A diabolical take on Nurse Ratched leaves us wanting a Cuckoo’s Nest showdown

Ratched is a dark, dank and ill-tempered prequel to Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  While it addresses the antagonist of the novel and the film (starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in the Ratched role), it does not feel to be anywhere in the same universe as the novel or the movie.

The Netflix series Ratched starts in 1947, about sixteen years before the events of  Cuckoo’s Nest, with Mildred Ratched arriving in Northern California as she looks for employment in a psychiatric hospital. The series paves the way for some of the events in the later novel/film timeline such as experimental procedures; this lays the groundwork for the psyche of very different Ratched than what we see from Kesey.

As a young man, when reading the Kesey novel or watching the 1975 movie, it was easy to prefer Nicholson’s character, Randle McMurphy, a rebellious and likeable protagonist who appears to be bucking the system and going about his life his own way, while making it very easy to forget the crime that landed him there. His nemesis is Nurse Ratched, a cold-hearted nurse who runs the ward like a tyrant and will stop at nothing to destroy McMurphy, or so it seems.

However, as an adult, I look at the story from a different lens. McMurphy is convicted of statutory rape and looking for an easy way out of serving prison time. He thinks he can manipulate the system. Ratched is a nurse, trying to do her job and maintain order against someone hell bent on destroying everything in his path. McMurphy is, in fact, the one trying to bring everyone down with him, bringing out the worst in people and sending them toward untimely ends and the worst versions of themselves, not the freedom he proposes.

Netflix uses Ratched to turn everything about the main character upside down. Sarah Paulson stars in the lead role and Ryan Murphy (creator/producer of American Horror Story) helms the show. And, at times, this feels like it could have been a season of American Horror Story simply titled Ratched instead of a standalone show.

Ratched gets very dark, very quick. The story starts with a mass murder and weaves multiple violent, abusive, and mischievous plotlines together. As the season progresses we learn Ratched’s true motivation.

While Mildred Ratched more closely resembles Norman Bates of Psycho more than the Ratched of Cuckoo’s Nest, she is a complex and interesting character who borders on psychotic and is often likeable while simultaneously being detestable.

The story leaves us wanting more. It leaves us wanting this version of Cuckoo’s Nest. If Paulson and Murphy can keep this going for a few years it will be fascinating to see their take on the showdown between Ratched and McMurphy.

Brian’s Grade: B+

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