ratchet presents a hardened view of people fueled solely by their trauma, with its main character among them.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Nothing in ratchet works. Not the authoritative score desperately trying to replicate the splendor of Bernard Herrmann’s work with Alfred Hitchcock. Not the constant insistence on inserting various shades of green into each frame. Not the acting, even performed by performers who have been dynamic elsewhere. Not rudderless scripts. Not the approach to American life after WWII. Before even wrapping up its fledgling pilot episode, the new Netflix series – designed by Evan Romansky and brought into existence by Ryan Murphy – proclaims itself loud and clear as a mess of the first order. Yet the most instructive scene in terms of the tangle of issues plaguing this misguided series comes later.
Halfway through episode six, Sarah Paulson’s nurse Mildred Ratched shares her heartbreaking story with the woman she seems to fall in love with and to whom she can no longer lie. A tour through the sexual violence, abuse and horrors that can arise in the foster care system, delivered by Paulson straight to the camera, this ploy for audience sympathy via Mildred’s trauma-laden backstory may would have achieved his goals if he had not followed in stride a puppet show that has already told the exact same story at the same pace and with exactly the same effect. But the problem with this scene is bigger than the simple rehearsal. This highlights the central issue that plagues the entire series: an adherence to creating a gritty, traumatic backstory that flattens out a character who didn’t need it.
ratchet is full of baffling decisions that reflect not only a blatant misunderstanding of the character and the world she lives in, but also a deep distrust of the audience. It draws a hard line between trauma suffered in childhood and trauma inflicted in adulthood, an insulting premise that cushions the experience of trauma rather than giving audiences a glimpse of how the pains of our past shape our present. But it’s not that surprising since ratchet has nothing new to say about any ideas that he captures and marvels before throwing them out the window and turning his attention to sex and violence more visually by heart, narratively hollow. There is nothing redeemable to find in the folds of those eight hours of television. Nothing! Please don’t let idle curiosity lead you into this miserable endeavor. Haven’t we learned over the past six months how precious life is? Why waste it on a show that shows so little interest in the interiority of its characters that you feel insulted by the actors?
The most glaring problem is the most essential: Nurse Ratched herself, an extremely confused character who becomes everything a scene needs from her with little internal logic to find. Inspired, supposedly, by the character of the same name in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel and Milos Forman’s 1975 film – which won Louise Fletcher an Oscar for the role – the Mildred depicted in ratchet is recognizable by name only, a WWII nurse who forces herself to work at the clean-looking Lucia State Psychiatric Hospital run by Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and sheltering Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), a famous serial killer with a deep connection to Mildred. It’s that connection that fuels his hugely inconsistent decisions, sending us on a journey from a simple origin story to a pale, pointless game between increasingly grotesque players.
In the hands of Forman and Fletcher, Nurse Ratched was a powerful emblem of the intertwined systems of mental hospitals and nursing. It is a cog that keeps the machine in working order, rigorous and in accordance with the rules. Fletcher gives a formidable performance that is placid, if not icy, on the surface and barbed wire below. His character is not a mere villain but a rich, dynamic figure who questions how a person can be a part of obliterating systems that forcefully shape and even end the lives of others. In ratchet, her character is a rogue force who doesn’t just ignore the book – she sets the book on fire for her own purposes. Who Ratched helps and who she hurts doesn’t always follow. In the first episode, she drives one patient to suicide and gives another the wrong medicine in order to engage in a heroic act of dressing up. A few episodes later, when she helped two lesbians escape the clutches of the hospital’s hydrotherapy treatment, I was left confused – if she finds such barbaric therapy and has genuine goodwill towards patients, why would- she comfortable driving a man to suicide? Paulson is ultimately unable to create an emotional line for the character.
ratchet presents the America of 1947 as a hardened vision of a people fueled solely by their traumas. Visually, the series, the first episode of which is directed by Murphy, is obsessed with lacquered, even calcified images, which never effectively communicate information – the series is particularly fond of inconsequential shared screens – and whose only interest is to ‘draw attention to its own hardened, impenetrable looks. On a deeper level of history, the show turns out to be deeply aware of the gruesome story of how queer men and women were treated in hospitals and psychiatry, an area that pathologized our desires, and yet unable to create a coherent thought on this story. (The race is drawn in a more confused fashion, with rare and unsatisfying mentions or examples of racism in its race-blind construction of the world, as if the characters are largely unencumbered by its dynamics.) The story of lesbians moving in the mental health arena during a moment when they were in deep pain for asking for help with something natural and sadly heavily pathologized could have been an intriguing study. It’s a rich story worthy of study and empathy. But this story is treated as a rambling backdrop for Ratched’s machinations and his own struggle with his gender identity. There is something irritating about taking the very real, very heartbreaking story of mental hospitals in America and reducing it to a story about the one-dimensional trauma of serial killers and trusted artists.
ratchet likes to overlay a tragic backstory, thus obscuring who these characters really are, either because they are entirely one-dimensional or because they are constructed in such an archaic way that they are rendered inhuman. What should engender sympathy is meaningless in the writing, which makes melodrama a joke. No actor does a memorable or engaging job. Finn Wittrock as Edmund Tolleson aims to be threatening and confrontational, but comes across as an empty-headed bully. Judy Davis as Ratched’s rival, nurse Betsy Bucket, confuses her waving arms and exasperated sighs with meaningful acting. Amanda Plummer as Louise, the owner of the motel Ratched occupies, feels like a bag of disparate ideas rather than an entire character. Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells, a woman with the most insulting rendition of multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) that I have seen for a very long time, gives a sloppy performance and noisy that harshly underlines the failures of the writing: the insistence on radically changing the characters to fit the plot reaches its climax with its character. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch such a caricature of a mentally ill woman, especially one who becomes violent in a way that distorts these very real experiences.
The nature of origin stories is to argue that there is something significant about its central character. May their lives reveal something worth studying. That they are unique. But Nurse Mildred Ratched was an intriguing force in the 1975 film for the exact opposite reason: she illuminated the power of systemic forces. In the hands of Murphy and his collaborators, however, she becomes a run-of-the-mill villain whose traumatic story is a cowardly used tool rather than a place for a true exploration of the horrors she’s endured. There are no moments of honesty in ratchet. There is no such thing as a cunning or clever design. There is no guiding theme making anything with the import. There is no tension or suspense. The more you extend the slog through its endless eight episodes, the more obvious it becomes how much of a waste of time this exercise is.