Do you ever get the sense you’re watching two different shows here? There’s this exaggerated and cartoonish version of the figures of Watergate, most clearly exemplified in Jeb Magruder and G. Gordon Liddy, and then there’s the serious, we’re-in-an-HBO-drama-except-it’s-on-Starz players like John and Martha Mitchell. This episode highlights Liddy and the Mitchells in maybe the most uneven installment of the series to date. Not that I didn’t enjoy those parts separately. But together they were, how do you say, real weird.
Part One is about the Mitchells, starting with how they met, which was at a Cantonese restaurant called China Pearl in the 1950s. The time shift was not queued up for us at all, other than John Mitchell having darker hair, so I assumed it was present-day and that he had dyed it to appear younger. If they didn’t want to put a date on the screen, they could have had Mitchell and his racist friend being like, “Boy, President Eisenhower and those highways of his,” or “That Elvis kid is really climbing the charts” or “Wow, it sure is great being a white man here in the 1950s.” HELP ME OUT, SHOW.
If you weren’t picking up the pastness of the scene based on hair color, then Martha Mitchell walks in to meet John and she. looks. BEAUTIFUL. Can you imagine if you were on a blind date and it was with Julia Roberts? She looks like a goddamn angel. They’re both very into each other, even though it makes zero sense that she’d be so into him since they’ve only just met and he is no Dwight Eisenhower (can you imagine if I used Eisenhower as a barometer for attractiveness?). She makes a wish on his eyelash.
Oh, also, John looks at the Chinese zodiac placemat early on and points out that he’s the Year of the Rat (like the episode title!). Martha finds this placemat later and is nostalgic about it. Mainly, though, it’s just like — hey, he is like a rat.
Then it’s June 1973, and we pick up where we left off the last episode, as Martha walks into the Senate hearings to testify. Okay, unless the internet is deeply hiding this, this did not happen. This whole scene where the reporters are gone and Senator Gurney talks about how she was institutionalized after Marty’s birth and calls her father a “drunken degenerate gambler” — none of this happened. Now she did testify that year in a civil suit against CREEP, but that feels less dramatic, so here we are.
Side note, but in trying to find any testimony she gave, I came across this very interesting article from a July 1973 issue of McCall’s that dives into how the Republicans changed Martha’s narrative in order to discredit her. Near the end, it quotes Time Magazine’s Bonnie Angelo as saying, “I get this Tennessee Williams feeling about Martha, that she’s Blanche DuBois played by Betty Grable.” Amazing description.
Back home, Martha is smashing things and scrubbing out her husband’s face in his portrait, which seems like it would be very satisfying. Mitchell comes in and a massive fight ensues that involves some shoving on her part and then some choking on his — good LORD. They verbally abuse each other and he admits he was responsible for her kidnapping and abuse in California. It’s all hurtful and awful. He says he’s going to take Marty, leaving Martha alone.
Soon after, Martha is interviewed by Barbara Walters, which did happen! But as I’ve only been able to find a photograph of the interview and no video or transcript, I have no idea if she actually sounded that disjointed and unfocused. In lieu of a Martha Mitchell interview with Barbara Walters, here is Barbara Walters interviewing Julia Roberts (wheels within wheels!). The interview goes poorly, and Martha is left alone at the end on an empty soundstage.
Now we arrive at Part Two! Which is funny and weird and extremely wtf is going on. Liddy writes letters to his wife, which he narrates in a Ken Burns’s The Civil War cadence. He talks about pain or fear or one of those things and gets himself put in solitary confinement. While there, he hears a rat (hey, like the episode title!) and finds rat droppings. Now, this is awful. I lived in an apartment in my early thirties that was suddenly infested with mice, and I was on the edge of sanity for weeks until I moved. So being trapped in a tiny room with a rat and also you’re G. Gordon Liddy in Gaslit and therefore completely unhinged already? Terrible. Liddy takes apart some of his mattress springs and creates a rat trap.
The rat trap goes horribly wrong and he springs it on himself in a moment reminiscent of nothing so much as Saw. So then Liddy’s like, ah, this is my test. I am waging a holy war against the demon that is my own weakness — see how weird this all is next to the Martha Mitchell plotline? He paints his face with rat shit, floods the toilet, yells, “I STRIKE AT THEE” when the rat shows up and he tries to nail it with the lunch tray, only he misses and lands in the water in his underpants.
The storylines merge when Liddy narrates a whole thing about how his Nazi nanny died by suicide because she was so sad about the death of Hitler. Meanwhile, Martha is standing outside the TV studio on the sidewalk, seemingly about to walk into traffic? Why was this narrated by Liddy talking about Nazis?? He says their noble leader (you mean NIXON, sir?) has also been devoured by rats (like the episode title!), and their sickness has infected the rest of them. What!
He sees a small hole in the wall of his cell and starts screaming, “I found you!” while picking at it. Liddy creates a decent-sized hole and climbs halfway through when he sees rats. He and the rats scream in each other’s faces while triumphant music plays. I LOL’d, I admit it. But also WHAT IS HAPPENING? Pick a tone, show!
Oh, also, John Dean went to prison? He was kinda sidelined in this episode because we needed the scenes with Liddy and the rat shit. Dean’s in prison and Mo is going to wait for him.
Martha tries to convince Mitchell to stay, but he leaves and takes Marty. Martha cries alone in the apartment, and we flash back to her in 1957, walking into China Pearl as her friend talks up how great John is. Rats (like the episode title!) run across the sign as it fades out.