[There are spoilers ahead for season 1 of Ratched.]
As a fan of the musical Wicked, one could say I’m pretty much an expert in villain origin stories. Take any scary character from literature or the movies and rewind the clock to when they were young and innocent, watch a specific bad or unexpected thing happen to them, et voilá! They’re not interested in being good any more. I thought about that concept a lot as I watched Ratched on Netflix this weekend. The show is supposed to serve as an origin story for Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, so why, eight episodes later, do I still not really know what made Nurse Ratched a villain?
To make sense of the whole situation, I went back to rewatch the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest after I finished Ratched. Basically, I was trying to figure out why the show felt so unsatisfying to me, or why it felt like it didn't make sense as the backstory for this character. I remembered the original film's depiction of Nurse Ratched as a cold, calculating woman who doesn’t like any mess or interference with her psychiatric ward. She represents the outside world that treats mental illness like a prison sentence by keeping her patients controlled with emotional manipulation, pills, shock treatments, and confinement. R. P. McMurphy, as flawed as he is, represents free thinking and recreational therapy. But for Nurse Ratched, McMurphy really symbolizes chaos, and she hates chaos.
There are some basic inconsistencies between the portrayal in the movie and in the new show that I'm going to nitpick before getting into the big stuff. Ratched doesn’t explain how Mildred comes to believe in the dangerous treatment methods for mental illness she later swears by. It also doesn’t explain how she comes to represent the status quo when she is revealed to be an outcast herself. And in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (the movie) Nurse Ratched is super passive aggressive, but at the end of Ratched, she literally says the words “I’m coming for you” to one of her enemies over the phone—that's the opposite of what the character would do. And if we're being totally honest, her evil-doing in Ratched makes the events of Cuckoo’s Nest feel like amateur hour now that we know she’s capable of more sadistic stuff.
The show also tries to give so many reasons for Mildred's darkness that they all cancel each other out. The writers turned her into a, like, femme fatale murderer suppressing her sexuality who was abused as a foster child and owes a life debt to a serial killer. That’s way too many things. Any one of those on its own would be fine, but when you combine all of them, it somehow boils down to a generic “hurt people hurt people” explanation for her behavior. I don’t think that’s as revolutionary or interesting as the show thinks it is.
But maybe the most baffling of the differences is how Mildred ends the series, compared to where we find her in the movie. She starts out more like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (ambitious, lacking emotion, precise). She's recognizable. But then she actually changes for the better. By the end of the eight episodes, she's in love. She's warm. She's not trying to control everyone. You’re telling me that eventually Mildred just reverts, goes back to a hospital job, and becomes an unfeeling tyrant after everything she's been through? How????? This is literally the one thing the show was supposed to explain! It's leaves any actual “origin story” up to a hypothetical season 2. I can't even enjoy Mildred and Gwendolyn's romance without remembering that it's probably gonna end poorly.
Let me toss out a truly wild idea while you're already at the bottom of this rabbit hole with me. Is it possible that Ratched is giving Nurse Ratched an alternate (happy) ending the way Murphy’s other Netflix series Hollywood gave a happy ending to Anna May Wong and, like, all of film history? Is the show imagining a world in which Nurse Ratched gets to live a happy and fulfilling life where she never meets McMurphy nor becomes his two-dimensional nemesis? If Ratched, for some reason, is not renewed for a season 2, I’m going to tell myself that that’s what the show is intentionally doing: Because if that's not it, I got nothing.
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