Why think about the current upsetting time when we can think about an upsetting time in the past? Based on the Slate podcast Slow Burn, Gaslit tells the story of Watergate through the lens of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell. This show will likely contain some surprises for those who are most familiar with Watergate through the 1976 political thriller All the President’s Men or the 1999 comedy film Dick. Where Dick shone, though, was clarifying who on earth all these white men in glasses were — something this show is Not the Best at.
We begin with G. Gordon Liddy, an incompetent man who once lost an election to someone named Hamilton Fish IV. A man who said in his autobiography (called Will, which is pretty fascist-y as titles go) that he had wanted to find a “tall, fair, powerfully built Teuton” to bear his children and who ate a rat to prove he was strong. Gross. The important thing to remember about Liddy in this show is that he is meant to look unbalanced and ruthless. And that he is incredibly devoted to Richard Nixon. What I found funny is that his opening monologue is about how history isn’t written by the feeble masses, like commies, queers, and women, and look at the queer woman telling your story now, Liddy. And with that, let’s look at the rest of our cast of characters!
As stated, it’s unclear who most of these people are from the onset, so I had to look things up:
John Dean (Dan Stevens) was White House counsel for Nixon from 1970 to 1973. John Mitchell (Sean Penn. Also, look how many John Mitchells are on Wikipedia!) was Nixon’s attorney general and the chairman of Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 election campaigns. Henry Kissinger was Nixon’s national security advisor and became his secretary of state in 1973. This show begins in 1972, so that has not happened yet. Jeb Stuart Magruder (Hamish Linklater) was the man who had me most stumped because they do zero clarifying about his role, and they call him “Jeb” precisely one time, so I was barely able to find out who he was. In 1972, he was deputy director of Nixon’s re-election campaign. H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (Nat Faxon) is someone I only heard about through the 30 Rock episode “Rosemary’s Baby” when Carrie Fisher says a mailbox falling over was Haldeman. He was Nixon’s White House chief of staff from 1969 to 1973. John Ehrlichman (John Ehrlichman) was counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs from 1969 to 1973 (wow, a lot of people’s careers ended in ’73; a true mystery).
I’m going to alternate between calling John Dean and John Mitchell by their last name and first. Calling them both John all the time would get confusing, but I call the women characters by their first name, and I would like some parity there.
We’re in January 1972, five months before the Watergate break-in. John Dean learns from a gratuitously naked woman that his boss, John Mitchell, might be firing a bunch of people. Dean hustles down to Mitchell’s office in his mustard Porsche (why?) and finds his boss and Magruder. They clarify that they don’t want to fire him; they have a special opportunity for him. Essentially, they’re setting up an intelligence-gathering unit as part of CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President is technically acronymed “CRP,” but I will not be doing that). Dean is confused why they’re doing this since Nixon is way up in the polls. Guess you didn’t factor in Nixon’s excessive paranoia, did you, Dean?
There’s a lot of toxic masculinity b.s. in this first episode, which is very clearly framed as bad since these aren’t people one admires. Mitchell says some stuff about vaginas and how they have to become snakes to defeat their enemy. (Is this what men talk about?) Dean clearly does not want to do it because it sounds Very Illegal, but Mitchell tells Dean that Nixon specifically asked for him. Dean is ambitious! (He’s also never met the president.) So he says, Hey, I know a great guy, Gordon Liddy (mistakes one and two, John), and he says he’ll contact him.
Now we get to Martha. Martha Mitchell made a name for herself by talking a lot. Not just talking a lot, but telling reporters things like that her husband said a large peace demonstration reminded him of a Russian revolution. This caused a kerfuffle. By 1970, a Gallup poll said 76 percent of Americans knew who Martha Mitchell was, which is astounding. Out of curiosity, does anyone know the current attorney general, Merrick Garland’s, wife’s name? (It’s Lynn.) I asked my 80-year-old dad, who lived in D.C. at this time, what he thought of her, and he said, “I think she got a raw deal.” So true, Dad!
In 1972, Martha and John Mitchell had been married for 15 years. Their relationship is portrayed as physically and verbally abusive, with slapping, throwing things, and shouting and being cruel to each other. As with many abusive relationships, this alternates with periods of affection and, in their case, inappropriate sexuality in front of their daughter. She’s 11! She doesn’t want to hear your comments about beach sex! Also, no child at any age wants to hear that from their parents.
John Mitchell is frustrated because Martha is not supposed to give any interviews, and she keeps doing them. She creates the impression of a woman who is very bored and wants attention. She calls reporters in the middle of the night and tells them things she has heard about the Nixon administration or read in documents John has brought home. She has a feud with First Lady Pat Nixon, although it’s unclear if it is in fact reciprocal. Martha’s freedom with reporters and lack of discretion makes her an uncontrollable entity, and what happens to her is what can happen to women when men want them to shut up.
G. Gordon Liddy gives a presentation to Mitchell, Magruder, and Dean, and it goes intensely poorly. He has a plan called Operation Gemstone, which has 11 gemstone plans within it (except quartz which, as Magruder points out, is a mineral), and four subparts. These include ideas like kidnapping members of the Democrats’ outer circle and imprisoning them in Mexico, “reserving a pleasure craft” and sailing it to the DNC, then filming DNC officials “enjoying the company of women trained in the erotic arts.” Again, Nixon is way ahead in the polls and will eventually have an epic landslide victory where he wins 49 states and 520 electoral votes. But who knows, maybe if they’d tried the erotic-arts thing, they would’ve gotten all 50 states.
Everyone hates Liddy’s plan, and he throws some furniture around and asks Dean what he thought. Dean said he liked the cheerful font Liddy used in the presentation. See, this is why we like John Dean. Liddy retreats to regroup, and John, through a dating service, meets Mo Kane, played by BETTY GILPIN. Betty Gilpin is a gemstone among humans and Netflix should uncancel GLOW. Also, they should write a final scene where Ruth and Debbie kiss, but anyway! Mo is a flight attendant with romantic-novelist aspirations, and she likes D.C. because people come there to make a difference.
She tells John it must be difficult to work for Nixon since he’s a terrible person who lied about ending the war and increased bombings. John says, on the other hand, Nixon signed Title IX (thank you, Senator Mazie Hirono!) and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Mo likes John, but he ruins the end of their date by being an ass. He later makes it up (?) to her by calling the FAA to get Mo’s work schedule and then accidentally-on-purpose bumps into her at the airport, which she says pilots have done to her before. CAN WOMEN JUST LIVE? John invites her to a Republican fundraiser at John and Martha Mitchell’s house, which Mo gets very excited about because of Martha Mitchell: “She’s completely insane. I love her.”
Meanwhile, at the Liddy house, Liddy’s son comes to see him in Liddy’s German Purity Mancave, i.e. his basement, which is festooned with guns, beer steins, and various Richard Wagner and Hitler paraphernalia. His son essentially tells Liddy to become friends with his enemies. So Liddy finds John Mitchell and they retool Operation Gemstone so it’s pared down and less clearly insane. Liddy finds Magruder in the lunchroom and tells him about the new plan that Mitchell has approved. Magruder says he’s in charge of the budget, and Liddy can have less than even the pared-down amount. Liddy, in his rational way, responds, “You’ve never tasted your own blood.” Cool talk, Liddy, thanks. After Magruder leaves, Liddy kicks the paper-towel dispenser off the wall (great) and then has a heart-to-heart with CIA agent Jim McCord, who also guards the Mitchells.
John Dean picks up Mo for the party and her roommate has a shirt that says “Lick Dick in ’72,” which is an A+ shirt. At the fundraiser, Mo greets people with, “Hello, hi, you have blood on your hands.” But like, subtly. We can all learn from this. Mo sees Dean in the coatroom having a chat with the Mitchells’ daughter, who’s hiding because she hates her dress and her parents are fighting in their room (this fight is where the aforementioned physical and verbal abuse comes in the most). Dean is incredibly kind to the daughter, and Mo later tells him he’s a good person deep down, even when no one is watching.
The next day, Mitchell gives Martha plane tickets to California so they can get out of town, and Dean decides to resign. He makes it all the way into Mitchell’s empty office with the letter when he sees a note on Mitchell’s desk about Nixon being “very pleased” with Dean. So he stays with the corrupt administration. FOR NOW.
More From This Series
- What to Watch, Read, and Listen to After Gaslit
- Gaslit Recap: Martha Was Right
- Gaslit Recap: What’s Your Point, Ed?