Gaslit Premiere Review – “Will”

Gaslit premieres on Starz on April 24, 2022, with new episodes weekly on Sundays.

In the first episode of the Slow Burn podcast, host Leon Neyfakh compares Martha Mitchell to Anthony Scaramucci. Trump’s director of communications was the center of political discourse for his 10-day tenure, delivering a constant stream of outrageous quotes and stories before disappearing from the news. Likewise, Martha, an Arkansan socialite and wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general John N. Mitchell, was briefly one of the most famous people in America and a key part of exposing the Watergate scandal, but has largely been left out of retellings of the last days of the Nixon presidency.

Gaslit, a six-episode Starz miniseries based on the podcast, brings Martha back to the forefront as part of a strange ensemble of lawyers and spooks conspiring to sabotage the Democrats ahead of Nixon’s reelection campaign. The first episode delivers a mix of dark comedy, paranoia, and personal drama to present a version of the Watergate story that’s upsettingly familiar at a time when current politics feel equally surreal and on the brink of true crisis.

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Julia Roberts stars as Martha opposite Sean Penn, who plays John and is nearly unrecognizable thanks to a retreating hairline and prosthetic jowls. Both sell their tempestuous relationship, showing a couple that was very much in love before John’s job moved them from New York to DC and consumed most of his time and attention from him. Throughout the episode they fight over Martha’s love of talking to the press, gabbing about a rivalry with first lady Pat Nixon and speaking out against the Vietnam War, and then make up with gooey pet names and physical affection that mortifies their 11-year-old daughter, Marty (Darby Camp).

While Martha plans a posh fundraiser for Nixon, John is working on an espionage campaign against his political rivals. White House Counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens of downton abbey and Legion) points out that this hardly seems necessary given Nixon’s leading in the polls, but he quickly puts aside his practical and ethical concerns about the matter when he sees the opportunity to get in good with the president. In a clever bit of storytelling by director Matt Ross and writer/creator Robbie Pickering, Nixon has no lines and is seen only in silhouette. He’s like a ghost that hangs over the episode and its characters — motivating them without any direct role in the action.

Stevens delivers a remarkable performance as he alternates between bemusement and horror at the plans being proposed by FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham), who shows up with a presentation suggesting kidnapping Democrats or seducing them with prostitutes. Whighan, who previously co-starred with Roberts in home coming, is absolutely devouring scenery here as a man with unshakeable devotion to Nixon and his brand of masculine power, viewing himself as a warrior against Communism and feminism. There is n’t a scene he’s in that he does n’t steal, starting with the episode’s unsettling intro where he opines about the nature of human struggles while providing his grit from him by holding his hand above an open flame.

Rounding out the cast is Mo (Betty Gilpin), a flight attendant who meets John through a dating service and sees the best in him, despite their political differences. The episode shows the fragmentation of DC, posh gatherings by the political elite interrupted by Vietnam protests and John cruising through the streets in his mustard Porsche while a homeless man defecates on the sidewalk. There’s a clear parallel drawn between the fragile relationships of both the Mitchells and John and Mo, with the seduction of fame, wealth, and power having the clear potential to trump any romance.

With the events of Watergate just kicking off at the end of the episode, the premiere promises an even wilder ride to come.

During a big fight at a fundraiser, John delivers a crushing line to Martha: “All those journalists that you call in the middle of the night, they’re not your friends. They just can’t take their eyes off a good show.” Martha does deliver a good show in the first episode of Gaslit, breathing new life into familiar political intrigue by filling it with absurdity and genuine emotion. With the events of Watergate just kicking off at the end of the episode, the premiere promises an even wilder ride to come.

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