Set in 1947, the production design of Ratched is extravagant. Not extraordinary, but extravagant. There are dusty golden barns evacuated since the Great Depression of the 1930s, seaside oyster bars in dim, dusk light so the dark waves can be seen crashing from behind the tinted glass, expensive mansions, and by expensive, I mean doors of mirrors, diamond crusted chandeliers and emerald necklaces, paintings and sculptures littering every empty wall and corner, but at the center of all the action is the mental institution, Lucia State Hospital, that is supposed to be in need of funding, yet looks nothing less than a summer resort for a Gatsby.
But the thing is, every inch of this looks designed, unlived, and untouched by routine. You are constantly made aware that this is all a performance, almost like watching a theater play. The lighting of the corridors suddenly turns green or red to underline-in-thick-felt-pen the emotion being felt by the character walking through the corridor. But lush, extravagant sets must be accompanied by lush, extravagant drama, otherwise the attention frays, and it feels like an excuse to throw money at a sinking ship. Ratched based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, despite its divine virginal beauty, just that. (All the more disappointing given that like all Ryan Murphy productions, Ratched’s trailer too was rousingly edited, much like his Hollywood.)
Ratched is set in a seaside Californian coastal town, Lucia, with a population of 985. Lucia is home to the mental institution where Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), a philopino man, is attempting to find scientific solutions to issues of mental health, quoting reports from Sweden, Portugal, and Italy. The romance of Europe endures in the scientific citations. Mental health here is daydreaming, amnesia, multiple personality disorder, melancholia (or depression as it will later be coined), and lesbianism. The solutions are medieval- bathing women in boiling water and then alternatively in an ice-pond is a remedy to soak out lesbian proclivities. Ice pricks and hammers are used in lobotomy operations to drill into the brain via the eye socket. It’s gruesome, designed to make you queasy- the sound of the khachh of the bones made me close my eyes, though really, the visuals were nothing disturbing. This is not that kind of a show, and it course-corrects immediately- all semblance of gore all but retreats after the first two episodes. This is a slow-burn drama, one which burned me out quite fast.
Into the asylum come two people. Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) as a patient, deemed mentally unfit after massacring members of the Parish in cold, wet blood. The other is the eponymous Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) who is here to be a nurse, but also has vested interests regarding Tolleson, relating to her traumatic past. The world hasn’t been kind to her, and she has all the intentions of returning the favour.
The primary fault in the writing is the awful staging- it’s so slow in even beginning to state its point, forget making it.
The first we see of her, she is sitting in her car, getting gas filled, staring at a couple making out in public- there is a sense of disgust, but also of jealousy. You sense the prudish emptiness, and as the episodes lethargically unroll, her story that is at the root of this story is articulated with such cliche in its depiction of trauma and revenge, secrecy and enduring empathy that mentally, I checked out in the last two episodes. It becomes a chore, because there is no lilting drama or layered characterization that keeps you hooked (there are eccentric characters, like the gazillionaire woman with a monkey on her shoulder and a son with chopped hands and legs, but they don’t elicit more than a hmm), and the end of each episode doesn’t leave a potent unanswered question that makes you click “Next Episode”.
The primary fault in the writing is the awful staging- it’s so slow in even beginning to state its point, forget making it, and in the interim the drama is flat, and the dialogues are too showy without showing much – there’s an entire altercation between nurse Ratched and her adversary, the head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) about a peach. It’s meandering and doesn’t have that punch that such confrontations should.
Paulson is saddled with a mysterious character, but it doesn’t take too long for the mystery to get on your nerves, it’s like being on a date with someone who is self-aware and proud of their mysterious air, milking it with obviousness. I wouldn’t be so annoyed about how she refuses to be grasped, slipping through everytime you think you figured her out, if she weren’t the only character worthy of interest. Everyone else, if not saddled with caricature, is saddled with witless cardboard like personalities.
This quickly gets insufferable when we are introduced to Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo) , the character with multiple personality disorder, who rambles on about Schubert, Shostakovich, and Hitler in these L.O.N.G incoherent monologues. I heard myself sigh everytime she entered the frame. Her backstory too, while gruesome, is too drama-check-listy.
What perhaps is redeemable is the messaging. Mildred finds comfort in her lesbianism, reconciling with her inner Victorian mores. There is a nice moment when she is sitting opposite her date Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) at the oyster bar, and she looks at the oysters and says, “I am not even sure how I’m meant to do this.” She was talking about eating oysters, but she might as well be referring to Gwendolyn.
There’s also very potent messaging here against capital punishment or at least the sick violence inherent in it. Tolleson becomes a pawn in the Governor’s re-election campaign. He is hoping that putting this murderer in an electric chair in front of the magnesium flashes of the media photographers might get him a leg up on the polls, even if it means a moment of absurd barbarism. The governor notes, “I am not a politician, I am a performer.” This was 1947. This is 2020. Some things are just not meant to change.