The Backstory Of Nurse Ratched Attempts To Rework The Harmful Female Character Trope No One Talks About
This story contains major spoilers for Netflix's Ratched, no available for streaming on Netflix.
Thanks to Ken Kesey’s chilling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Mildred Ratched became one of the most terrifying villains in literary canon, and Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of the menacing nurse in the 1975 film adaptation solidified her supervillain status. But according to Ryan Murphy, there’s so much more to Nurse Ratched than the battle-axe that she's historically been portrayed as — she's really a woman with a painful, traumatic past.
Sarah Paulson stars as Nurse Ratched in Murphy's take on the character's origin, and we begin peeling back the layers of her backstory as soon as the series begins. Ratched takes places years before One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, presenting us with a younger Mildred pursuing a job at the Lucia State Hospital for reasons unbeknownst to us. She makes quite the impression on the staff at the institution, and it's not long before she officially begins working in an official capacity.
We find out that Mildred's desire to work at Lucia State is fueled by her brother, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock); he's being treated (read: tortured) in the hospital because he is a serial killer, hunting down priests at local parishes and killing them in fits of rage. As it turns out, Mildred and Edmund have a deep, dark history. When they were children, they were sent to the same foster home, and their foster parents abused them violently. Mildred was able to escape, but she left her foster brother behind. That's why she can't abandon Edmund again, not even after all the atrocities he's committed.
In addition to Mildred's twisted kinship with a serial killer, Ratched also explores her complicated sexuality. As Mildred rises in the ranks at Lucia State, she also finds herself falling in love with a woman named Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon). She initially chafes at the idea of being a lesbian — in the 1940s, homosexuality was widely viewed as a mental illness — but even as she works desperately to free her brother, Mildred finds peace in her relationship with Gwendolyn.
Ratched is gruesome, dark, and a little sloppy at times plot-wise, but the intention of this story is to reframe our understanding of Nurse Ratched from power-hungry tyrant to morally ambiguous anti-hero. Yes, the Mildred that we met in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a sociopath, and she definitely had that same energy in Ratched, but it's all for a reason, says Murphy. In his world, even villains like Mildred are a victim of circumstance.
It's an answer to the age old battle-axe nurse trope that Mildred was written as in the original work. The stereotype describes women, typically nurses, who are sadistic and cruel despite being in positions that require them to care for other people. They're not worried about healing patients; if anything, they actually derive pleasure from making sick people even sick. Power-hungry and willing to do anything to be in control, the battle-axe is pure evil.
Paulson knows what her character is known to be a battle-axe in the zeigeist, but she signed on to Ratched to complicate that narrative. To her, Mildred isn't pure evil — she's just seen a lot of things in life and wants to protect the people that she loves in the best way she knows how. And that desire ultimately changes her from the inside-out.
"I think it's very interesting to watch someone become something and meet themselves," said the lead actress in conversation with MTV. "In the first installment [of Ratched], we get to meet Mildred and learn about her horrific childhood, which I think informs some of her behavior and her choices."
"I felt a lot of empathy for her," Paulson continued. "Not sanctioning her behavior, but understanding some of what she did and why. I could get behind that."