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Review: Sarah Paulson is Sublime in Sleekly Irresistible 'Ratched'

Friday Sep 18, 2020
Sarah Paulson in 'Ratched'
Sarah Paulson in 'Ratched'  (Source:Netflix)

If villains are the heroes of their own stories, then what journey must someone take in order to turn into a Nurse Ratched? As played by Louise Fletcher in the 1975 Milos Forman film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (based on the Ken Kesey novel of the same name), Mildred Ratched is power-hungry, sadistic, and pretty much plain evil: The embodiment of institutional power that seeks to stifle, mutilate, and - a popular word these days in authoritarian circles - dominate.

But was she always this way?

Evan Romansky's Netflix series "Ratched" feels its way through the character's long dark night of the soul to trace out the path she took to Fletcher's indelible portrayal. But that doesn't mean the series isn't fun; it is, and it has fun riffing on cinematic genres from decades past, such as so-called "women's movies" and film noir.

Prolific TV powerhouse Ryan Murphy "developed" the series - whatever that means. In practical terms, the result is that Murphy's fingerprints are all over the series, and that's to its benefit. "Ratched" has the narrative loopiness of other Murphy-related shows like "The Politician" and glistens with period-specific production design, much like "Hollywood" did earlier this year.

The series begins in 1947 - abut two decades before the character's "Cuckoo" days - as the icily competent, unnervingly poised Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) shows up at Lucia, a state mental hospital in California, having clearly faked a letter from its director, Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) inviting her to a job interview.

A mix of chutzpah and ruthlessness secures Ratched a job there, despite the misgivings of head nurse Betty Bucket (Judy Davis) - herself something of a Ratched-like character, brittle and hostile. Early episodes play the two characters off each other with virtuoso effect, nowhere better than in a lunchroom scene where the two clashes over a stolen peach: "What are you going to do about it?" asks Bucket, with a nasty smile, as Ratched eyes her with deadly impassivity. Prodded by the mocking Bucket to answer, Ratched responds that she's "just thinking of all the things I'm going to do about it." It's a flawless moment, flawlessly delivered, that sets up endless possibilities for retribution. Nothing that follows feels like a fulfillment of that unstated threat, but there's no time for disappointment as the series takes any number of shocking, audacious twists. What the series lacks in tight through-lines it more than makes up in imaginative sprawl.

The hospital's staff is well-stocked with interesting characters, including a nymphomaniac nurse and a sympathetic male nurse and war vet named Huck (Charlie Carver). This being a mental hospital (flashes of the second season of Murphy's "American Horror Story"), there are also plenty of intriguing characters among the inmates, including a lesbian housewife and, later in the season, a patient with multiple personalities.

Away from work, Ratched manages to uncover still more intrigue. The seaside motel where she's living has the vaguest "Bates Motel" vibe to it, not least because one of its tenants is a private detective with a palpable sexual interest in Ratched. His name is Wainwright (Corey Stoll, thankfully bald as he was meant to be and no longer saddled with the dreadful hairpiece he wore in horror series "The Strain"), and it's by way of the burly detective that the series introduces an eccentric, revenge-seeking character called Lenore Osgood (deliciously played by Sharon Stone). Eventually, Osgood's path crosses with Ratched's, and their chemistry nothing short of volatile.

Still more combustible, however, are the sparks between Ratched and another strong female character, Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), the press secretary for California Gov. George Milburn (Vincent D'Onofrio), a sexist old boy who comes across as a mixture of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. Briggs balances a complicated personal life with a job that's all about finessing her callous, grandstanding boss; it's not an easy task, and it's about to get harder because Milburn is dead set on winning re-election, and he's decided that a sure path to victory is to make sure that Lucia's most infamous patient, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), gets the death penalty. The voters all but demand it: Tolleson is the state's most notorious killer, having butchered several priests.

It's here that the series finds its central dilemma. No one - not Bucket, not Briggs, not Dr. Hanover, and not Ratched - wants to see Tolleson (who is both clearly insane and, in one of the series' few instances of going a bit too far, given some overly-obvious Hannibal Lecter parallels) put to death. But with the governor making it completely clear that St. Lucia will lose all state funding unless Tolleson is offered up as a sacrificial lamb to his campaign, will Dr. Hanover prevail in his bid to cure Tolleson with modern therapeutic treatment? Or will Milburn's narcissism and reliance on brutal showmanship steamroll over everyone in his path?

All of which brings us back to the series' most central question: That of Ratched's heroism, or her villainy. She's a highly complex character, capable of surprising acts of tender mercy, especially when faced with the era's primitive, even barbaric "curative" techniques (especially where non-heterosexuals are concerned). But she can spin on a dime, showing herself to be just as capable of heartless calculation, as when she manipulates a mental patient into committing suicide in order to serve her own plans. Sarah Paulson pulls it all together into a sublime performance.

There's every reason to think that "Ratched" might be a multi-season series. This initial run - with its highly stylized production, a score that would be just at home in a film by Douglas Sirk as in a Hitchcock thriller, and episodes that feel like mini-films noir in the 1940s mold - is both a feast and a tease. It's never afraid to go too far, and while that results in an occasional false note, the series overall is a sleekly irresistible mix of melodrama, camp, suspense, and femmes fatale.

"Ratched" is streaming now on Netflix.

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