Hello, Nurse! Mildred Ratched’s Origin Story Reviewed

Sarah Paulson in Ratched

There’s no story quite like an origins story. From the critical acclaim of Joker to the popularity of Gotham, it’s clear that people have a thirst for the backstory of heroes and villains alike. With his latest drama, Ryan Murphy reclaims a character who can be considered a mixture of both: Nurse Mildred Ratched. Based on the cult classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his latest drama is a creative reimagining of an iconic female villain.

The Mildred Ratched we meet is not the established head nurse running her ward with military precision. She’s a young woman in urgent need of a job. With a stolen outfit and faked credentials, Mildred reinvents herself in the hope of being taken on by Dr. Hanover’s new asylum. She is determined to make this job happen – by hook or by crook. Like Ripley and Gatsby before her, with a silver tongue and polished appearance, she has a gift for making things happen. Mildred’s position grows stronger, but the web of lies around her grows ever more tangled…

Like the character he has revived, it’s as though Murphy’s career has been building up to this moment. Ratched draws on the twisted camp of American Horror Story, American Crime Story’s thrill of putting a new twist on an old tale, and – of course – the unequivocal pride behind Pose. Confident in his ability to produce smash hits, Netflix has clearly given Murphy carte blanche.

Sharon Stone shines as Lenore Osgood, an heiress with Cruella De Vil’s fashion sense and vengeful streak. And Sophie Okonedo steals every scene as Charlotte Wells and each of the personas she has crafted to shield herself from racial trauma. Ratched’s cast is top notch. And so is the set. With the facility’s sprawling rooms and crystal chandeliers, it’s difficult to believe thar Dr. Hanover is in desperate need of funding to keep his institution open. But this opulence is part of what makes Ratched so very watchable.

The flawless set design and wardrobe are this drama’s greatest strength. Bold, saturated colors dominate the screen, giving a deep sense of retro glamour. Nobody embodies this ‘40s aesthetic better than the show’s star, Sarah Paulson. For months to come, every last one of her Ratched outfits will fill Tumblr dashboards and Pinterest boards. Which is exactly as it should be.

But Ratched is not all aviator sunglasses and A-Line dresses. It’s a stomach-turning psychological thriller. If gore’s not your thing, Ratched is probably not for you. Even if you look away during more graphic moments – as I often did – this series is uncomfortable viewing. Nurse Betsy Bucket wasn’t the only one reaching for a sick bag. The gruesome squelch of each lobotomy, the nauseating buzz of a saw passing through bone, the slice of a razor through sinew and tissue – these sounds will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

This definitely isn’t a boxset to comfort-binge, or watch late at night. If you thought Murphy had tapped out all possibilities for horror set in a mental institution with AHS: Asylum, you were dead wrong. But Ratched is difficult to turn away from. And its depiction of lesbian love is a big part of why.

Ratched Season 1 Review
Sarah Paulson and Cynthia Nixon bringing the chemistry in Ratched

Through her work with Dr. Hanover, Mildred meets and falls for Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon) – the governor’s trusted aide. Despite feeling instant attraction, Mildred balks when Gwendolyn brings her to a secret lesbian bar. Her initial reluctance to pursue her feelings for another woman is understandable. Lesbian patients are burned, frozen, and lobotomized in brutal attempts to “subdue” the “malady” of their sexuality. 1940s America was not kind to lesbians.

But this relationship brings out the best in both women. The only person Mildred stops lying and lets down her guard with is Gwendolyn. These glimpses of vulnerability, as well as the chemistry between Paulson and Nixon, make it impossible not to grow invested in their relationship. There is a delicious scene where Gwendolyn, always confident in her sexuality, teaches Mildred to eat oysters – a thinly veiled allegory for what they’ll soon be getting up to.

What makes it doubly delicious is that Paulson and Nixon are both out and in committed same-sex relationships. There’s only one thing better than a lesbian drama. And that’s a lesbian drama with a lesbian lead. In this respect, Ratched more than delivers.