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'Gaslit' Creator Robbie Pickering Wants You to Remember Martha Mitchell

Julia Roberts stars in Starz limited series about the disgraced politician's wife who told the world the truth about Watergate — even if no one believed her at the time.
by Whitney Friedlander — 
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Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in 'Gaslit'

Starz

The Watergate break-in was notoriously one of the most bungled covert operations in U.S. political history. It brought down a sitting president, Richard Nixon, and made heroes out of the (male) journalists who covered it, particularly The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And such films as All the President's Men, Nixon, and Dickhave made sure we don't forget that.

But Robbie Pickering, a self-professed devotee to this time in our culture, wants to make sure that one name is not forgotten in this story: Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon's attorney general John N. Mitchell. 

Martha tried to tell us the truth and no one believed her. Her own husband helped assure that she was held captive in a hotel room. And she was defamed in the media as an unstable drunk and unreliable narrator. 

"I think a lot of the history sidelines her in this weird way. It makes sense because they sideline every woman. But especially Martha. She's really sidelined as an hysteric and an alcoholic. Once I heard that story, that became my way in for a show about this period," Pickering tells Metacritic.

Pickering created the Starz miniseries Gaslit to help make sure we know her story. Premiering April 24, it stars Julia Roberts as Martha — the life of Washington, D.C. parties until she wasn't — and Sean Penn as her husband John. An exceptional list of actors fill out other members of Nixon's administration, including Shea Whigham as the overly confident and obsessive head burglar G. Gordon Liddy, Dan Stevens as John Dean, a Nixon official who knew very little but desperately wanted to be part of the crew, and Betty Gilpin as John's eventual wife Mo, who idolized Martha.

Here, Pickering talks to Metacritic about using Gaslit to clear Martha's name.

There have been tons of scripted and documentary projects that have talked about the Watergate break-in and cover-up, but the Martha Mitchell story isn't usually mentioned. Why did you decide to concentrate on it?

Going back to the time I was 11 or 12 — believe it or not — I was a huge Nixon geek and I loved learning about the culture of Nixon. I think a lot of the complicity and garden-variety corruption and politics we see now, and a lot of the culture war stuff, started with the culture around Nixon and the people around Nixon.

When I came to Hollywood, I really wanted to do a show or movie about the culture around Nixon. But of course, nobody was interested in that. But then about 12 years later, the podcast Slow Burn came around, and it really centered Martha's story.

Baby Boomers' depictions of that period are very colored by their own feelings of mythos about it. When you read the history of it, it's really more mundane and human than that. And, in that way — even though I love those movies and the TV shows about that period — I think a lot of them do us a disservice in distancing us from the scandal and making us think it can't happen again. 

All of us have this propensity to be complicit in things that go against our morals or beliefs or how we think of ourselves, whether it be out of ambition or because we feel valued by somebody in power or because we think that we're working toward something sacred and so the ends justify the means. Out of that messy human complexity also comes the propensity to become heroic. And that is also a messy thing.

Last year, FX aired the limited series Impeachment: American Crime Story, which was about Bill Clinton's impeachment scandal. Linda Tripp, who was portrayed by Sarah Paulson, was just as much of a whistleblower as Martha when it comes to divulging what she knew about Monica Lewinsky's relationship with the president. These are both women whom history may not have treated very well. Is it interesting to you that we're starting to see that change now?

Linda Tripp is complex because she was sharing Monica Lewinsky's truth without asking. She didn't have permission to do that. And Martha was really telling on a corrupt president. 

I always talk about this with characters in TV shows. Male protagonists in TV shows and movies are really allowed this moral flexibility. You, as an audience member, can sometimes look at [Mad Men's] Don Draper and think of him as a hero and sometimes look at him as the villain. Maybe he's doing the right thing and maybe he's doing the wrong thing. And maybe [The Sopranos'] Tony Soprano is right about this but wrong about that. With female protagonists, you really have to know exactly who they are. And I think a show like Enlightenedintroduced a female character that you're never quite sure if what she was doing was completely idiotic or completely noble or heroic or insane. 

I think Martha has that same quality. And I think in that same way, history is really unkind to women who are easily demagogued. Martha was an alcoholic. Even though every man in the Nixon administration has some shade of alcoholism, Martha is the mess. In some way, we're trying to correct that.

Do you think that Martha and John even really loved each other?

Oh, yes. They had such a tempestuous young love. They were, by all accounts, volcanic as a couple. Like the most Pam & Tommykind of love, but with people in their 50s. They met late in life. They both cheated on their spouses to get with each other. It's a really sexy story, if you read into it.

I think John Mitchell felt valued by Nixon and by this man who was so powerful. John Michell eventually had to choose between his wife and Nixon and he chose Nixon. And I don't think John Michell ever was the same after that. I don't think he ever fell in love with anyone again. Martha didn't live much longer, but I think she died more at peace than he did even though she died alone.

Martha had a son, Jay, by previous marriage [and a daughter, Marty, with John]. They're private people, but Leon Neyfakh, who did the Slow Burn podcast, got the opportunity to talk to Jay at some point. He told me that the the biggest thing Jay said to him was, "I just want people to know my mom is something other than a drunk clown."  

It's rough making a TV show. But when you know that this woman is remembered as a drunk clown — to the degree she's remembered — it really keeps you going to want to redefine that for people.

Famed political reporter Helen Thomas is credited for breaking the story that Martha was being held hostage at the hotel. But the show concentrates on Martha's relationship with Winnie McClendon, as portrayed by Allison Tolman, instead. Is there a reason for that?

When you write a show like this, you have to condense some characters and some events. Martha had a whole slew of female journalists that she was really good friends with. One of them was Helen Thomas. One was Winnie McClendon. One was Claire Crawford. We combined them all into the character of Winnie. There's a whole army of great female journalists of the period — Elizabeth Drew and Lesley Stahl and Barbara Walters — and I put a lot of them into the Winnie character. 

There have been articles that have compared Martha Mitchell to the way George Conway trolled Donald Trump's administration on Twitter. Do you think Martha would have enjoyed social media?

Too much. I dread to see what Martha Mitchell would have been like on social media. She probably would have said some really unfortunate things. 

A lot of people compared Martha to George Conway or [say] that George Conway's daughter [Claudia] is like Martha and stuff like that.  But you've really got to understand how much Martha had to lose by saying this stuff.  I mean, it would be like if Melania Trump just started to — what do the kids say? Dishing the tea? Or Nancy Reagan was just like, "All right, look. This is how Iran Contra happened." Or Hillary Clinton for that matter.  It was pretty seismic what Martha Mitchell was doing and it had enormous implications on her personal life.


Gaslit airs Sundays at 8 p.m. beginning April 24 on Starz and also

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Get to know Robbie Pickering:
Although Gaslit is the first show Pickering created, he has numerous credits as a writer and director across film and TV. On the film side, he wrote and directed 2011's Natural Selection (Metascore: 57) and directed the 2015 feature Freaks of Nature. In television, he worked as a writer on One Mississippi (78), Search Party (78), and Mr. Robot (80).