A star-studded miniseries from the makers of Mr. Robot revisits Watergate from the perspective of a few key figures

Watergate has long since cemented its place in the pop-culture landscape, both through straightforward depictions like Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and Oliver Stone’s Nixon, as well as alternate reality versions like Forrest Gump. Now, a version focusing on the untold stories and less familiar characters surrounding the events makes its way to the small screen—albeit with a cast led by two movie stars: Julia Roberts and Sean Penn. GaslitCrave

When Mr. Robot writer Robbie Pickering discovered the podcast Slow Burn, he brought it to his former Mr. Robot boss, Sam Esmail, hoping they could shine new light on a familiar story. “I had always been a Nixon geek and I had been watching a lot of movies about this period. They always framed people in terms of these great heroes and the great villains of the era,” says Pickering. “When you really read the history, what you’re struck by is the humanity of everybody in this story and how relatable they are. I’m more interested in them as human beings and not political animals.”  

Esmail, another self-professed Nixon geek, was in fact also familiar with Leon Neyfakh’s aforementioned podcast. What piqued his interest were the characters—the women, in particular—who had been left out of the greater narrative. “I think it’s by design that we did not care about these women. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the women who played an instrumental role in this scandal were ignored and silenced,” says Esmail. “That’s why I found the story compelling. For me, that’s the perspective shift that this story takes on.”  GaslitCrave

At the centre of the six-episode series is Martha Mitchell (Roberts), the wife of Nixon’s attorney general John N. Mitchell, played by Penn. Uber-conservative Martha was a celebrity in her own right, known as “The Mouth of the South” due to her uncensored talk. Though she has often become a footnote in the story, Mitchell was the whistleblower on Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. “You want to root for her, because a woman in this movement is kind of punk rock, but also it’s like, ’You’re punk rock for horrible things,’” says Pickering, who was fascinated by Martha’s motives for sounding the alarm. “She is doing it because she was jealous of the hold Nixon had over her husband, which is kind of a selfish motivation, but that’s the way heroes are made.”  

Focusing the series on some of the women of the period is not just a gimmick, adds Pickering. “We really relied on a great book called Women of Watergate that goes into all these women of the period, like Mo Dean [GLOW’s Betty Gilpin] and Martha,” says the showrunner. “They’ve really been ignored for the Woodwards and the Bernsteins and the Nixons and the Deans and the Liddys. That’s kind of a tragedy.” 

GaslitCraveThat is not to say that White House counsel John Dean and chief operative in the “White House Plumbers” unit G. Gordon Liddy, who were involved in the plan to gather intelligence at the Democratic National Committee HQ, do not play a role in this retelling. Liddy is played by frequent Esmail collaborator Shea Whigham, and Dean by Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens. “As a Brit, my knowledge of Watergate was probably quite surface. But what really leaps out about something like this, for any nationality of actor, is when you’re given the opportunity to play more than just a historical entry,” says Stevens. “When there are human stories lifting off the page, they illustrate the depth of these stories. The way that a story like this is told is deeply fascinating for someone who’s learning about the roots and the network of the American system.” 

In the writers’ room, Pickering and his team were never interested in a Wikipedia rundown of the events as much as the truth of the characters. “We’re really making a show about two marriages and how complicity either destroys or binds relationships together,” says Pickering. “In the case of John Dean and Mo Dean, it really bound them together. They’re married to this day. And in the case of John Mitchell and Martha Mitchell, it really split them apart and wrecked a really beautiful love between them.” 

GaslitCraveAdditionally, Pickering does not see it as a reassessment of the period but as an analysis of where we are now. “The things that are happening now kind of echo through the decades,” he says. “They echo because these things that we look at as the complicity in government and people subsuming their values for an authoritarian figure stem from really human frailties: The need to be valued, in the case of John Mitchell. Blind ambition, in the case of John Dean. Zealotry, in the case of G. Gordon Liddy. Really, the show is an exploration of how that is within all of us. That’s the reason I think this is fresh, and an interesting look at that time.” 

Gaslit debuts Sunday, April 24th at 1:10 a.m. on Starz 2 or via streaming on Crave