The rare look at undercover queer life in the 1940s is measured, quiet, and warm, especially when it centers around Gwendolyn and her trips to a lesbian bar hideaway or a restaurant where no one will look askance at one woman feeding another oysters. There’s also a chilling but all-too-real take on the early days of conversion therapy, before it was even called that, with the physically dangerous ice bath (though substantiating the boiling bath proved difficult.)
Choices so big they strain credulity – like a dance between staff and patients, or staff committing homicide several times in the first few episodes – undercut the brutal reality of the American mental health care system of the time. Casual viewers would be forgiven for thinking a medical procedure involving taking an instrument that looks like an ice pick to the brain is as fictitious as a doctor sewing another man’s limbs onto a patient in a hotel room. Sadly, they would be wrong. But so many of the story choices of Ratched serve only to bring viewers to that incorrect conclusion.
A patient (an arresting Sophie Okonedo) does the TV-version of multiple personality disorder where she changes from one increasingly bombastic manic persona to the next at the drop of a hat. It’s well-acted, in the sense that I’m sure this is exactly what Murphy as show creator (and occasional director, but not writer) was looking for and impossible to stop watching. We see something of range, from a timid adult woman to a baby voice to running around the room screaming. All the same, it feels like low hanging fruit. A depiction as well-trod as it is inaccurate, it’s hard to consider its merits outside of their real world and narrative implications. Given the lazy inaccuracy of it, one has to wonder, are Murphy and Romansky kidding themselves that they’re actually critiquing the system here?
The one theme Ratched carries over well from Cuckoo’s Nest is the way Mildred uses subtle shame to control people, to the extent that most don’t even realize they’re being controlled. It’s how she kept her iron grip on the facility in the film, humiliating everyone from patients to orderlies, and here it’s how she insinuates herself into all manner of situations where she does not rightly belong. One wonders what a Ratched that leaned on the origins of this psychology and dropped the murder, mayhem, and emerald green lighting would look like.
Ratched pursues, at every juncture, the most salacious version of the story, while also managing a plodding season where viewers will feel every minute of each episode as it passes. Rather than an indictment of the mental health care system, Murphy plays both sides up the middle, taking every opportunity to show patients dripping saliva, playing up the idea of people with mental health issues as deranged and a burden. The ableism, as the kids say, jumps out, but here it’s no exaggeration – a musical cue is played when someone is revealed to be an amputee. An orderly with a facial disfigurement (Teen Wolf’s Charlie Carver as Huck) is used to scare Mildred – and the audience – in an early episode.