her progress for sake of plot development, but Wells's true gentle nature is ultimately dominated by the violent personalities she inhabits when she dissociates, turning her into a loose cannon set on a murdering rampage.
Ratched attempts to say something profound when tackling racism, LGBTQ persecution and the abuse of the mentally ill during 1940s America — but its tonal flips and medical inaccuracies expose a lazy effort to bulk up a bloated, soulless script.
Murphy was given a chance to try something new to revitalize his passion for horror — but this feels like a tired, dull season of American Horror Story. Murphy consistently flops when trying to recreate his successes with AHS's beginning seasons, and since the plummet of its ratings and viewer count, Murphy figured he'd try out a different title. Ratched consistently misses opportunities to be great, and it seems as though Murphy has lost what it takes to tell a good horror story.
The philosophical question that Ratched attempts to ask its audience is, are monsters made or born? In this case, Ratched is a wholly man-made monstrosity resembling the lobotomized main character of its inspiration — a mumbling, drooling, lifeless shadow of a show, begging to be relieved of its suffering. (Netflix)