Nurse Mildred Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the most famous movie villains of all time. The character is known for her abusive, passive aggressive treatment of the patients of an Oregon psychiatric hospital. She’s so cruel, in fact, that a patient ends up killing himself, but that’s not the same Mildred Ratched portrayed in Netflix’s newest Ryan Murphy project, Ratched.
Set in 1947 to 1950, Murphy’s latest psychological thriller stars Sarah Paulson as the sinister Mildred Ratched, who starts out the season deliberately offending everyone she meets, performing lobotomies on innocent priests, and portraying the hallmark emotional repression that made Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched so sinister.
There aren’t a lot of similarities between the two Nurse Ratcheds
Ratched makes clear attempts to draw parallels between the old Nurse Ratched and the new. There’s a moment, for example, when Mildred convinces a suffering patient at the Lucia State Hospital to kill himself. Rather than his suicide being driven by Nurse Ratched’s cruelty like in Cuckoo’s Nest, Paulson’s Ratched convinces this man to kill himself out of her angel of mercy complex. Fletcher’s cruelty was more stemmed from a disdain for people with mental illnesses.
As the show goes on, viewers learn how her angel of mercy complex got her kicked out the military during World War II and how it drives her need to help save her brother, Edmund Tolleson. Indeed, Paulson’s character evolves into a much more sympathetic, complex, and vulnerable woman throughout the season.
To make a villain more sympathetic is, of course, the intention of any villain origin story, but the end of Season 1 leaves Mildred in such a far off place from her Cuckoo’s Nest persona, it’s hard to imagine how the show is going to complete this arc.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is scary because it’s a metaphor for bureaucratic corruption
There’s one big difference in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that sets it apart from Netflix’s Ratched. In Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is emblematic of the oppressive system that tells anyone who steers from the status quo that they’re broken. She is able to act the way she does because the rules are in her favor. In Ratched, Mildred breaks every rule to make things turn out in her favor.
The bureaucracy of the American psychiatric system is what made Cuckoo’s Nest such a terrifying film and a fittingly harsh critique on American society. Netflix’s Ratched argues that the nurse was once an outcast too, and the abuse she suffered in her past is what made her into the monster she was. But Nurse Ratched is a much more chilling villain if she and the other people in power believe it is morally right to treat mental patients with such cruelty. Ratched herself is not evil, rather she is the shining example of the corrupt systems of power.
Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest is more like Nurse Betsy Buckett, in that they both believe in the harmful medical experiments being conducted on patients. They don’t question the doctors’ practices (although even Betsy evolves past this). Mildred in Ratched, on the other hand, is an outspoken critic of procedures like boiling patients alive. Although she is fascinated by lobotomies and even performs one herself, she eventually changes course and helps patients escape Lucia State Hospital so they no longer have to endure abuse.
Given how Ratched Season 1 set up the story, it will be difficult for the show to successfully land the transition of Mildred Ratched from an abused outsider who fights for the oppressed to the physical embodiment of the corrupt system she tried so hard to undo. But as history has shown, anything can happen in a Ryan Murphy show.
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