Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Sarah Paulson stars as Mildred Ratched in Ryan Murphy's new Netflix series.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX/Handout

Listen, have you seen the new Ryan Murphy concoction on Netflix? Well I have, and it has driven me up the walls and back down again.

Ratched is the latest result of Murphy’s massive production deal with Netflix. Hardly my eyebrows were raised in 2018 when the streaming service signed a five-year, US$300-million deal with him. After all, he’s created, co-created or produced Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Pose and Feud: Bette and Joan, and that’s only a partial list.

Now, however, the knives are out, mainly because Ratched has garnered lukewarm or hostile reviews. Here’s the interesting thing: In a politically polarized country, Ratched is polarizing in a way that mirrors the politics. It is a misunderstood American masterpiece. Camp, gothic, gorgeously made and drenched in pop-art bright colours, it epitomizes much of what Murphy seeks to explore – the underbelly, the hidden history that exists beneath the accepted version of recent U.S. history.

Story continues below advertisement

Binge-watching guide: The recent shows you need to catch up on, all available to stream

The premise might seem harebrained to the uninitiated. It presents the speculative backstory of Nurse Ratched, the coldly abusive nurse played by Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the cogent 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s bestselling novel. Nurse Ratched rules a psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and forces a lobotomy on the iconic rebel McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson in the film.

Ratched, created by Murphy and Evan Romansky, seeks to pin on Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) – an archetypal demon, representative of establishment culture (outright authoritarianism, really) – a past that’s both poignant and disturbing. Mildred, you see, is a deeply repressed woman. She’s a lesbian but can’t admit it. She’s drawn to horrific acts of sadism but can’t understand why or stop herself. She’s as mentally unhinged as the patients she is employed to care for.

Jon Jon Briones, right, plays the hospital's head doctor, eager to have his lobotomy theories endorsed by the state of California.

Courtesy of Netflix/Handout

The series is set in 1947, and the Mildred we meet has survived abusive foster homes, become a no-nonsense war nurse and now is ruthlessly scheming to join the nursing staff of a psychiatric hospital, apparently to be close to a killer who brutally murdered several priests. The hospital’s head doctor, Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), is a suave executive who is eager to have his theories about lobotomizing people – including his innovative ice-pick lobotomy – endorsed and supported by the California state government.

What has unnerved some reviewers is the series’ apparent inability to make it clear if Mildred is a victim or a villain. Is Mildred an evil tyrant or was she shaped by societal influences?

There is no clear answer. What you get in terms of Mildred Ratched’s life is not alternate history or counterfactual history. Mildred is fictional to begin with. What Murphy is doing, again, is creating a drama that illustrates a hidden history. In Murphy’s naive and flawed series Hollywood, he put both the hidden homophobia and explicit racism of Hollywood’s golden era front and centre. And then presented a jejune fictional triumph by the exploited over the status quo.

In Ratched, you are asked to witness how Mildred is required to bear monumental neuroses alone. The standard surface history of the United States requires that you believe in noble ethos of “the Greatest Generation,” who grew up in the Great Depression, fought the Second World War and built a stunning economy in the 1950s, going all the way to the moon in the 1960s. That’s a political slant. Beneath that surface, Murphy suggests, there is also the history of how LGBTQ people, non-whites and the mentally ill were treated. What must it have felt like to be Mildred Ratched? That’s a different political slant. (The ice-pick lobotomies aren’t fiction to horrify the viewer; thousands were performed.) Turning away from that aspect of history is cowardice.

The series revolves around Mildred Ratched, the villanious nurse from Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and its subsequent film adaptation.

SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX/Handout

In its lurid, operatic glory – the clothes, cars and settings are stunning – the series has a repressed sexual tension that’s fierce. Well, the heterosexual tension is often relieved, to be clear. And an array of awful people, made awful by stringently restrictive social conditions, do terrible things. It’s like a feverish nightmare with moments of bizarre dark humour.

Story continues below advertisement

Paulson is magnificent as the unknowable Mildred. Judy Davis is frightening in a banal way as Dr. Hanover’s sidekick, Nurse Bucket. There is also Cynthia Nixon, excellent as a gay press secretary, Gwendolyn Briggs, who tries to assure Mildred that she can live a good life as a lesbian, albeit secretly. Then there’s Sharon Stone, relishing her role as Lenore Osgood, a very rich and bitter woman who carries a monkey on her shoulder. And you wonder: Is that monkey existing only in her head?

For all its outsize horror and macabre approach, Ratched is anchored in a feminist and queer perspective on recent American history and popular culture. As such, it’s part of a necessary reckoning, and brave. It might be years before its greatness is recognized, after it has driven people up the walls and back.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies