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Spoiler: At the end of “Ratched” Season One, a yellow Buick Roadmaster convertible heads off from a gas station in a spray of gravel and dust.  It raises hopes of a Season Two.  Or dread, as the image also brought to mind Cesar Baldaccini’s nouveau réalisme installation piece from 1961, “The Yellow Buick” – a car crushed to about the size of a kegerator. 

There are a couple of ways this can go… 

At the opening of Ryan Murphy’s “Ratched,” Netflix warns us that we will find “violence, sex, nudity, language, gore, and smoking” contained therein.  After an eight-episode mini-binge of Season One, (of what feels like a four-season arc from the outset), it can be concluded that smoking, well represented throughout, might be the least of the vices on display. 

Our year is 1947.  We are voyeurs as Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), stalks a Monsignor and a group of priests (while enjoying a butt), outside a cinema where “Miracle on 34thStreet” is in it’s first run.  How Edmund knew they would be at the movies is not entirely clear.  The need to suspend our disbelief is immediate and total. 

Interrupting a masturbating priest who has chosen to remain home to “flog the Bishop,” Edmund insinuates himself into the clergy house.  Upon the moviegoers’ return, we find out a couple of things:  Priests are lousy mixed martial arts fighters, and Edmund is the resentful prodigal bastard child of the Monsignor. Of the clergy present at this bloodfest, one priest survives by hiding under a bed, covering his mouth with his hand to muffle his screams, a cliché’ even before the advent of talkies.

At this point, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.  There are some isolated treats ahead in this bloody pinata that might be worth another puff or two.  

Meet Mildred Ratched, (respectfully and skillfully curated by Sarah Paulson), as she glides up the Northern coast of California at the wheel of Ford Super Deluxe, minty green like a Necco wafer.  The color green is nearly a character in “Ratched,” repeatedly echoed in paint, clothing, plants, lighting, and most closely associated with Mildred.  Red, yellow, orange, and blue wash various scenes throughout, but green…that belongs to Mildred. 

While severe, Mildred Ratched is well turned out in an immaculate, tailored wardrobe.  She might be on a budget, but she has made a penny roll far enough to cultivate a look.  The images evoke the hope, optimism, and promise of both the era and her mission.  By God, a strong female grabbing post-war America by the balls.  Sure!  We’re all aboard for adventure!  

Still clinging to the cliffs after better decades is the Sealight Inn.  Not inviting by any means, but viable shelter in a pinch; it serves as a haven for Mildred and her green alligator suitcases. In her exchange with the bitter alcoholic clerk, Louise (Amanda Plummer), we find that Mildred is seeking employment at the nearby Lucia State Mental Hospital.  We’ll quickly find that this hospital is also the destination of the aforementioned Edmund Tolleson, the now captured “Clergy Killer,” and Ratched’s long lost foster brother.    

Hang on one damned second.  Full stop with chattering drum brakes and crunching decomposed granite.  Ratched?  Her name is familiar from somewhere, right?  Nurse? Mental Hospital?  Yep.  

The object of our affection, or at least the focus of our attention, is Nurse Mildred Ratched, one of the most iconic and evil antagonists in literary and cinema history.  She’s no hero and hardly an antihero except in the most macabre sense. “Ratched” is the origin story of Nurse Mildred Ratched, the straight-up satanic villain of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” beginning some 15 years before that twisted tale.   And like Satan, there wasn’t really a need for an origin story. 

One Flew Over

Rewind to 1959.  Ken Kesey, the soon-to-be author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the exquisite “Sometimes a Great Notion,” (one could not find better viral bunker reading), was serving a fellowship at Stanford University’s Creative Writing Center, running with some high-speed, bright literary company.  At the goading of a couple of notable friends and the enticement of another, Kesey signed up for a program at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital – one of the sites of the CIA’s notorious Project MKUltra mind-control experiments.   Truth is far stranger, in this case than fiction.

Kesey was reportedly paid $70 to be dosed with the powerful hallucinogenic LSD-25 and questioned about his experience by Stanford students. Records exist, and Kesey has recounted his experience with slight variations in the decades since, but these things are hard to relate accurately.  What is undeniable is that the CIA failed to control Kesey’s mind (so far as we know).  Kesey took control.  

These experiments continued and an enthusiastic Kesey even took a job as an orderly at the facility.  His position allowed him ready access to a number of powerful psychedelics for use outside the hospital. Lab rat and acid-fueled night man at the asylum – a job description one won’t find on Indeed. 

While the cultural and artistic impact of psychedelics on art and music of the period is well documented and persists today, it did not translate as quickly, widely, or readily to literary fiction.  Kesey’s 1962 “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was one notable exception, inspired by his new perspective and real-life experiences at the hospital.  

The fictional Nurse Mildred Ratched was born of Kesey’s perception of the actual head nurse at the Veterans Hospital, where Kesey worked.  Her description in the book is specific, severe, and frightening.  Alternately referred to as “Big Nurse,” Ratched is a vengeful, calculated, and relentlessly wicked woman, exerting her fearsome power over mostly helpless patients at a mental hospital.  

Serendipitously, Kesey encountered that same nurse shortly before his death in 2001, and she struck him as much smaller and more “human” than he had remembered.  No duh. Almost any woman would be smaller and more human than the Mildred Ratched/Big Nurse he conceived in 1962.

This real origin story would perhaps be more worth telling.  Further, Milos Foreman’s 1975 adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would certainly be far more rewarding viewing.  Must one see “Cuckoo’s Nest” in order for “Ratched” to make sense?  No, not at all.  It’s not going to make total sense regardless.  

In fact, if one has not read the novel or seen the film, (for which Louise Fletcher won an Academy Award in the role), “Ratched” might actually prove less…wretched.

Welcome to The Hospital

Should “Ratched” remind the viewer of “American Horror Story” there’s a good reason.  It’s another series helmed by the prolific Ryan Murphy.  And Sarah Paulson appeared in that series to great effect.  Reportedly, Paulson insisted on playing “Ratched” upon reading the first few pages of Evan Romansky’s teleplay.   And if you enjoyed “American Horror Story” the odds are pretty good you’re going to be squirmingly comfortable in the “Ratched” universe. Paulson’s portrayal of Mildred Ratched is less acting than careful, professional and loving curation of a living character and her legacy.  While the necessity of the exercise is debatable, her performance is a fascinating deep dive.

Some other very strong performances mark “Ratched” throughout and there is one that single-handedly makes the effort worth it.  Almost at precisely the point that one has the remote in hand, threatening to click off or at least pause this slow burner, Sophie Okonedo blasts onto the screen like a blow torch. When we meet her, she is portraying Ondine Duquette, a super-pissed-off, high-energy, finger-pointing violinist and she’s absolutely frightening.

 “You’re shit!” She sells it. 

Okonedo is immediately recognizable to some as Sithandra from the live-action feature, “Aeon Flux,” (though she does not have hands for feet here), or as Tatiana Rusesabagina from “Hotel Rwanda” for which she received an Academy Awards Nomination.

Here though, Okonedo pulls off a most difficult trick with solid craft.  Ondine is just one of the personalities of Charlotte Wells, a mental patient with dissociative identity disorder looking to Dr. Hanover for a cure – a kaleidoscope of characters in one body.  It’s difficult to do effectively.  Sally Field did it superbly in “Sybil” and won the Emmy.  Joanne Woodward was nominated for an Academy Award for her effort in “The Three Faces of Eve.”  More recently, James McAvoy pulled it off in “Split” and “Glass.”   

There should be a prize for Okonedo.  She absolutely tears it up as Charlotte Wells and this/these character(s) could serve as the basis of a series.  Without spoiling too much, we should see Charlotte beyond Season One of “Ratched.”

In all the rattle and bang, Cynthia Nixon also rises from the clutter as Gwendolyn Briggs, press secretary to Governor Willburn, (a sturdy performance by Vincent D’Onofrio of a one-note misogynistic and darkly political animal).  Nixon, well known as Miranda Hobbs from “Sex and the City,” oozes a sneaky omnisexual attraction here, but her focus is the naïve Mildred who she manages to draw into a believable romance.  

Alas, there are also some strange casting choices and misappropriation of resources, such as Amanda Plummer as Louise, the manager of the motel.  Handing Plummer this role is like bringing a shotgun to a game of tiddlywinks. The firepower is there, but the character is thin. Louise is forced into positions within the story arc that aren’t consistent and actually seem like different roles compressed into one, (motel manager, dancer, nurse, outlaw).   

Though Plummer rises, there’s none of the raw horsepower we remember from her Yolanda/Honey Bunny in “Pulp Fiction.”  Hard to say where Louise goes, or if there will be better exploitation of Plummer’s considerable skills in subsequent seasons, if “Ratched” has the legs for that.  

Judy Davis, as the tough Head Nurse of Lucia State Hospital, Betsy Bucket, (until Mildred Ratched skillfully ushers her out and assumes that position), is fascinatingly odd and campy.  Davis is another powerhouse, having laid down unforgettable and sexy performances in such films as “Naked Lunch” and “Barton Fink.”  Even her Hedda Hopper in Ryan Murphy’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” was stronger. It’s as though she played to the character’s silly name, rather than driving for the true potential. Perhaps it’s because she is playing a regimented, sometimes sinister nurse opposite the most sinister nurse of all time.  Either way, it’s more Bucket than Betsy.  

Sharon Stone makes an impressive appearance as Lenore Osgood, a woman of seemingly unlimited wealth who wants to kill Dr. Hanover (and for a good reason, though that backstory within a backstory could open a dimensional flux gate here).  Stone is strong enough in the eccentric, monkey-toting Osgood that her abrupt dismissal from the narrative is a loss to the audience, which makes it that far.

Then there’s Dr. Hanover, the head of Lucia State Hospital, played by another Ryan Murphy alumni, Jon Jon Briones, (“American Horror Story: Apocalypse”).  Whether it’s direction or script, the character is not a bullseye. Worshipped and loved by Nurse Betsy Bucket, the Doctor’s sincerity in treating patients is as undeniable as his selective and questionable ethics.  At least he cares enough to try new things…like LSD-25, elective dismemberment, hypnotism on the unwilling, and lobotomy.  

Oddly, Sophie Okonedo plays a stronger Dr. Hanover in one short segment

Curls of a Late Night Cigarette

There is littering of historical touchstones throughout “Ratched” tossed across the landscape like cigarette butts from a Buick Roadmaster. Perhaps they are meant to lend credibility.  Maybe they’re simply remembrances, but more likely the former, much like the needless use of the vintage character of Mildred Ratched.  “Ratched” seems to be clawing for context.  The project stands alone – and taller – with none of these attachments. 

One example is the powerful romance between Edmund and an attractive and lusty nurse trainee, Dolly (Alice Englert).  The character of Dolly dribbles along until a striking climax that harkens back to the sensational tales of the young Caril Ann Fugate, who went on a weeklong murder spree with Charles Starkweather in the 50s (immortalized in the 1973 movie “Badlands”). While Fugate didn’t go out in a blaze of gunfire (she’s still in prison), the relationship between Edmund and Dolly harkened back to actual events.

In another instance late in Season One, the horrible murders of ten student nurses in Chicago are attributed to Edmund Tolleson.  The crime resembles the real-life systematic torture and murder of eight student nurses in Chicago by Richard Benjamin Speck in 1966 closely.

Shades of American Horror Story

Sarah Paulson, strong, consistent, and imminently watchable in “Ratched,” is towing some baggage from “American Horror Story” that makes her task more difficult than need be.  A lot of it is because that’s how we best and most recently know her.  She was indelible in several different roles through various incarnations of “American Horror,” and she’s the face we most often associate with the series.  In fact, this points up one of the essential weaknesses of “Ratched.” 

Was it necessary to invoke the character of Mildred Ratched as part of this series?  Probably not.  If it were “American Horror: Nurse’s Station,” nothing would change except for the title sequence and the shedding of the shadow of Louise Fletcher’s iconic portrayal in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Do we need Louise Fletcher looking over our shoulder disapprovingly?  No.

What could these characters have been without the burden of being an origin story?  In a word: more.  Even allowing that the attachment to “Cuckoo’s Nest” may be required for developments in subsequent seasons, “Ratched” asks a lot of the viewer in terms of patience. 

Where does it end?  Will some poor bastard have to follow Jack Nicholson in an alternate version of the Randle McMurphy character?  Perhaps a living, breathing, drooling, lobotomized version?    Will there be an origin story for McMurphy?   God forbid.  Do we go beyond “Cuckoo’s Nest” to explore an aging Ratched in senior same-sex retirement?  American Horrible.  Pray not.

Hopefully, the yellow Buick Roadmaster will haul us down a road that is not paved with the connections that currently burden “Ratched.”   With Season One in the rearview mirror, perhaps there are fresher horizons up the road. 

At the end of the other road lies the crusher.