Nurse Ratched is a character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who’s famously known for being the cold, brooding figure at Salem State Hospital. Her character is made to reflect and embody the abuse of authority on those who are vulnerable. The characterization of Nurse Ratched also serves as a symbol of the power dynamic that existed in mental health institutions back when treatments like lobotomy were seen as effective treatments for patients with mental health issues. At this point, her moral alignment is quite clear to the audience—she isn’t a good person.
However, things took a turn on September 18, 2020, when a new original series came into Netflix called “Ratched”. The series serves as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, centering around Nurse Ratched and her life before her time at Salem State Hospital. As of now, the show has only released 8 episodes, but each of those episodes forces us as the audience to call into question the morality of this morally ambiguous character. Is she a monster? Or does she have redeeming qualities that keep her from crossing the line? Let’s try and make a case for both sides and see what we can manage to understand the complex character that is Nurse Ratched.
The Sinister Nurse
It’s very clear that during her time in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she was meant to be the main antagonist of the film. She has done unspeakable things, with one that’s often cited as evidence of her cruelty being when she taunted one of the patients, Billy Bibbit, by threatening to report to his mother after its been known that he’s had sex with a prostitute from Portland, Candy. This led to Billy committing suicide in the doctor’s office and that is arguably one of many incidents in the film that cements our hatred for this inhumane nurse.
In Ratched, we can also observe a similar pattern in her behavior as well. She’s just as cold and sharp-tongued as she was back in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and we’ve also seen her committing acts that parallel to actions she’s committed in the film. However, while the Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film is scary and intimidating because of her ability to dominate others under a soft tone and a stern look, this Nurse Ratched is shown to be capable of much more than just intimidation.
While it’s never mentioned if she had a brother in the film, in Ratched, she has a stepbrother named Edmund Tolleson and her motivations in the entire 8 episodes released so far is to reunite with him. Her willingness to do anything at all costs to achieve her goals has led her to commit heinous acts, such as drugging an old patient with medicine that reduces blood pressure and saving him in order to earn good press and a position at Lucia State Hospital, where her brother is currently held captive. She also effectively blackmails and overpowers Dr. Hanover with the suicide of Dario Salvatore (that she prompted) and is responsible for almost killing one of Lenore Osgood’s hitmen, Charles Wainwright, when she placed him in a tub full of boiling hot water. The nurse also evoked disgust and aversion from the audience when she performed the ice-pick procedure on Father Andrews.
It’s very clear that she doesn’t shy away from committing the cruelest of deeds just to repay her brother and the kindness he’s shown her during their time under foster care. In fact, that very motive is arguably what humanizes her.
Glimpses of Kindness
Her love and loyalty to her brother are one of her redeeming qualities as a person. He’s one of the very few people that she’s shown some kind of sentimentality towards and that’s because he’s the only family she’s known. Nurse Ratched’s tragic past paints her in a more sympathetic light, as she’s shown to have been subjected to abuse from all of the foster families that she’s been sent to. Even after witnessing her brother murder their foster parents, she manages to overlook his malicious tendencies and see the more tender, gentler side to him and that shows that she truly does have a soft spot for him.
There were also times where Nurse Ratched had shown kindness to other people as well. Upon witnessing a lesbian patient, Lily Cartwright undergoes hydrotherapy, she shows signs of sympathy for the patient and urges to release her but is promptly stopped by Nurse Bucket. She eventually helps both Lily and another lesbian patient, Ingrid break free from the mental health facility. Another example of Nurse Bucket’s capacity for kindness is shown during the dance party that she hosted, where Dr. Hanover lashes out at Nurse Bucket, leaving her heartbroken and devastated. Nurse Bucket runs to comfort Nurse Bucket, reassuring that she is strong, smart, and tenacious and that she deserves someone better than him. She then allies with Nurse Bucket and makes her interim head of Lucia State Hospital while persuading Nurse Bucket to promote Ratched’s long-standing ally, Huck as head nurse of the hospital.
Her relationship with Briggs also manages to bring out compassion from Ratched. When Gwendolyn gets shot during the dance, Ratched is shown to be shaken and admittedly illuminated by the experience as she didn’t want to lose her. She also goes to great lengths to ensure the health and happiness of her newfound love, as she’s determined to help Gwendolyn recover from breast cancer and she was willing to go to a puppet show with Gwendolyn just to make her happy. At one point, she even goes on to tell Gwendolyn that “my feelings for you are the truest thing in me.”
Many may argue that in spite of all of this, this Nurse Ratched is the Nurse Ratched of the past, as you’ve probably realized by now that all these kind acts that Nurse Ratched displays can only be found in the prequel and not the original film. However, it’s highly likely that the experiences that Nurse Ratched has gone through over the course of Ratched might’ve twisted her morals and without a proper role model throughout childhood, could she necessarily be blamed for how she turned out? It’s also been stated by Miloš Forman during an interview with Vanity Fair that Nurse Ratched thinks that she’s helping people and she doesn’t necessarily see the problems with her actions. While that doesn’t justify her actions, it could also mean boxing her as a villain even harder. There’s definitely going to be people who feel one way or another about Nurse Ratched and regardless of where you think she should be on the morality scale, one thing we can all agree on is this isn’t all that her story has to offer and there’s a lot left to unfold, so while we wait for details about Season 2, feel free to speculate and theorize about what’s in store for Nurse Ratched.