There’s a scene early in the new Ryan Murphy series Ratched in which Cynthia Nixon’s character Gwendolyn, press secretary to the California governor, not only teaches Sarah Paulson’s Mildred Ratched how to eat an oyster, but feeds it to her. It’s an over-the-top nod to old euphemisms for sex acts, made even more delicious by the fact that Gwendolyn is assuredly queer and secure in her identity. The fact that Nixon and Paulson are both out actresses is essentially the mignonette sauce atop of the oyster, as it were.
Ratched takes place circa 1947 and is an origin story for the sadistic Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Louise Fletcher won the Academy Award for her portrayal of the character in the acclaimed 1975 film, and it's currently available for streaming on Netflix). Saturated in technicolor and punctuated with dramatic lighting and shadows and low angle camera work, it’s also an homage to several styles of filmmaking including noir, horror, and melodrama popularized in Hollywood’s heyday.
Unlike the coded LGBTQ+ characters in that era of moviemaking, lesbianism is front-and-center in the series in which Murphy and creator Evan Romansky hand back powerful stories to the queer people and women of a certain age who were systematically stereotyped and sidelined.
“The character Gwendolyn that I play is so different from the characters I usually play,” Nixon tells Out. “I usually play people who are far more divided upon themselves and far darker and quirkier. And Gwendolyn is so purely who she is and so complete.”
“Some people have asked me if she’s struggling with her sexuality,” Nixon says. “She’s not struggling at all. She understands exactly who she is and what she wants. And she’s trying to make it happen in 1947, which is very difficult. But she is the only person in Ratched sort of advocating the path of light.”
One way Gwendolyn moves through the world fairly undetected as she hits up secluded women’s bars, like the one where she takes Mildred for a nightcap, is with a lavender marriage to Trevor Briggs played by The Boys in the Band’s Michael Benjamin Washington. The marriage is a nod to LGBTQ+ history wrapped in a show that shines a light on Hollywood’s history.
Gwendolyn and Mildred first lock eyes at an institution in California’s Central Coast where Mildred has mysteriously arrived just ahead of the infamous killer Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) whose mental state is to be determined. Where Mildred is guarded, controlling, and overly concerned with her own definition of scruples, Gwendolyn is confident and bright — a success story for women in the workplace at the time, even if she works for a sexist nihilist played by Vincent D’Onofrio.
Aside from the queer storyline, Nixon was intrigued by the show’s depiction of women at that moment. Ratched also stars Judy Davis as the head nurse Betsy Bucket, who delivers dry one-liners throughout; Sharon Stone as Lenore, a socialite with an ax to grind; and Amanda Plummer as a motel owner with a proclivity for booze and an over-interest in the sex lives of her guests.
“[Murphy] pitched it to me as a series about that moment in American history when people of color and women had been such a big part of the war [World War II] effort and had been given all of this opportunity. As soon as the war was won and the GIs came home, it was kind of like, ‘Thanks so much. Y’all can go sit down now,’” Nixon says. “We see so many women in our story who have so much ambition for themselves and their careers but are struggling against the old patriarchal mores that have returned to roost.”
Nixon, a 2018 New York gubernatorial candidate best known for playing Miranda on Sex and the City, has been out since 2004 when she began dating her now-wife Christine Marinoni. She pulls no punches about the revered best picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“I thought that reclaiming the Mildred Ratched character in a kind of a feminist way was a brilliant stroke,” Nixon says. “Obviously, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great movie and she’s a great character, but it’s also a deeply misogynistic worldview.” The film’s nurse was presented as monstrous in part because of the way she emasculated her male mental patient charges.
“Let’s take a look at Mildred and where she came from and is she really a monster?” Nixon asks rhetorically of the series that gives Mildred a complicated backstory and, for a time, a little joy. “Are monsters born, or are monsters created, and what went into creating her?”
Nixon also commends the setting in what feels like the dark ages of psychiatric medicine for creating a space to explore the institutionalized ways in which people have been labeled sick and othered.
“We certainly see a whole host of people, including queer people, who are defined as mentally ill and are subjected to sadistic tortures and lobotomies as a curative means,” Nixon says.
“One of the big themes of Ratched is if there is some part of you that either you don’t like or society doesn’t like, trying to cut it out of yourself or suppress it is not going to, in any way, eradicate it from you. Pushing it down is only going to make it spring back bigger and stronger than before,” she says. “The only way to actually deal with parts of yourself that you might not be happy with, or somebody might not be happy with, is to own them and accept them and bring them out of the shadows into the light of day.”
Without spoiling Ratched for those who didn’t immediately binge it when it dropped on Netflix earlier this month, the show is endlessly enjoyable as it invokes humor, horror, and old Hollywood, often all in the same scene. But it also confronts Tinsel Town’s Golden Age by continually subverting the expectations of queer viewers who’ve become accustomed to bad things happening, especially to lesbian and bisexual female characters who often ended up forced back into a relationship with a man, dead, or institutionalized. It was a bonus that Nixon and Paulson are both queer and that they were able to have thoughtful conversations with the writers, who Nixon says were “amazing and listened.”
“I don’t think there should be any kind of litmus test for who gets to play what kind of parts, but I think having two queer women playing these two queer characters was an enormous boon,” Nixon says, acknowledging conversations in the zeitgeist about whether or not it should be compulsory that queer actors play queer characters.
“There was a whole bunch of different things that happened, particularly later in the series, where Sarah and I went in and spoke to the writers and said, ‘This can’t happen. Can’t we have more of this? Why does this have to happen that way?’”
“They were originally going to have my character die at the end of season one, and she doesn’t. I think that’s a boon in and of itself,” Nixon says.
But, since it is a thriller and those familiar with the source material are aware of what Mildred’s future holds, Nixon knowingly adds, “I’m sure there’s lots of heartbreak and pathos ahead, you know, around the corner.”
Ratched is currently streaming on Netflix.