In 2022, the reasons for making a show about the Watergate scandal seem too obvious to bother writing down. But Gaslit, the new Starz drama about the scandal, isn’t just a show about political corruption or a satire about the buffoonery of arrogant government officials. More than anything else, Gaslit is about the dangers of idolatry. It’s a show that charts the downfall of Richard Nixon’s presidency but rarely shows the man himself because it’s too busy investigating the motivations of the men (and women) who were willing to commit treason for him.
That becomes clear in Gaslit’s opening scene, which shows fanatical Nixon supporter G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham) holding his hand over a candle’s flame while speaking directly to the camera about the importance of a person’s will. “True immortality rests in a pure and mighty will… That is what it means to be Nixon,” Liddy says, right before unceremoniously putting out the flame with his open palm. It is an intense and outrageous opening moment, but just a taste of the kind of unwavering reverence with which many of Gaslit’s characters treat Nixon.
Of course, not everyone in Gaslit is blinded by their loyalty to America’s 37th president. Standing in stark opposition to Liddy and Nixon’s other followers is Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts), the wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn). When the series begins, Martha’s love of the spotlight and penchant for openly speaking her mind has already made her a minor American celebrity. She’s more loyal to herself and her family than she is to the president, which makes her knowledge of the Watergate break-in more valuable than she could possibly imagine.
Before long, Martha finds herself with the power to help bring down the world’s most powerful politician. The only problem? Her husband just so happens to be one of the president’s most devoted followers. As a result, much of the drama in Gaslit stems from Martha and John’s toxic relationship, one that ricochets between loving and sexual to abusive and demeaning repeatedly throughout the series.
As Martha, Roberts is a grinning open wound — a performer whose vanity and pride are systematically stripped away by her husband’s abusive tactics. Martha’s public persona is a caricature of sass and independence, but Roberts and the show’s creative team always find ways to ground Martha’s confidence in insecurity and tragedy. Opposite her, Penn is fittingly sleazy — if a little underused — as John Mitchell, a political scumbag of the highest order who is brought to life in the show via several layers of impressive prosthetic makeup.
If Martha and John are on the downslope of a once-great marriage when Gaslit begins, then John Dean (Dan Stevens) and Maureen “Mo” Kane (Betty Gilpin) are, as Martha sadly observes in the show’s premiere, at “the beginning of something.” John’s a member of Nixon’s White House counsel and Mo’s a stewardess. They meet each other through a dating service and quickly find themselves attracted to each other despite holding opposing political views. Over the course of the series, their relationship is, much like Martha and John’s, tested in various trying ways by the failed Watergate break-in and subsequent scandal.
For his part, Stevens plays John as a pitiful and weak but kind man. His intense desire to be accepted into Nixon’s inner circle drives him to make many horrendous decisions, all of which threaten to drive him apart from Gilpin’s Mo. In recent years, both Gilpin and Stevens have emerged as two of the most skilled and versatile performers working in Hollywood today, and their performances in Gaslit only further prove how talented and magnetic they both can be. Their chemistry together helps make up for the unevenness of how John and Mo’s relationship is developed in Gaslit, which sometimes struggles in its early episodes to balance all of its various perspectives and subplots.
However, no one makes quite the impression that Shea Whigham does as Liddy, the Hitler-obsessed military veteran who takes it upon himself to spearhead Nixon’s espionage mission. As Liddy, Whigham keeps his blinking to a minimum, back impeccably straight, and voice almost always at an even, low growl — except in the moments when Liddy decides to throw one of his many childlike tantrums. The performance constantly rides the line between hilarious and terrifying — evoking the same feelings that a fanatic like Liddy warrants.
It’s in the depiction of Liddy that Gaslit is at its most scathing and sharp. The series, which was created by Robbie Pickering and directed in its entirety by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic), occasionally attempts to broaden its scope and paint a comprehensive portrait of 1970s American society, but it is only intermittently successful at doing that. Instead, Gaslit works best when it keeps its focus on its characters, and uses them to make its themes clear.
That’s especially true in two memorable moments. The first comes near the end of one early episode and sees Stevens’ John Dean pay an unannounced visit to the home of L. Patrick Gray (John Caroll Lynch) in order to ask the Acting FBI Director to burn a box of secret government documents. Instead of expressing concern over the crime he’s being asked to commit, Gray’s first instinct is to ask, “Is Dick mad at me?”
In a later episode, Penn’s John Mitchell is shown sitting on the floor of his room, drunk and alone, quietly watching one of Nixon’s speeches on the TV. When the president finishes speaking, John begins to clap, showing his support for a man who could not care less about him. Like so many of the decisions made in Gaslit, it is a show of devotion that is born out of a dangerous delusion, one which prioritizes power and position over morality.
Gaslit premieres Sunday, April 24 on Starz.
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