Nothing in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series Pawl connects to Miloš Forman’s masterpiece from 1975 Flight over a cuckoo’s nest except title character. On the one hand, the series is set at the St. Lucia Hospital in Northern California in the late 1940s, while the film is set at the Oregon State Hospital in the late 1940s. 1960. The film promotes individualism in the face of overwhelming authoritarian rule, while the series is intended to illustrate how the brutal mental health treatments of the time proved to be detrimental to doctors and patients. But instead of instilling empathy for the mentally ill, Murphy Pawl does exactly the opposite.
The eight episodes of PawlThe show’s first season, which premieres in full on September 18 on Netflix, features post-war divine robes against striking blue and red paintings. Opening in neo-noir, the series is similar to american horror story, but with much less surrealism. And that’s where the positives end. Newly released Army Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives in Saint Lucia with a letter of employment from the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). The catch: Dr. Hanover doesn’t know Nurse Ratched. She tampered with the letter, which Head Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) quickly realizes. In fact, Mildred’s interest in the hospital comes from her new patient, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), who is under psychiatric evaluation after murdering four priests.
Mildred and Edmund’s personal connection comes to dominate the series and hijacks the patient story that creators Evan Romansky and Murphy want to bring to light. Murphy Pawl fails in storytelling by rendering a classic character incomprehensible, while drawing on problematic stereotypes around race and sanity.
In this origin story of Cuckoo’s nestAn infamous and brutal nurse, Paulson gives her everything. But Romansky and showrunner Ian Brennan describe Mildred as an inconsistent character. During the first two episodes, the strongest in the series, she is a master manipulator who closely resembles Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of the character in 1975. While staying at a beachfront hotel run by Louise (an Amanda Plummer ), she mingles with Detective Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll). At the behest of Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) – a wealthy businesswoman with a disabled but demented son (Brandon Flynn) – Wainwright is suing Dr Hanover, who is raising money for his fledgling hospital through a governor pervers (Vincent D’Onofrio) his own re-election campaign.
Mildred takes advantage of the parties involved in the blackmail and murder, in an effort to have Edmund declared legally insane. But when Mildred transforms into an empathetic nurse and then into her lover’s devoted companion, we’ve spent so much time with her as a manipulator that her change never feels believable. The difference between growth and inconsistency comes from the external circumstances that affect the inner workings of a character. But in Pawl, there is no narrative event to explain Mildred’s sudden personality changes. She simply transforms into an unrecognizable new character in every episode.
Serial, Pawl also changes for no reason. The show first criticizes the barbaric methods used to treat mental health patients. In the second episode, two lesbians – Ingrid (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Lily (Annie Starke) – arrive at the hospital to get rid of the melancholy. They become friends with Peter (Teo Briones), a young boy suffering from hallucinations. Joseph Marcell (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) plays a patient with acting illusions. All believe they require a lobotomy, a procedure now famous for permanently incapacitating JFK’s sister, Rosemary Kennedy. Nurse Bucket also preaches humane treatment through tranquilizers. But after the first two episodes, the show is rarely aimed at other patients. They unceremoniously disappear into the background, never to be heard again. Or Flight over a cuckoo’s nest attempted to give voice to the mentally ill, the show refocuses on nurses and Dr. Hanover.
In the process, Pawl is based on disturbing stereotypes. Huck is kind and generous for a foul, but he is disfigured by burns on the left side of his face. Mildred treats him like an unhappy angel, even going so far as to say that his life has no purpose – an old stereotype of patients with special needs. The series also assumes that people with mental health issues are naturally at risk for others. Sophie Okenedo is thrilling as Charlotte, a black woman with multiple personality disorder resulting from racial trauma, but she is also painted as threatening. Why is a black woman definitely dangerous, when Mildred – a white woman with her own traumas – is allowed to change? Too often Murphy, Brennan, and Romansky offer redemption selectively and with obvious biases.
Through the last three episodes, Pawl abandoned the logic of history. The show strengthens the exhibition by explaining a child’s sex ring through puppets. Bucket and Mildred’s conflicted relationship takes an inexplicable turn. And Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), adviser to the governor, develops an undeserved bond with Mildred. Even Edmund – a killer supposed to be defined by his fatigue of shedding innocent blood – ignores this most basic trait. The final shot, which involves a Mexican desert and three characters unrelated to each other, is so impractical that it’s nearly impossible to follow.
Pawl betrays its characters at every turn because the series refuses to follow its own construction of the world. The show’s refusal makes Mildred Ratched’s potentially promising character unintelligible, even as Paulson tries to realize his potential through force of will. It makes Mildred and Edmund’s relationship comical. And the writing silences the mentally ill so often – people who have already been silent for too long – that viewers must wonder if they were ever meant to be more than showcases. Murphy Pawl – an origin story that no one has really asked for – fails to offer an intriguing reinvention of the character, or even a reason for her existence.
The first season of Pawl is now streaming on Netflix.