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Netflix's 'Ratched' gives Big Nurse a backstory and a sinister splendor you won't want to unsee

With a re-envisioning of Nurse Ratched, Evan Romansky and Ryan Murphy prove once again that women make the best, and most interesting, monsters.
Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched in "Ratched" on Netflix.
Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched in "Ratched" on Netflix.Sayeed Adyani / Netflix

When Ken Kesey introduced Nurse Ratched in his acclaimed 1962 novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," she became an archetype for cold, cruel and heartless women, seemingly unfeeling and unmoved by normal human emotions — at least according to the novel's deliberately unreliable protagonist-narrator and the other patients in the ward. The character known as "Big Nurse" was portrayed in much the same fashion in Miloš Forman's film adaptation of Kesey's novel just over a decade later, with Louise Fletcher bringing the joyless woman to life.

Neither, however, offered readers or viewers any understanding of Mildred Ratched herself or of her motivations; her depiction in the 1960s and the 1970s was completely one-dimensional — an Oedipal authority figure into which the unreliable narrator and sympathetic audiences had little insight and whose physical, sexualized humiliation they cheer.

Netflix's "Ratched," created by Evan Romansky and produced by "American Horror Story" creator Ryan Murphy, magnifies the character of Mildred Ratched in colorful and sinister splendor — proving once again that women make the best, and most interesting, monsters.

The series is set in 1947 — before the events of the novel — and Sarah Paulson's Mildred Ratched isn't the woman you might remember from that Oregon mental institution who wore her anger and rage on her face (and, perhaps, had found the freedom to do so). Instead, Paulson's character works diligently to hide both the monstrous elements of herself and of her past. And as a single woman living in the 1940s, Mildred has had a lot of practice when it comes to sublimating her emotions and putting on a pleasant face.

On more than one occasion, she is sexually harassed by California Gov. George Milburn (Vincent D'Onofrio); belittled by a prospective suitor, Charles Wainwright (Corey Stole); and underestimated by Head Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) — and more than that, as viewers eventually come to learn. Still, she never yields or shows much emotion. Instead, because she has learned to navigate the sexist world of the 1940s, she has mastered the ability to guilt, shame, divide and conquer others to achieve what she wants.

And what she wants is to rectify past wrongs while getting revenge against those who have harmed her in the present. Understanding that she must play the game to see her plan made manifest, she dresses in colorful A-line skirts and pins her hair into a Victory roll. Thus camouflaged in era-appropriate femininity, her obsession is allowed to flourish unchecked. And as she plays into others' desires, Mildred hides her true motives behind a leading lady's picturesque gaze, like many women did in some of Hollywood's timeless films noirs.

What Romansky posits with his series, then, is that, after experiencing sexism and objectification throughout her life, Mildred pushed to reclaim her identity and sense of self through monstrous acts. And, though it is not the most defensible choice, she expresses her cruelty in much more exciting and tightly controlled ways than the male villains in the series, who had never been forced to check their emotions or behavior.

In films of the era portrayed in "Ratched" — like "Gaslight" (1944), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "Double Indemnity" (1944) — the audience often overlooked women characters as the antagonists or villains because women were (and still are) so often seen as innocent and non-threatening, and the motives for female villains often went beyond the typical tropes of greed, jealousy and ambition. That line of thinking continued well into the 1990s with movies like "Misery" (1990) and "Basic Instinct" (1992).

While Mildred thrives despite her continued descent into evil, the men in "Ratched" become increasingly unhinged. Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), the hospital director, becomes more dependent on his opium addiction, unraveling because of the stress of running the hospital and trying to successfully house maximum-security patient Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock). When Mildred offers her help, he's desperate for it.

Likewise, her suitor, Charles, is horrified and enraged when he realizes he has fallen into a trap of Mildred's, since he had assumed he had the upper hand after having belittled her.

Mildred isn't the only woman in the series who has mastered the art of relentless ambition. Sharon Stone dazzles as the eccentric millionaire Lenore Osgood, whose obsession — seeking retribution against the man responsible for her child's condition — clings to her like the pet monkey she always carries on her shoulders. But while Mildred's intoxication with the horrific pops up only every now and then, Lenore's wealth and status allow her to wear her cruel intentions on her sleeve.

Too often — both on and off screen — women are underestimated, and, in "Ratched," the screenwriters allow Mildred to reclaim her story and identity without becoming the diabolical "Big Nurse" who has been etched into popular culture. And, instead of being haunted by her past, Mildred becomes the hunter. "Ratched" is a moving Norman Rockwell painting dripped in blood, and one so astonishing that you cannot look away.