“History isn’t written by the feeble masses,” insists a mustachioed man with a shirt and tie. The opening scene of Gaslit, a new eight-part dramatic series about the Watergate scandal that stars Julia Robert and Sean Penn, begins with an almost comically intense figure holding his hand over a candle flame. While his flesh appears to be burning, he tells his audience, “It is written and rewritten by soldiers carrying the banner of kings.” Staring into the camera, he concludes his dramatic monologue: “That is what it means to be American. That is what it means to be Nixon.” Gaslit thus opens with G. Gordon Liddy, played by Shea Whigham, one of the lead operators of the White House’s infamous Plumbers Unit. They were the team that organized the Watergate break-in in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972.
In an entertaining series that features numerous historical characters who wrestle with how far they’re willing to go to protect a corrupt president, Liddy is the encapsulation of Richard Nixon’s strident culture of loyalty that led to Watergate. We see Liddy pitch “Operation Ruby,” an actual proposal that included a plan to trap Democratic politicians with high-classed prostitutes at the Democratic National Convention. While Liddy is the loyal soldier (in real life and in Gaslit), the series includes more nuanced profiles of Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn) and White House counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens). Their blind ambition led them to assist the president with his abuses of power. Gaslit is at its best when it ruminates on presidential power, showing viewers how loyalty can lead to criminality. These individual stories are fascinating, but they often obscure both Nixon’s guilt and the wider historical context of the period, including the Vietnam War and its opponents. Nixon’s image looms throughout the eight episodes, but the decision to barely feature him onscreen leads to mixed results. Most concerning is that the series fails to flesh out Nixon’s actual abuses of power. Without demonstrating that Watergate was the extension of Nixon’s persistent demands to spy on and harass his political opponents, viewers are left with a muddled understanding of Watergate, the president’s downfall, and the historical significance of the main characters of Gaslit.
Created by Robbie Pickering (Mr. Robot) and directed by Matt Ross (Silicon Valley), the show was inspired by the popular Slate podcast Slow Burn, which provided listeners with well-researched accounts of some of the lesser-known Watergate stories. The series picks up some of the podcast’s more memorable stories, including those of Mitchell’s wife, Martha, and Frank Wills, the African American security guard who helped catch the Watergate burglars.
Both are tragic stories. Wills struggled with the significance of his actions and toiled in obscurity for the rest of his life. Much of the mainstream media dismissed Martha Mitchell as an unserious and unstable figure who knew nothing about Watergate. She repeatedly told members of the press that Nixon was responsible for her husband’s wrongdoings. The White House attempted to silence her, and she died in 1976 of multiple myeloma. Her experience provides a clear contrast to her husband’s loyalty to the 37th president. Played by Julia Roberts, Martha is the main character of the series. From the outset, Gaslit introduces viewers to her penchant for calling Washington reporters with information about the administration. When Watergate hits, her connections to the press become a more significant concern. One episode features the disturbing incident in which John Mitchell hired a security guard who physically abused and drugged Martha, and locked her in her hotel room in southern California. This was all done because the White House was afraid that she would talk to the press. As her marriage falls apart, she condemns her husband’s “devoted service” to a president “who won’t even return his phone calls.”
Maureen Kane (later Maureen Dean) has more luck steering her then-boyfriend John Dean away from Nixon. The John Dean character in Gaslit is a slimy, Porsche-driving careerist who has little access to the president at the beginning of the series. Eventually, his participation in the Watergate cover-up leads to an invitation to the Oval Office. One of Nixon’s few brief appearances features the president saying, “John,” shortly after top advisers ridicule Dean for his mid-level position. The series plays loose with Dean’s actual timeline but captures his trajectory within the White House. Dean marvels at the foam seat cushions on Air Force One and relishes his newfound role. With more success than Martha Mitchell, Maureen challenges Dean’s relationship with the president: “Whatever it is they’re making you do, you don’t have to do it.” She adds, “You always have a choice.” Dean eventually turns on the president and cooperates with investigators, following the advice of a woman who is much more grounded in personal ethics. The women of Gaslit are the real heroes of the Watergate story, figures who did not receive the credit that they deserved.
These individual stories help viewers confront the role of gender during the Watergate era, but they downplay one important part of the historical context: social activism. The show’s focus on Martha Mitchell is entertaining, as she was a colorful figure who has received recent attention from journalists and scholars. Her story had largely been forgotten, but Slow Burn and a broader wave of interest in Watergate during the Trump presidency helped elevate Martha in the public’s recollection of Watergate. “I’m going to start with a story that you’ve probably never heard,” said Slow Burn creator/narrator Leon Neyfakh when introducing Martha Mitchell to his audience in 2018. The podcast showed that the unveiling of the scandal was not just about heroic journalists or the men who ran the Senate Watergate hearings. Gaslit’s focus on Mitchell illuminates sexism that the women’ movement of the era sought to change, but Gaslit does little to connect its female characters to this or other movements that defined the period. Viewers should not expect the series to adhere to the standards of historians, but the antiwar movement played a crucial role in Nixon’s downfall. His obsession with combatting the influence of antiwar activists led to the Huston Plan, the 1970 Nixon White House plan for increased surveillance of New Left radicals, and the eventual creation of the Plumber’s Unit that conducted the Watergate break-in. Gaslit’s brief references to the antiwar movement do not offer enough context to inform viewers of the political stakes of the period. Characters or other references to protest do not come close to capturing the diversity of the movement of the early 1970s. There is a shot of demonstrators outside the 1972 Republican National Convention, but their purpose is unclear. Nixon’s top aides hear a report that the House is considering an impeachment resolution on the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, but the viewer does not know why that would be an impeachable offense. There is no mention that the spring of 1970 saw some of the largest antiwar protests, including a student strike that shut down hundreds of campuses nationwide.
The one scene in which the series gives significant time to the antiwar movement is its faithful depiction of singer Carole Feraci’s courageous protest at a White House reception in 1972. Seconds before the Ray Conniff Singers were about to perform, Feraci broke from the group and told President Nixon to “Stop the Killing.” She read from a note before being escorted from the room: “Mr. President, stop the bombing of human beings, animals, and vegetation. You go to church on Sunday and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and Daniel Ellsberg.” Daniel and Philip Berrigan were Jesuit priests who engaged in radical forms of antiwar protest; the former served time in prison for destroying hundreds of draft files with others who were part of the Catonsville Nine. Ellsberg was a former military analyst turned whistleblower who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Without Ellsberg, Nixon may have never created the Plumbers Unit. Gaslit covers quite a bit of ground in its eight episodes, but it is worth pondering why there are no characters that could help explain how the antiwar movement affected the Nixon White House. It’s an important question considering the wider absence of flattering portrayals of those who opposed the Vietnam War in Hollywood.
The greatest drawback of the series is its failure to show Nixon’s abuses of power. Scholars, along with people who lived through the Nixon era, will likely recognize Gaslit’s references to the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, the plan to firebomb the Brookings Institute, and a few other plots that suggest that there was a broader project supported by the White House against the president’s enemies. Still, the references are quick and do not spell out that Nixon himself was the driving force behind the many White House crimes. Viewers are left with the impression that the Watergate story begins a few months before the break-in rather than a year before, when Nixon pushed his advisors to create a team that could stop leaks and spy on their political opponents. The creators of the show include a few segments from the Nixon tapes and they show that the president was aware of Liddy’s reputation and actively participated in the cover-up, but the series does not do enough to show the full extent of Nixon’s culpability. “Who the fuck do you think I was taking orders from,” says Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Nat Faxon) from prison during the final episode. Clearly, the president is guilty, but Gaslit never explains his exact crimes.
The most extended scene that features Nixon (Danny Winn) shows the president getting out of bed alone. He grunts, looks out his bedroom window and lets out a long fart. It’s a humorous scene, but it also signals the show’s wider lack of interest in exploring the president’s motives. Instead, Gaslit examines those who surrounded Tricky Dick. “He’s only up there because we put him there…We are Nixon, all of us. And we’ll still be Nixon long after he’s dead and gone,” remarks Dean in prison, encapsulating the show’s perspective. We might not need another TV series or film solely about Richard Nixon, but we need a more precise explanation than Gaslit provides of the threat he posed to American democracy.
Sources for More Information
Mary Robertson, Tricky Dick, CNN, 2019.
Ken Druckerman, Slow Burn, Epix, 2020.
Garrett M. Graf, Watergate: A New History. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Stanley Kutler, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, New York: Free Press, 1997.
Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon, New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1990.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, “Watergate Evidence,” (A Part of the Library’s Watergate exhibit).
John Farrell, Richard Nixon: The Life, New York: Vintage, 2017.
Tim Weiner, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015.
Antiwar Movement and Nixon
Michael Koncewicz, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power, Oakland, University of California Press, 2018.
Lawrence Roberts, May Day 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest, Boston: Mariner Books, 2020.
Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, Oakland, University of California Press, 1994.
Featured image: Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as Martha and John Mitchell in Gaslit (2022), walking by antiwar demonstrators.
 The series bends the truth with Liddy, particularly when it comes to his level of physical violence, but the opening scene did in fact take place. The “candle trick” was something that Liddy frequently bragged about after Watergate. In Gaslit, he burns his flesh to impress the Cuban Americans before the Watergate break-in. “I’m ready to make an offering for myself to the kingdom,” he says when faced with a lengthy prison sentence.