Gaslit feels like a Trojan horse where you come to see Watergate from Martha Mitchell’s perspective, but then suddenly you’re stuck in a room with six aging white men, and you’re like, Oh, that’s why they said beware of Starz bearing gifts. We could carry this further and say that, like Cassandra of Troy, Martha Mitchell is not believed, but what are we, nerds? (Yes.)
There’s a whole sequence in this episode about Martha as a child and her dad showing her a pocket watch and saying it was a gift from King George III when their family left England. He also teaches her how to break fingers. So the watch is a through line because she still has it, and eventually, the shitty bodyguard man steals it and gives it to his kid. I’m not sure what this means because we’ve gotten almost no time with Martha over this series. Let’s be honest: This show is, thus far, about John Dean. Martha Mitchell is secondary to the overlooked man in his 30s.
So I guess let’s talk about John Dean! Dean and Liddy are the comedic bright spots, and we start off with Dean talking into the reflective surface of a coffee pot, telling himself he’s an animal. He’s at a meeting at John Mitchell’s house, while Martha remains kidnapped at the hotel in California. At Mitchell’s, seven white men sit around like it’s Snow White, only instead of trying to rescue a woman, they’re in charge of keeping her locked in and sedated. Patton Oswalt is there, which is a delight, and they’re all trying to figure out how screwed they are for doing something highly illegal and dumb.
It turns out that Howard Hunt, who was in the surveillance apartment at the Howard Johnson’s hotel, has an office at the White House, and inside that office is a safe filled with incriminating documents, but Hunt has forgotten the combination. John Dean asks if there are guys who can take care of this, and they say that they’re the guys. Everyone decides Dean is the one to get the safe out of the White House, and when Dean says he’s too close to the president, they all laugh, because this adds to Dean’s storyline as the undervalued but still successful man. In this show, he drives a Porsche and dates Betty Gilpin, but if only Richard Nixon would like him! Why must John Dean’s life be such a challenge?
Don’t worry, though; we’ve got more men to meet! The FBI is here and very 1970s. Chris Messina plays Agent Angelo Lano and Carlos Valdes is Agent Paul Magallanes. When Paul shows up, Angelo is immediately racist toward him, which continues when they interview Hunt. The real Paul Magallanes eventually won a class-action discrimination suit against the FBI, so keep that in mind as he has to deal with all this bullshit. Angelo and Paul interview the arrested Jim McCord and tell him the Cubans arrested with him made fun of how he put tape on the door. McCord is infuriated and also racist. After some discussion, A&P realize there was probably a lookout during the Watergate burglary, and they go check out the Howard Johnson’s.
There, they find a check signed by Hunt. My favorite moment in this episode is when Magallanes says, “What if these guys aren’t five steps ahead of us? What if they’re morons?” Because they are morons! Do you know what Hunt was responsible for? Mr. “I Left a Signed Check in the Surveillance Hotel Room”? He worked at the CIA and handled the Bay of Pigs. And then he did Watergate! And people still paid him to do work after that! I mean after he went to jail. Just think of this the next time you feel bad for watching an episode of The Vampire Diaries while working. “Wow, I am doing way, way better at my job than E. Howard Hunt,” you can say.
Did I mention Hunt also has a framed photo of himself and G. Gordon Liddy on his wall? Liddy is at the Committee to Re-Elect the President’s headquarters, shredding everything in sight, and then a campaign staffer comes in and says the FBI is there, and Liddy freezes as he stands in a room full of clear bags of shredded documents. This was the second-funniest moment. Well. That or when Dean tries to light the box of incriminating evidence on fire in a field and gets gasoline all over himself because he throws it into the wind. That’s not how you throw gasoline, John.
This show is ostensibly about Martha — what’s going on with Martha this episode? As stated, she’s still being held against her will in the hotel room. She tries to get the attention of a maid on the balcony, but she can’t shout because she’ll alert the guard, so the maid just thinks Martha’s waving. Then she crushes some matchstick heads in her hand and sets them on fire, which makes the guards call a doctor. When Martha tries to tell the doctor what’s happening, he says a lot of women her age suffer from paranoid episodes. When she says they cut the phone cord, he says maybe she needs time away from the phone. She steals his newspaper.
I am of two minds about all this because first, I complain there’s not enough Martha, and then when there is Martha, it’s hard to watch because this is about someone losing control over their own person, and we are literally dealing with that on a judicial level for so many people in America right now. So it’s not the most escapist. But maybe we don’t need everything to be! And when it gets too hard, we can watch John Dean fall on his ass in the mud while trying to destroy the evidence.
Martha sees in the paper that Jim McCord was arrested, and late at night, she creeps into the living room and uses the phone to call her journalist friend Winnie and tell her she’s being held prisoner and McCord was at the break-in. The bodyguard wakes up and rips the phone cord out of the wall. This whole scene is violent and disturbing, as Martha falls into and shatters a glass table, and after she breaks the bodyguard’s finger (a callback!), he shoves her face down onto the couch and injects her with something. It’s all very horrifying. And seemingly true, overall. Aghhhh.
When she comes to, her daughter is there, and John Mitchell has flown back to California. He tells Martha that he fired the guards and also quit after hearing about what happened to her and that he had told them to look out for her. Later, Liddy tells Dean that Nixon fired Mitchell because Martha was too much of a liability. Regardless, Martha doesn’t care, and who would after something like that happens to them?
We know that Martha is going to tell her story and that no one will believe her. We know that no one will really care until two male reporters call attention to what the Nixon campaign has been doing. But maybe watching the story will make us finally believe a woman when she’s talking about what happens to her own damn body. Good Lord.
An earlier version of this recap read that Martha used crushed pills rather than matchsticks to set a fire. We don’t know how that was supposed to work, it just looked like ibuprofen, so sorry.