Mad Magazine Would've Dubbed Netflix's 'Ratched' 'Wretched'

New Netflix production resembles Ken Kesey's classic in name only.

Posted Sep 27, 2020

Emily Wolff, used with permission
Nurse Ratched reimagined yet again.
Source: Emily Wolff, used with permission

This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it." –Dorothy Parker

It isn’t really terrible, I just wanted to quote Dorothy Parker, and consider for a moment the job she might have done with this latest addition to the Ryan Murphy oeuvre. In addition to her skill at witty bon mots, she was a more than passable screenwriter in her day.

Speaking of Ms. Parker, her literary alma mater, The New Yorker, has done a fine job of elucidating the show’s faults in a piece entitled, “Ratched,” Reviewed: A Confused, Caricaturish Origin Story for the “Cuckoo’s Nest” Villainess. Thus, I won’t spend much time taking potshots of my own. If another once New York-based periodical, Mad Magazine, was still a thing, however, Wretched would almost certainly be how they’d title the parody. 

A writer friend of mine recently noted that Ratched was interesting, “but more American Horror Story than Ken Kesey.” I found myself somewhat in agreement, but replied with my own hot take that it was in fact 100% AHS and 0% Kesey. Kesey’s Ratched (as embodied by Louise Fletcher in the 1975 best picture Academy Award winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is eminently more terrifying in her banal authoritarianism than is Paulson's in her cartoony sociopathy

There’s even greater distance from the character in Kesey’s original novel. (When we talk about Kesey’s Ratched, after all, we’re really probably talking about Milos Forman’s, with whom Mr. Kesey seems to have been less than well pleased.)  Sarah Paulson’s Ratched would have gorily dispatched charming sociopath Randall McMurphy in the first week, and there’d be no movie. Kesey’s and even Forman’s conception of her would never have to get their hands dirty in this fashion, preferring to rely on passive-aggressive psychological manipulation.

As a consequence, in my opinion, you can’t get from the former’s 1947 “prequel” version to the latter’s 1975 iteration. The creators of this program, it seems, would have been better served to come up with a different name for their main character who ends up, besides common name and background as an Army nurse in World War II, a rather entirely different character.

A few of the things the late-lamented Mad might have honed in on:

  • A psychiatric facility this luxe (the entirety of the work, even unto the seedy roadside motel Nurse Ratched stays in, is all very striking, visually) hasn’t been seen since Hitchcock’s Spellbound
  • Paulson’s Nurse Ratched must be a welcome addition to the staff (even if her new coworkers receive her coldly), as there are only about 3 or 4 nurses (the same ones) ever working at any point, day or night. More are seen from time to time as the chief psychiatrist (who is seemingly the only physician on staff) makes dramatic announcements, but once dismissed they apparently just go home.
  • The idea that any mid-20th century governor would so impulsively cast his reelection hopes around a campaign issue of such dismal popularity as increasing funding for mental health is laughable to anyone who has an inkling of how the real thing worked in that (or nearly any other) era.
  • All major mental illness stereotypes are on hand.  Psychiatrist crazier than his patients? Check. Ghastly treatments rendered haphazardly and/or with malice? Check. People with Dissociative Identity Disorder easily becoming rampaging thrill killers? Check. They don’t directly tackle electroconvulsive therapy, or shock treatment—that was pretty handily demonized in the source material, after all—but they do hit on it from another angle. A California death row inmate is horridly dispatched via a faulty electric chair with Vincent D’Onofrio’s portly governor at the switch. Of course, the gas chamber was the method of execution in California during the 1940s (and before that hanging), but poetic license and all that.

On a more serious note, as a mental health advocate, I tend to find myself prone to evaluating how any given creative work that sets mental illness as a primary theme or significant plot point provides either a negative, neutral, or positive portrayal that potentially makes what I and others in my line of advocacy do either harder, unchanged, or easier. (This may seem a too-simplified rubric, and it does not take into account artistic merit, or lack thereof.) 

Photo by Octoptimist from Pexels
Source: Photo by Octoptimist from Pexels

It has been argued that the Cuckoo’s Nest has been an accelerator of the so-called “anti-psychiatry” movement. Certainly, the novel, the Kirk Douglas’ Broadway production, the 1975 film, and now, Ratched portray fictionally many of the actual greatest ills of asylum warehousing of the seriously mentally ill in mid-century America. To what extent do these interpretations, however, color modern perceptions and potentially hinder efforts at desperately needed reform?

On the other hand, perhaps the idea that anyone should take this gooey pastiche (raisins and all) as any sort of serious appraisal of mental health care is rather far-fetched. I suppose the fact that I might have anticipated it being so—something closer to American Crime Story than the weakest season of American Horror Story—was even further-fetched.  

In 2001, Kesey spoke of meeting by chance many years after the fact the real-life nurse who had served as (his) Ratched’s inspiration. At far remove he found her “much smaller than I remembered, and a whole lot more human.” It is interesting to note that during the time Kesey worked in the facility on which he based his novel he was augmenting his income with a side gig as a paid experimental subject in military trials of LSD and mescaline. Given his later rather well-documented penchant for hallucinogens, is it hard to imagine Kesey might have engaged in some extracurricular use of these and other substances during his duties on the ward and perhaps these might potentially have tinted his conceptualizations of the (altered) reality around him? Could any (or all) of the novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden’s, nightmarish visions have been transcribed straight from Kesey’s own mind’s chemically-altered perceptions of the perhaps less malevolent experience around him?