Mildred’s rescue mission leads her into acts of cruelty—such as manipulating a distraught man to take his own life in Dr. Hanover’s office during one of the Governor’s visits (so she can swoop in and clean it up, as the good doctor’s savior) and giving an icepick lobotomy to an innocent priest who’s seen too much—that the show wisely resists playing up as campy grandeur. She knows what she’s doing is wrong and still she must do it. Paulson vests Mildred with the full weight of her transgressions and a ferocious dedication to her cause. Her grim awareness stands in contrast with Dr. Hanover, who sees himself as a progressive champion in his field, but whose “innovative” treatments—like the lobotomy, hydrotherapy in scalding baths, and hypnosis—are as vicious as anything a serial killer might dream up. Indeed, Mildred’s blossoming back into her humanity comes when she and a fellow nurse, disfigured war veteran Huck (Charlie Carver), decide to save two patients—a pair of women who have fallen in love while hospitalized and must be “treated” for their “afflictions”—from the sustained torture of hydrotherapy. Of course, the choice to save these women from broiling alive is about learning to accept her desire for Gwendolyn; it’s also embracing, as hard as she can, the part of her that can still feel empathy for anyone else. For Mildred, love isn’t all roses, it’s also a garland of thorns.
It’s unfortunate that once this plot-line resolves itself, “Ratched” devolves under the force of a sudden and wholly unnecessary “muchness” full of assassination plots, political intrigue, lovers on the run, and monkeys in diapers. Creator Evan Romansky and team seem to lose confidence that more grounded, human stories are animated by all-consuming and relatable human desires. The show sacrifices tonal coherence for a kaleidoscopic intensity that alienates, rather than engages, the viewer—especially when so many compelling supporting performances, like Briones or Judy Davis as Betsy Bucket, Mildred’s chief rival at the nurses’ station, or Finn Wittrock as the patient Mildred is so attached to, become sucked into the vacuum of inelegant zaniness. The show takes a hard pivot, as if it’s auditioning to be some secret season of “American Horror Story” and indulges in that series’ worse impulses.
In some ways, Murphy is not unlike Dr. Hanover, a man fancying himself as an enlightened innovator while inflicting real damage—most notably, in the depictions of physical disability and mental illness. Characters who are physically disabled are either monstrous or all-suffering saints, with little of the nuance or grit afforded to the able-bodied. The show purports to be, at least nominally, about the horrors enacted against vulnerable mentally ill people, but it traffics in the most pernicious stereotypes against mental illness—specifically, that it makes people dangerous. Late in the series, Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), a patient with multiple personality disorder, arrives on the scene like a cyclone, all chaos and bluster—and it’s not long before she goes from victim to wild-eyed killer, a depiction that is only compounded by the fact that Charlotte is the only Black woman with a recurring role. The patients we’re meant to sympathize with are the two women that Mildred and Huck help escape—white and blonde and not really crazy, after all, just blue-eyed victims of their bigoted times.