It strikes me that if it weren’t for Dorothy’s tragic death, there’d be little left for White House Plumbers to unwind in its final hour. The series put a fresh-ish lens on the well-worn Watergate scandal by telling the story from the lowest rung of political power, which was also the deepest level of involvement. But what happens to Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy from here on out, including at trial, mostly happens to them rather than because of them, so much so that the obligatory “Where are they now?” epilogue seemed on the cusp of rolling for most of the last episode. And the burning questions I did bring into the finale — Where did Jeb Magruder disappear to? Is Saint John’s band actually any good? Why is Kiernan Shipka on this show? — remain unanswered.
Because I’m going to give Saint John Hunt the benefit of the doubt and say he’s likely got more musical chops than were on display during his funereal jam session. “I recall the yellow cotton dress foaming like a wave on the ground around her,” he sings — a grief-stricken rendition of Jimmy Webb’s already plaintive “MacArthur Park.” While Dorothy’s funeral is well-attended, it is by no means a poignant commemoration of her too-short life. Gordon, who last week was giving his partner-in-crime the silent treatment, now won’t shut up at the man’s wife’s graveside service. He’s desperate for Howard’s assurance that the widower and single father of four will not be finding time to write that tell-all they discussed back when he was neither of those things.
The repast guest list is riddled with Howard’s old work cronies — a veritable Who’s Who of Republican Washington. There’s Liddy, of course, who regales multiple young Hunts with the story of how he overcame his fears by cooking and eating a rat. (In real life, he told this story on what must be one of the most disturbing episodes of Fresh Air with Terry Gross.) We also meet the godfathers to Howard and Dorothy’s children: conservative demigod William F. Buckley (“my profound and fathomless condolences,” the famously highfalutin writer says) and Dr. Manuel Artime, a Bay of Pigs kingpin that some, including Howard, tipped to replace Castro. Later, Jim McCord will turn up with a tuna casserole and also to indelicately suggest that Dorothy’s plane crash was engineered by the White House, who had recently appointed Nixonite Bud Krogh (author of the book on which this HBO series is based) to the Department of Transportation.
McCord’s conspiracy theory seems bogus. It has to be bogus. Why kill Dorothy Hunt to keep Howard Hunt silent? Just kill Howard Hunt! Why kill a commercial plane full of innocent people to kill Dorothy? Just kill Dorothy! And yet … there are just enough unsettling details that a distressed and fearful Howard can’t help but indulge it. For example, why did his wife buy $250,000 in life insurance at the airport before boarding the plane? (If it’s because she suspected the plane might go down, why didn’t she simply not board it? Or at least buy more life insurance than Howard could spend in a year, given his well-documented profligacy?) And then there’s the fact that the FBI beat the fire department to the scene of the crash. Could they really have been dispatched to destroy evidence before the first responders even arrived?
Speaking of the destruction of evidence, Howard has one final ask of his eldest daughter before she heads back to Smith — a girl who is sad, yes, but not so sad she doesn’t ask the whereabouts of her dead mother’s nicest coat. He gives Kevan Dorothy’s ledger, the one with the fastidious accounting of which plumber got how much hush money and when, with a wink-nudge suggestion that maybe it would be best if the ledger ceased to exist. Somehow. Wink-wink. Given his recently deceased wife had lately vowed to leave Howard for implicating their son in the Watergate cover-up, this feels like, well, a perfectly dire capstone to a marriage in decline.
Meanwhile, in federal Washington, John Dean is desperate to shore up the plumbers’ silence on the eve of their trials. He’s making nonsense promises — promises that it’s hard to imagine he imagines he’ll ever have to keep. For example, he says the men can expect thirty thousand dollars per annum per plumber, but from where? Why not just say they’ll be million-zillionaires when they get out of jail? And of course there’s the ultimate sweetener: Presidential pardons to be delivered in the next two years. But assuming the Watergate scandal goes away, there’s zero chance Nixon revisits it in the middle of his legacy-cementing second term. Dean may as well promise Macho the U.N. ambassadorship. Gordon Liddy can be Secretary of State while we’re at it; Howard, who in the White House Plumbers version of the universe implies he killed JFK, can run Langley. Saint John for poet laureate, etc.
From the outset, though, it’s clear there’s more on trial than the seven men arrested for the Watergate break-in. Judge John Silica (a late-arriving F. Murray Abraham) is an activist judge; he insists that the prosecutor establish more than guilt. He wants to know everything about the break-in, including who paid the men to do it — a suggestion that’s almost insulting to Liddy and Hunt, patriots who probably would have done the dumb thing for free, just for the frisson of power. Even once the trial’s begun, the plumbers are having courtroom strategy lunches in public, which confused me because I was under the impression conspirators should probably try to look less conspiratorial. Plus, these men have no strategy to speak of — at least not one that requires any elaborating. Their plan is to say nothing, give up no names, and make no deals. Go down with the ship and miraculously hope not to drown.
Howard, though, is getting cold feet, especially now that he’s an only parent to four children, including young David (who eventually gets borderline kidnapped to Miami by Artime, the godfather he’s barely ever met). He’s planning to use the evidence he’d retained about the origins of Project Gemstone, starting all the way back to the break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office, to put more pressure on the White House to help him. Except doofus left all the evidence in his White House locker, which had its full contents emptied and, it turns out, only selectively turned over to the FBI by Dean. Without evidence, Howard’s got no leverage. Without leverage, Howard’s clemency dreams are vanishing into thin air. Listen to your buddy David Krumholtz, and make a deal!
Viewer, he does not make a deal. In fact, he insists in court, in the presence of his children, that he and Liddy acted on their own when they masterminded the Watergate break-in. Liddy, who’s been using the trial to play out his class-clown fantasies, is somehow even less cooperative than Hunt, a witness who is obviously lying. Eventually, one man on the team cracks: Jim McCord. Jim who told Dottie that politics was only ever a job for him; Jim who warned her that the only thing that motivates Nixon and his men is power. Jim walks. Everyone else is handed down monster sentences: the Cubans get 40 years, Liddy gets 25, and E. Howard Hunt is sentenced to 35 years in prison for a $100-a-day White House consulting gig.
I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel at this point. When the guard in charge of new inmate processing barks for a naked Howard to “lift your stick,” it’s a joke. When Liddy slaps his ass to spread his cheeks and tells the guards to “drink it in, ladies,” it’s a (less funny) joke. But these bozos have nine kids between them. Fran Liddy’s a schoolteacher. Howard sold Witches Island without even warning the kids, who have grown to hate him. They’re at home reading Time magazine stories from the president’s lawyer about how Nixon’s men killed their mother while their father abandoned them in the name of protecting those same men. I’m a good sport, but given the amount of human misery in the air, I struggled to find the sodomy jokes hilarious just because they were disconcertingly specific.
The rest of the episode is a slow slide into the ending we all already know. McCord spills the beans on Dean running the Watergate show; Hunt and Liddy’s involvement in the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist comes to light. John Dean makes a deal. JOHN DEAN MAKES A DEAL. Any hope of presidential pardon has disappeared and Gordon Liddy still dreams of assassinating Dean for his disloyalty. But what has loyalty gotten any one of these men? When Howard has a stroke in prison, even Kevan — his favorite, the only child he ever makes time for — has turned on him. She didn’t burn her mother’s ledger. She threatens to turn it over to the prosecutors if Howard doesn’t come clean.
But it’s too late for it to matter. When Dean and Liddy run into each other on the day they’re both called to testify before Congress, Dean explains his “light bulb” moment. He was at Camp David with the president, who was attempting to coax Dean into admitting his Watergate role on a secret voice recording. That’s when he realized, he says, that the president didn’t give a shit about him or the conservative cause or the country. And before Nixon was going to blame it all on Dean, his plan was to blame it all on Liddy. Listening to Dean’s speech, we see Liddy perhaps at his most human. He’s about to snap — jab a sharpened pencil into Dean’s whatever — as he listens to Dean call him a patsy, a man so stupidly loyal he’d be willing to ruin his entire life for a guy he’d never met. But Dean’s account of how the president sees Liddy is fundamentally at odds with the story he tells himself of the bullied little boy who listened to some Hitler speeches, pan-fried a rat, and grew up into a soldier. His ego can’t afford for the lightbulb to turn on.
When Hunt makes it out of the infirmary, he does something he’s never done before: actually listen to the advice of the people who love him and depend on him. “A rising tide lifts all Hunts.” Instead of throwing in on Liddy’s ludicrous plan to kill Dean, Howard has the awakening that Dean did. If everyone else is squealing, then the only man they’re protecting is the most powerful man in the free world? The same guy who has disavowed them in the press, the guy who let his press secretary call their op a “third-rate burglary.” Liddy, for his part, finally turns on Hunt completely. They could have walked away from a burglary charge relatively unscathed, he believes; it’s the Hunts’ insistence on keeping up with the Joneses on the White House dime that’s turned petty crime into paid political espionage. Everything they really think about each other comes racing out. Hunt thinks Liddy is full of shit; Liddy thinks Hunt is craven. Good news, fellas: You’re both right!
So Liddy goes to solitary for punching a guard, and Mr. Hunt goes (back) to Washington. He testifies, but in a world where Erlichman’s already been sentenced, Daniel Ellsberg has gone free, and Dean has spilled the beans. Who cares about some guy clinging to the lowest rung of political power now? For his troubles, Hunt earns a transfer to minimum security prison, where he’ll eventually serve only 30 months total. Meanwhile, Gordon is settling into his role as a jailhouse lawyer, handling his fellow inmates’ appeals and even petitioning for a Jewish inmate to get his kosher meals. Fran doesn’t push too hard for her husband to make a deal to come home; some men are nothing without their ideals, and I suppose that includes far-right totalitarianism, too. Liddy serves four and a half years until Jimmy Carter sets him free.
Nixon would resign while his soldiers were rotting in jail, never serving a day for the crimes committed in his name. But in 2023, the idea of controversy big enough to topple a Republican president seems almost quaint. As the credits roll, Donna Summer’s disco version of “MacArthur Park” plays as if to underscore how senseless the world has become. Nixon is free, but some Cuban guys who thought they were working for the CIA are behind bars. The guy who maybe killed Kennedy — as Hunt sometimes claimed — will be remembered for robbing an office building one time. And some of the saddest images in pop music — the cake “left out in the rain”; “the old men playing Chinese checkers by the trees”; that yellow dress in a puddle on the ground that brought Saint John to tears — are just words to bop along to.