Robbie Pickering was a Nixon fanatic since his early days in a Texas small town.
Memories of his mother crying in front of the television as Nixon’s funeral spurred a desire to better understand this man and to better understand conservative movements in general. A lifetime of education on the subject and a bevy of Oliver Stone movies led to this moment: a Watergate-era limited series on STARZ called Gaslit.
“I wanted to do a different kind of story about that era because the history I read was much more about the people around Nixon and the kind of mundanity and the banality of these people who were evil but relatable,” Pickering explained. “Then, Slow Burn came out, and I think the big thing about Slow Burn was it really centered the narrative on Martha [Mitchell]. So once we got the show going, I really went into Martha’s biography, and I found that the crumbling of her marriage really paralleled with the crumbling of the marriage between the country and the government during Watergate.”
Gaslit focuses on three major personalities that circled the Watergate scandal as the nation watched Nixon deny his involvement in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and eventually resign. Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts), John Dean (Dan Stevens), and G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham) all feature prominently in the series, but the narrative arc of the series belongs to Roberts’s Mitchell. She seemed to pay the largest price for essentially telling history as she saw it — or, to put it simpler, telling the truth. As the nation recently reached the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, John Dean still makes Watergate-related appearances on television after serving prison time for his involvement.
To Pickering, Gaslit serves a larger purpose than to simply retell the Watergate story through lesser-known perspectives. It’s all about a person’s capacity for complicity, something discussed even today with the January 6 hearings broadcast on national television.
“Complicity and heroism are not clean things. They’re very complex. Within the best of us, there’s the capacity for complicity, and within the most flawed of us, there’s the capacity for heroism,” Pickering posited. “Martha’s biggest goal and want in the world was for her husband to choose her over Nixon, but he doesn’t. In the end, she spoke out, and she was a hero. She found a greater peace anyway.”
As Gaslit progresses, audiences become far more familiar with G. Gordon Liddy through Shea Whigham’s incendiary work. Whigham refuses an easy take on the man. He and Pickering craft a more complete version of G. Gordon Liddy than we’ve ever seen because they frame him as a human being. Yes, he has strong beliefs, but he’s also a devoted father.
Toward the end of the series, Liddy spends time in solitary where he engages in an all-out war against his only cellmate, a rat. It’s at once a painful, harrowing decent into madness and a jaw-dropping, darkly hilarious sequence.
“We wanted something epic for Liddy. We wanted to use some of the truth because we definitely toned Liddy down a lot, but we wanted to show his transformation in a kind of metaphysical way,” Picking recalled.
The series finale also offers a showdown between Liddy and Dean (Dan Stevens) between their testimony. While the words are Pickering’s, the scene truly happened. Liddy would frequently describe to anyone who would listen how to kill a man by shoving a pencil under his Adam’s apple. So, in Pickering’s finale for the two actors, Dean is locked in a room with Liddy and a box of pencils.
The scene also offers perhaps, in my opinion, the most wonderfully bizarre piece of description I’ve ever encountered: Liddy refers his rat opponent as “fat, bitch rat with buck teeth and suckled teats that dotted her underbelly.”
Why that line? It speaks to Liddy’s misogynistic tendencies.
“It wasn’t placed where I went really ornate with the dialogue, but I would ask what is the most disgusting thing to a person like Liddy? It’s a maternal rat,” Pickering laughed. “He has a disgust for himself and for women. I think it’s a very fascist way of describing a rat.”
But in the end of the series, we return to Martha Mitchell in the hospital holding a newborn baby, Pickering’s own newborn son. The moment brings Mitchell a much-deserved moment of peace. Mitchell would pass away in 1976 at the age of 57 without having spoken to her husband or daughter. Both attended the funeral, however, as the Mitchell’s were technically still married, although they had been physically separated for years.
Martha Mitchell holding the newborn baby while televisions behind her blare with Nixon’s resignation speech shows that she’s moved on from the quarrels of her previous life. It indicates the serenity she felt at having done the right thing.
“Even though John Michell watched Martha being buried at her funeral, he was the one who died. He was the one who lived with regret for the rest of his life,” Pickering explained. “She died alone, but the accounts of her in the hospital are her peaceful and happy. In an ending like that, you can only show a moment and leave people with a moment. Maybe her life was horrible after that, I don’t know, but for that one moment, [she] achieves a sort of peace that no other character in the show achieves really.”
Gaslit is available on STARZ and streaming on Hulu.