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'Ratched': Sarah Paulson stuns in Ryan Murphy's misfired origin story

Reyzando Nawara
Reyzando Nawara

A film and TV series geek

Jakarta  /  Mon, September 14, 2020  /  04:11 pm
'Ratched': Sarah Paulson stuns in Ryan Murphy's misfired origin story

Sarah Paulson as nurse Mildred Ratched in 'Ratched' (Netflix/Handout)

There is no question about Sarah Paulson’s talent as an actress.

All of her performances are layered with complexity. Her onscreen presence is magnetic all the time. Even when the parts she has to play sometimes aren’t interesting, like many characters that Ryan Murphy gave her in American Horror Story, Paulson always finds a way to make every role memorable.

In Murphy and Evan Romansky’s latest psychological thriller on Netflix, Ratched, Paulson continues that tradition of excellence. 

Inspired by the character of Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel and Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ratched sees Murphy and Romansky imagining the origin story of the iconic titular role, tracing her life a decade and a half before the event of the original source happens. The Oregon State Hospital where both the book and the movie are set is now changed into a mental institution in Northern California. But this time, the story is not focused on the mentally ill patients trying to liberate themselves from the repressive system of the hospital, but rather on the people filling the bureaucracy — the nurses, the doctor, the government officials, etc. — and the shifting power dynamic among them. 

Sarah Paulson as nurse Mildred Ratched in 'Ratched'Sarah Paulson as nurse Mildred Ratched in 'Ratched' (Netflix/Handout)

When the show begins, however, Ratched hasn’t been hired as a nurse at the institution. She has just arrived in California, trying to seek employment in a psychiatric hospital that is led by a man with a secret past named Doctor Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and a dedicated, no-nonsense head nurse named Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). But Ratched doesn’t just pick this hospital because of its great reputation; she has a personal goal, and she will stop at nothing until she accomplishes that goal.

During the first episode, we follow Ratched as she manipulates her way into the hospital. We see her threatening one of the nurses to get some information. We also see her deceiving Doctor Hanover into hiring her as a nurse. The only person who doesn’t buy into her operation is Nurse Bucket. She senses something suspicious about her, and understandably so. 

Throughout the season, the dynamic between Ratched and Nurse Bucket gives the show a feeling of suspense, one that might remind you of Murphy’s best show to date, Feud. And Paulson and Davis are always at the top of their game when they share a scene.

But the show also has a lot of other stuff going on outside of what happens inside the hospital. There’s a storyline revolving around the character of a wealthy woman played by Sharon Stone who wants to take revenge on Doctor Hanover over something that he did in the past. There’s a serial killer named Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) and a mentally ill woman named Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), whose roles will serve a much bigger — but not more interesting — plotlines later on. There’s also Cynthia Nixon playing a one-dimensional role on the side.

But not all of these storylines, unfortunately, are played out as coherently as what Murphy and Romansky hope for. Most of the characters on the show don’t have depth. And almost all of the subplots are only there to complicate and give shock value to the main story. By the time you arrive at the end, you’ll realize that everything which happens during the season is just built to prepare you for the cliffhanger at the finale. 

It’s clear the creators of the show do not fully understand what Ratched, as a character, represents in the original source. She’s supposed to symbolize repression in the form of an authority figure; a broken system that keeps dehumanizing and abusing the group of people that needs to be taken care of. But instead of trying to build a compelling argument about how this broken system and authority figure are created in the first place, or how it can be related to the patriarchal concept still prevalent in society today, Murphy and Romansky choose to paint this character as a monster and a woman with no redeeming qualities. Even her traumatizing backstory that the show introduces in one episode isn’t really enough to make her sympathetic, or at least understandable.

What’s really unfortunate about this is that the show actually has so much potential to be something truly remarkable. And it’s not just because of the iconic character the story focuses on. Nearly every other aspect of the show, especially the acting, is filled with a lot of greatness. Paulson’s performance as the titular Ratched is simply astonishing. Both chilly and emotionally resigned, she manages to showcase the sinister part of her character in a really effortless way while still layering it with vulnerability. Davis is equally phenomenal as Nurse Betsy Bucket, bringing levity and humor to an otherwise one-dimensional, serious character; while the other supporting actors like the scene-stealing Okonedo, Stone, and Amanda Plummer, who plays the owner of the motel Ratched is staying at, all deliver marvelous performances, despite not having meaty material to work with.

If only Murphy and Romansky knew how to fully utilize this talented ensemble, there’s no doubt that Ratched would’ve been a much better show. 

At the end of the day, Ratched feels more like a misfired origin tale instead of a compelling look into the life of an iconic character; an inert creation from two guys who have a lot of ideas but can never solidify them into one big story.

Ratched may entertain you with its campiness and extravagance, but don’t expect something great out of it. (kes)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.