Netflix’s Ratched review: Sarah Paulson gives her best performance yet

Ratched review: how Sarah Paulson’s horror series broke Netflix records

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Ryan Murphy and Sarah Paulson’s Ratched may have proven divisive, but it broke Netflix records.

Updated on 19 October: Whether you loved it or hated it, there’s no denying that Ratched has proven itself a must-watch series with viewers.

Indeed, Sarah Paulson’s psychological horror shot to the number one spot in Netflix‘s top 10 on the weekend of its release, as fans binged their way through every single episode.

And, on Friday 16 October, the TV series became the streamer’s most viewed debut season of 2020.

“Within in its first 28 days, the show was streamed by a whopping 48 million households,” confirms Digital Spy.

As reported on 24 September: It makes sense, then, that a second season of the show is coming in the not-so-distant future.

In fact, Netflix actually ordered two seasons at once back in September 2017.

At the time, Deadline reported that Netflix commissioned 18 episodes of Ratched in total, which means that we still have another 10 episodes to go.

What will happen in them, though, remains anyone’s guess. And, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it remains every bit as unclear as to when filming will begin.

As Paulson told Variety and other press: “Nobody knows anything about season two because Ryan, with the number of things he has going on, who’s to know when that’s all going to begin? 

“And you throw in the pandemic and then we think well who knows?”

Netflix’s Ratched: exclusive first look at Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched.
Netflix’s Ratched: Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives at work.

Not yet watched Ratched and keen to know if it’s worth your time? Then check out our spoiler-free review below.

As reported on 18 September: Ask anyone, anyone at all, and they’ll tell you the same damn thing: Sarah Paulson is a goddess.

In Netflix’s Ratched, though, she shuns all of her familiar warmth to become a cold, calculating monster. A couture-wearing monster with occasionally relatable motives, true, but still a monster.

And we strongly suspect she’ll pick up a bevy of awards for it, too.

First, some context. Ratched, the latest in a long line of collaborations between Paulson and Ryan Murphy, offers up a twisted origins story for Mildred Ratched, aka the sadistic nurse from Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Referred throughout the book as the ‘Big Nurse’, Ratched rules over her psychiatric ward with unbridled sadistic glee. Her patients live in terror of her, for they know that she can send them to the orderlies for invasive treatments, or order them into electroshock therapy, or even have them removed from the picture altogether. Indeed, over the short time frame of the book, she destroys three men – two of whom die by suicide, and one who is rendered a shell of his former self after he is lobotomised.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that nobody can speak out against Ratched’s reign of tyranny. Her word is law, because she will always, always, always be believed over her patients, such is the terrible stigma of mental health.

Netflix’s Ratched: Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) lines up alongside her fellow nurses.
Netflix’s Ratched: Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) lines up alongside her fellow nurses.

But who is Mildred Ratched, really? That’s the question that the eight-part Netflix series – half psychological horror, hald drama – seeks to answer. What it should be applauded for doing, though, is refusing to present Mildred as a young naive who is slowly driven down the path to evil.

Instead, when we first meet Paulson’s character – impeccably dressed in vivid red tones, which clash beautifully against the sickly hospital scrubs-green of her car and motel room – it quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right. She’s softly-spoken, true, but she uses her hushed tones to great effect, unsettling anyone who dares cross her.

And, as she prepares for a job interview with near-meticulous precision – donning a costume, reciting lines, almost as an actor would rehearse a new role – it becomes all the more apparent that this job means far more to Mildred than a simple salary. Enough so that she will sit and wait for hours to see someone, anyone about it. 

Enough so that, when she walks in on another nurse in an extremely compromising position, she’s more than happy to use what she’s seen as added leverage.

Without spoiling too much of the series, the first episode makes it all too clear what kind of a person Mildred is. She has a burning desire to correct the wrongs of her past, to punish those who have mistreated her, to challenge anyone who doesn’t view the world through her own same skewered lens.

She, too, seems to truly believe that she knows what’s best for her vulnerable patients. Even if that means meddling with their medication, or quietly letting them know where they might find a sharp blade to put an end to their misery.

“You have been subjected to enough pain,” she whispers convincingly. “You deserve someone to show you mercy. How different I would be if someone had.”

To paraphrase the late Terry Pratchett, Mildred has a truly brilliant mind, but it is brilliant like a fractured mirror; all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that is broken.”

Over time, Mildred’s vision becomes clear. And she has absolutely no problem manipulating the people around her, as if they were nothing more than pieces on a chessboard, in order to get herself there, too.

That being said, though, Ratched’s Mildred is not so monstrous that viewers are unable to empathise with her. Indeed, as Paulson herself explained to Vanity Fair, she found herself identifying with the murderous nurse’s deep sense of “loneliness.”

Netflix’s Ratched: Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched and Cynthia Nixon as Gwendolyn Briggs.
Netflix’s Ratched: Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) and Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) attend an event.

“I think ultimately at the end of the day, that is sort of what drives Mildred. A pursuit of survival and of finding some sense of home,” Paulson said. 

“Even though the methods that she chooses to achieve that internal security are somewhat questionable, I would argue that she’s doing them with a potentially selfish need, but a survival need nevertheless.”

Agreeing with this read, Murphy – who plays homage to horror greats Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock throughout Ratched – added: “What was interesting was trying to create an emotional character from a reputation that’s very cold… trying to figure out every little detail about her childhood, her relationships, her sexuality. 

“Because when people think of Ratched, they think of her as shut-off and cruel and uncaring.”

So, yes, Mildred has moments of sweetness, of kindness, of relatability. And sometimes, without realising it, you’ll find yourself firmly on her side (watch out for the moment her bullying colleagues steal her lunch, if you need an example). 

It is this, however, which makes her all the more terrifying.

As psychologist Dr Deborah Serani previously explained to Stylist: “Any human being… is far more frightening than a one-dimensional psychopathic character because we are all human and complex. And when we discover that someone just like us can do evil, terrifying things, it causes us to wonder how close we can be to doing such things.”

Ratched on Netflix
Netflix’s Ratched: Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) oversees a controversial psychiatric procedure.

Well, quite. And there’s no denying that Mildred is very much a product of the world around her: her traumatic childhood, her warped views on love, her staunch belief that lobotomies are an innovative mental health solution? All of these things point to a villain who has been made, not born.

And it’s this fine line between good and evil – which it’s slyly suggested throughout the series that any of us could cross, given the right circumstances – which will no doubt leave viewers incredibly unsettled.

Make no mistake: this is no small thing. For too long a time, the world of film and TV offered us nothing but campy one-dimensional female villains, like the Wicked Witch of The West and Cinderella’s cruel stepmother. Their evilness was their sole defining trait. That and, of course, their hatred of other, younger female characters. 

They served as nothing more than foils to the ‘good’ girls of their stories, serving to bolster the reductive view that there are only ever two kinds of women in the world.

Netflix Ratched
Netflix’s Ratched: Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) teases her son (Brandon Flynn).

Over the past few years, though, this has changed. As well as a bevy of flawed female heroines, we’ve been given complex, multi-faceted villains, too, with Game Of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, Aunt Lydia of The Handmaid’s Tale, and How To Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating.

Now, we have Mildred Ratched, too.

All hail Paulson, then, for giving us not just another brilliant female villain, but a thought-provoking character, with hopes and dreams and challenges of her own. Because, in doing so, she has raised the bar once again for Hollywood to meet.

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Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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