*content warning – lots of spoilers!
Last week, Netflix released the first season of Ratched, a new series following Mildred Ratched as she presumably turns into the villain of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Developed by Ryan Murphy, the series will meet pressure to stack up against the success of his other projects, including Pose, American Horror Story, and Glee. I’m not sure that it will. While the series is dazzling in its cinematography, its plot quickly devolves into a collection of loosely strung-together scenes of steadily mounting drama with progressively less resolution.
Let’s start with the positives because there actually were some wins for the series. First and foremost is the aesthetic: Ratched showcases beautiful wigs and hairstyling, exquisite makeup application, and stunning wardrobe and set design. I am no fashion or architecture historian, but the styling and set look 1940s to this layperson, which is crucial for immersing the audience in the story, however accurate it may or may not be. Further transporting the viewer to the past is the orchestral soundtrack (no 2013 Great Gatsby mess here!), including a heavy use of Bernard Herrmann’s 1958 film score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The cinematography favors saturated colors, with some big moments shown through vibrant, monochromatic filters, and although I would have preferred more subtlety, these filters do get the job done. Finally, the acting, while theatrical, is not over-the-top, and Paulson (Nurse Mildred Ratched), Wittrock (Edmund Tolleson), Davis (Nurse Betsy Bucket), and Okonedo (patient Charlotte Wells) in particular demonstrate vast emotional range and masterful commitment to their characters. With these positives, Ratched is not unpleasant to watch, but the show’s success is undermined by plot issues and an incongruous, bland attention to the social issues of its historical backdrop.
Ratched’s plot features plenty of violence with a sadomasochistic slant and only barely connects major plot events to one another, a problem exacerbated by its lack of consistency in how supporting characters move through the story. For example, in episode four, Lucia State security guard Harold is horrified to come across a freshly boiled hitman in the hospital halls. Bloody and with his skin peeling off, the hitman looks like a monster, and Harold shoots even though he isn’t in any real danger (the hitman was not sent for him). Why the hitman could suddenly walk fairly stably after having to flop out of the hydrotherapy tub and crawl into the hallway is as unclear as his inability to speak, but I guess his zombie walk toward Harold in menacing silence attempts to justify his murder with what is really a hasty progression of the show’s narrative. For his part, Harold is distraught but easily swayed to allow a cover-up of the hitman’s murder. Even less reasonable is that in the very next episode, Harold is completely unfazed at the hospital dance. Happily dancing with Charlotte, he seems to have forgotten the other night’s fiasco, and he’s smiling right up till Edmund slices his neck open with a razor blade. Harold’s murder of the hitman is entirely forgotten; he is now dead, and all other witnesses of the murder are silent: patient Peter is stuck in a lobotomy-induced haze, Mildred and Dr. Hanover benefit from the hitman’s disappearance, and Gwendolyn—who seemed the most inclined to squeal—is shot by Edmund’s accomplice at the dance, incapacitating her and thrusting her story in a new direction. All loose ends are haphazardly tied, conveniently eliminating any further dwelling on the hitman’s death. Onto the next murder! This example points to a larger problem with Ratched: the plot jumps from one dramatic, violent scene to the next, hoping that the audience will become so swept up with each new spectacle that they won’t require any resolutions to past plot events. Really, my whole critique thus far can be summed up by this tweet from @missunitedface:
The issue of plot inconsistency goes even deeper as the series attempts to represent the historical context that necessarily comes with its 1940s aesthetic. Historical fiction must balance an accurate depiction of the past with creative liberties, and Ratched is haunted by its inadequate engagement with the realities of its time period. This is particularly apparent with the series’ representations of race and sexuality. As Gwendolyn becomes increasingly infatuated with Mildred, she decides she must end her sham marriage to her gay husband Trevor, a marriage designed to insulate them both from homophobia and advance them in their careers. But the rigid social structure of the 1940s that pushed Gwendolyn and Trevor to their marriage would more accurately be the same force that prevents their arrangement: Having been married since 1944, the white Gwendolyn and black Trevor actually would have been breaking California law, not to mention the social norms of their upper-middleclass suburb. California only overturned its 1850 anti-miscegenation law almost a century later in 1948 with the Supreme Court of California’s decision on Perez v. Sharp, which allowed the marriage between Andrea Perez, a Mexican American woman who identified as white, and Sylvester Davis, a black man. This history is apparently unimportant for Ratched’s creators, who seem to care more about reviving a vintage aesthetic than illuminating the problematic past that accompanied it. The series doesn’t entirely eliminate a portrayal of the racist reality of the 1940s—it just fails to do it consistently or with much purpose. In one scene, a diner waitress tells Dr. Hanover and Charlotte that they must pay for their food before eating because they aren’t white, then scolds Hanover for being “uppity” when he whips out a wad of cash. How triumphant the audience is supposed to feel as the waitress saunters off to put in their order! While state-sanctioned discrimination is demonstrated (and swiftly overcome) in the diner, it is absent in the chapel. Racism only finds its way into the story when it won’t obstruct the show’s runaway train of a plot.
Homophobia, similarly, only appears when it can be easily surmounted. One patient at Lucia State undergoes a lobotomy to eliminate her lesbian desires, but the procedure doesn’t cure her of her ailment (in fact, it doesn’t seem to do anything at all), so she is taken to hydrotherapy, boiled and frozen as treatment. Mildred and Huck oppose the treatment, but Nurse Bucket seems to enjoy punishing the patient for her homosexuality. This prejudice is forgotten by the end of the season, with Bucket visiting her new BFFs Mildred and Gwendolyn, who’ve fallen in love and run off to Mexico. Aside from the story of the lobotomized and hydrotherapied lesbian patient (who ends up being snuck out of the hospital by the sympathetic Huck and Mildred—another easy triumph), most of the depictions of homophobia in Ratched are internalized, with Mildred struggling to accept her own lesbianism. It should be noted, though, that this struggle is fully resolved by the halfway point of the season.
There are many moments in Ratched that feel off, whether it’s Mildred and Gwendolyn being too gay in public or casting decisions that seem to fall back on a colorblind philosophy of race instead of stimulating a productive critique of the era’s racism (which could then be mobilized to highlight how little has changed since then). But I think I will leave it here, and let the rest of the moments jump out to viewers on their own—and they will. Watching Ratched, I was constantly reminded of what Lucy Mangan wrote of Murphy’s series Hollywood, also set in the late 1940s and released this year on Netflix: With the backdrop set as a racist, sexist, and homophobic world, Hollywood
“head[s] into a counterfactual history, and the show falls apart. This should be the perfect set-up for a scabrous look at prejudice, corruption, the trading of sexual currency, coercion, the well-oiled machinations that underlie an industry and how it all shapes history—all through a #MeToo lens. But it becomes a mere wish-fulfillment fantasy that, whether it intends to or not, suggests that if a few people had just been that bit braver, then movies—and therefore the world!—would be a glorious, egalitarian Eden. It is a show that is smug and obtuse enough to believe la la land’s self-regarding idea that celluloid art directly shapes our lives.”
Similarly, Ratched provides glimpses on people’s prejudices (the discrimination at the diner, the pathologization of homosexuality…), but season one ultimately ends with Mildred and Gwendolyn unbothered, sharing a bed in Mexico, their only concern being that Edmund is hunting them down. Combined with its disinterest in resolving major plot events, the show’s failure to be consistent with or say anything useful about the 1940s ends up pulling the audience out of its expertly crafted vintage aesthetic, making for a disappointing viewing experience.
For more on gay life during the 1940s and ’50s, see Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) and David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).