Looking At Gaslit and Watergate
What the Limited Series Told Us About The 20th Century’s Biggest Political Scandal — And What We Still Haven’t Learned From It
I have no doubt that Sam Esmail and Robbie Pickering, the minds behind the riveting Gaslit, knew well that when they decided to give a look at Watergate, there was very little left to say about the affair. Indeed in the series Nixon only appears in old footage and as a body double. So what they chose to do what was far more fascinating. They decided to look at the most notorious political scandal history from the perspective of two couples: John and Martha Mitchell (played by Sean Penn and Julia Roberts) and John and Maureen Dean (Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin) By looking at these two relationships — one in the process of self-destructing, one just beginning — they manage to shine light on at how two key members of the administration viewed the scandal — and just as importantly, how the women in their lives forced them to make choices that affected history.
The Mitchell marriage is shown as being explosive almost from the opening of the series: in the first episode, they go to their bedroom to have a private fight that quickly becomes violent. Both are combative by nature, but Martha is far more outspoken about the flaws in the administration and John is a rock-hard loyalist. In the early stages of the series, it’s clear there’s still love between them, but when John Dean phones him with the news that the Plumbers have been arrested and that Martha might be able to make a connection, Mitchell has no problem deciding putting his wife under armed guards who beat her and having her put on drugs.
Martha is determined to try and push herself through this. Seen through the perspective of the journalist who ended up writing the best selling biography Martha (the always superb Allison Tolman) who becomes her strongest ally during her darkest hour, Martha knows very well what is going on in the White House and she wants to make a stink. The fact that this is causing tension in her marriage does not change her determination to do the right thing and testify before the Committee. Her daughter Marty (Darby Camp) can’t understand what she is trying to do and views this as another effort to wreck her life. John, who divorced his first wife to marry Martha and is cheating on her again while this is going on, has no problem feeding her medical history to the committee to destroy her. Even this destruction does not fundamentally undo Martha’s will; it is the fact that Marty decides that she’d rather live with her father than her mother breaks something inside her and is no doubt part of her decision to recant on a Today Show interview.
The series is excellent portraying the Mitchells as a political couple who were a dynamo together and could have been a force of nature had events not intervened. Julia Roberts is absolutely perfect and Sean Penn is frankly astonishing in his work. Where it fundamentally falls down is trying to come with an explanation as to why Mitchell is so loyal to an administration that has no problem using him as a fall guy and sending him to prison, even after the ship begins to sink. In one episode, we see Mitchell looking overjoyed when he’s invited back to the White House, only to become deeply angry — and despairing — when Nixon not only isn’t there, but to learn that the administration plans to set him up as the man entirely responsible for Watergate. (The scene is actually hysterically funny as Colson, Halderman and Ehrlichman pass the buck as to being involved in an affair we saw them in an earlier scene discussing while Mitchell — no doubt aware the White House bugged — quietly brings up all the dirty laundry the administration has been responsible for.) Does Mitchell feel some sense of duty to a man who has no use for him?
As great as Roberts and Penn are, I actually think Gaslit works far better in its portrayal of John Dean. Over the past half-century, Dean has come out as the shining knight of the Watergate affair, the man who blew the whistle and helped bring down the most corrupt Presidency of the 20th Century. Gaslit takes a far more cynical look at Dean, which seems closer to reality that I wouldn’t be surprised if Dean decides to sue.
From the beginning of the series Dean seems the definition of a true believer. He knows that everything Mitchell and the higher-ups are suggesting is criminal, but he seems willing to go along with that so that he can have proximity to the Oval Office. Dan Stevens does an exceptional job showing Dean as someone so desperate to sit at the cool kids table he doesn’t realize the only reason they’re not beating him up for his lunch money is because they don’t think he has enough worth stealing. He also comes across as someone with a ridiculous ego that no matter how many times he has laughed at by his superiors or considered a loser by the establishment, he still is willing to take it because he wants proximity to power. In a scene where the FBI is investigating CRP, he has absolutely no problem deflecting every single question that the agents might ask about anything to them.
Gaslit actually makes the argument that Dean is such a wimp with a ridiculous amount of loyalty that he wouldn’t have the stones to decide to turn on the White House were it not for his wife Maureen. I don’t now how much of what we see of Mo Dean is based in reality, but it’s fundamentally clear from the early stages of their relationship that she doesn’t like his involvement with the Administration and can’t comprehend why he does what he does. In ‘Camp David’, after learning that he has been positioned by Halderman and the President to give a false report clearing everybody, he is forced to confide in Mo only because he feels utterly trapped. It is she that convinces him to testify to the Senate Committee, convinces him to go in without an attorney and when he gets an extreme case of cold feet before he goes in, pushes him to testify even though she’s still reeling from a miscarriage the previous day.
Dean’s reaction to being considered a hero goes to his ego just as much as being a villain does. When his attorney comes to him and tells him that he’s going to be sentenced to hard time, first he shocked because he’s not being given credit for doing the right thing and then deflects by saying that what he did was nowhere near as bad as the Kennedys and the Johnson Administration officials did. He refuses to take responsibility for his action until he’s outside the prison door.
Gaslit is at its best when it goes behind the scenes of these two marriages. It has a mixed result when it tries to explore other areas. It is beyond brilliant when it looks at the layout of the Plumbers themselves, especially every time it looks at G. Gordon Liddy. Shea Whigham has been one of the quietly best character actors in television over the past decade. His role in Homecoming (the Esmail project proceeded this) was a masterpiece in basic goodness and he has always shown himself as someone who plays the everyman. As Liddy, Whigham gets a chance to go off the walls in ways you wouldn’t have thought him possible — someone who is clearly completely delusional and maniacal and simultaneously utterly devoted to his cause. Only in the Nixon White House could he have gotten employed and it’s very telling that men like Mitchell and Magruder found him too extreme. (The series may be sending a quiet message of its own by having the lion’s share of the President’s Men played by actors known almost entirely for comic roles. Hamish Linklater plays Jeb Magruder as a clueless frat-boy, Nat Faxon plays H.R. Halderman as a man who can’t be bothered to remember the names of his associates and Patton Oswalt plays Charles Colson as a man who discusses breaking the law like he’s ordering lunch. These men may have been fundamentally evil but Gaslit looks at them like cartoonish villains.) Whigham plays Liddy as someone utterly devoted to the idea of Will and has absolutely no connection to human decency at all and little more to reality, as we see when he talks to his own children. In the penultimate episode we see Liddy in prison, writing a rosy letter about just how fine he is before going into a solitary and suffering a delusional episode where he is convinced there are rats in his cells and that he must kill him. The segment ends with a series of hallucinations so stunning and hysterical that anyone other than Liddy would view them as a sign of that the character had gone insane. In Liddy’s perspective, it is a triumph of the will (and considering what we see in Liddy’s background, that last phrase is a deliberate choice of words) The last episode, which finally shows him completely shaven and singing the Horst Wessel song is a master class. Whigham deserves to be at the top of the list for Supporting Actor nominations
It also works very well when it shows just how fundamentally cartoonish the corruption much of the Administration and how easily everything fell apart. The actual burglary was botched from the beginning and viewed with such importance that its small wonder every one wasn’t arrested immediately. L. Patrick Grey (another great character portrayal by John Carroll Lynch) comes across as a man utterly terrified by Nixon (when Dean asked him to ‘handle’ classified materials, he plaintively asks “Is the President mad at me?”) and who reveals his corruption to the agents investigating Watergate at a meeting where he congratulates them on their work investigating Watergate. It falls apart slightly when it tries to take a broader view of the era. When we learn that Frank Willis, the security guard who helped catch the burglars, received a $2.50 raise a week as a reward, it makes a clear message. I’m not sure that we needed another episode centered partially around him as we saw just how much we rejected true heroes, particularly African-Americans. Gaslit is, at its core, about how the corruption of the administration trickled down to even the marriages of so many involved. To try and insert a message about heroism seemed out of place.
Some viewers might complain that Gaslit looks at every aspect of Watergate and we never see Richard Nixon. To that I would say two things. First: what’s left to say about Nixon? Writers, biographers, playwrights and filmmakers have been analyzing Nixon for fifty years and we are no closer to understand what made him who he was or what made him tick. What good would a scene or two in his series have done? It would have been an enormous distraction.
Second, in another sense, I think Gaslit paints a clearer picture of Richard Nixon than any film to TV series has done. When David Milch was writing about how he made Deadwood, he knew that a critical character to it would be George Hearst, who made his life in gold. He said that to understand Hearst, he had to create an acolyte. So the season before Hearst made his first appearance, he created the character Francis Wolcott, a geologist and representative of his who murdered whores in his spare time.
Now consider what Gaslit shows us. We get very thorough portrayals of all of the acolytes in the Nixon administration. Some of them are devoted to the death, some of them have questions about their choices, but all of them are utterly devoted to the man at the top to the point that they will sacrifice their freedom for them. All of them are shown as morally and often cartoonishly corrupt to the point that they are willing to consider the most absurd plans imaginable to ensure a landslide for a President who has known for months he will be reelection. They are all willing to place blame on each other in order to protect their leader. These are the men who were Richard Nixon’s inner circle. I don’t think we need to know anything else about the man than that.
At one point near the end of the series, most of the conspirators are in prison discussing whether Nixon will go to prison. Dean, angry for the first time in the show, looks at a billboard of him and berates him as an ‘old man I wouldn’t look at twice in the street” and that his colleagues view him as ‘some kind of demonic Svengali’. When he mentions that he got to ride in Air Force One, they are pathetically impressed with Dean for the first time in the series — most of them barely got into his inner orbit. That tells you what you need to know about All the President’s Men.
For those viewers who look at today’s America and look at Watergate as a lesson for what happens if the system worked, Gaslit also asks: Did it? Willis never got the recognition he deserved. One of the FBI agents who worked Watergate was shipped back to translation and admits he probably only got the detail because the Cubans spoke Spanish. Mark Felt, aka ‘Deep Throat’, comes across less as a noble figure but more like someone upset he didn’t get the job Gray had when he tells the truth to Woodward and Bernstein. The lion’s share of the men involved in Watergate either served reduced sentences or were actually pardoned. We all what happened to Nixon. G. Gordon Liddy became a cultural phenomenon. And if you have any doubt the body politic learned anything, in his final scene Liddy is shown with a Reagan in ’76 poster with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again” Even the agent who investigates the original break-in tells his partner that he voted for Nixon even after he began investigating Watergate. “I’m a law and order guy,” he says with a shrug.
Meanwhile Martha Mitchell’s only place in history is in a psychiatrist textbook as the Martha Mitchell Effect. She died of cancer with her daughter hating her and John, who arranged to keep public mourners away from the funeral, out of prison having served only nineteen months for his involvement. If this is how the system works, then maybe it’s time to consider that it really doesn’t and never did.
Many will come away from Gaslit with insight into Watergate that they didn’t have before — and may not entirely want to see. I hope the Emmy voters — who notoriously have not acknowledged Starz will be good enough to give the series and the leads — certainly Roberts, Penn and Stevens, hopefully Whigham and Gilpin as well — the nominations that they deserve. If you didn’t know anything about Martha Mitchell before this series, Gaslit shows angles we have never seen before — and is an instructive, if not necessarily encouraging, lesson for today.
My score: 5 stars.