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TV show 'Gaslit' highlights the forgotten story of Watergate — Martha Mitchell's

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Gaslit" shows the Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal as a botched attempt by a bumbling bunch of crooks who had no business leading a life of crime.

ROBBIE PICKERING: John Oliver used to have the saying where he called the Trump-Russia scandal stupid Watergate. But I'd watch that and think, well, if you've read the history, you know Watergate was stupid Watergate. In politics, in business, these criminals are not, by and large, very smart people.

CHANG: That is showrunner Robbie Pickering. He knows the history. And his series makes central one figure who has been relegated to a peripheral role in books and movies - Martha Mitchell, the wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell. In the new series "Gaslit," Julia Roberts plays Martha, the first person to blow the whistle on Watergate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GASLIT")

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Martha Mitchell) I decided long ago that I will say how I feel. And if that does not conform to the president's message, so be it. If that gets me banned off Air Force One, I will fly commercial.

CHANG: Pickering says his fascination with Watergate dates back to childhood during Richard Nixon's funeral.

PICKERING: We had one of those little breakfast table TVs, and I looked over to my mom, and she was just weeping. And all I knew about Richard Nixon up to that point was kind of what the general impression was, the post-Watergate '80s, '90s impression, which was that he was a kind of a disgraceful president. So I just was confused and asked her why she was crying, and she turned to me, tears in her eyes, and she said, he was a great man; he was a good man; he was misunderstood and that the liberals did this to him. And, you know, it started kind of this lifelong fascination with not just Nixon. It started with Nixon, who's immensely fascinating, but he's been done to death. And it really expanded the people around Nixon and the kind of...

CHANG: Totally.

PICKERING: ...And the culture around Nixon.

CHANG: Like, your series focuses on someone not a lot of people talk about when they mention Watergate, and that is Martha Mitchell, the former wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell. Let me ask you, out of all the characters in Watergate, what drew you in the most about Martha Mitchell?

PICKERING: The duality, and it's just very complex. And I've always been fascinated with it. And Martha being the hero she was, she started out as really complicit in a lot of the things Nixon did. And she started speaking out because actually she was just always jealous of the pull Nixon had on her husband, John Mitchell, who was his campaign manager and attorney general. And she was really jealous of it. And that's really where the genesis of her speaking out about Watergate came from. And it came from this selfish place, and it came from as selfish a place as her complicity did, but it was heroic.

CHANG: Why do you think Martha Mitchell's story has sort of disappeared from the mainstream retellings of the Watergate scandal?

PICKERING: I wish I had a better answer for you than the fact that it's just she's a woman, and she was an alcoholic and a complicated woman. I mean, one of the exciting things about seeing Julia Roberts play this character is she's not - you know, she's not a typical good guy. She - I mean, if I met Martha Mitchell at a party - I always said this to my friend Amelia, who worked on the show with me - if I met Martha Mitchell at a party, I'd probably immediately be like, get that person away from me (laughter). She's toxic.

CHANG: Someone save me. Someone come up to me.

PICKERING: Exactly.

CHANG: Ask me if I want to go up to the bar for another drink.

PICKERING: Exactly. And it was just very - it's just always been very easy to disregard women like that, even when they're telling the truth. And she was surrounded by flawed people. But somehow, she's forgotten and disregarded in history, even though she was the first one among them to publicly tell the truth about it. It's - you know, I wish I had a better answer for why Frank Wills, who stopped the Watergate burglary...

CHANG: Right. This is the security guard at the building.

PICKERING: Yeah - is disregarded and the fact that he's a Black man. But we all know if he was white, you know, everybody would know his name.

CHANG: A hundred percent. You know, I was mesmerized watching the depiction of Martha and John's marriage because even though it was such a brutal and cruel marriage, you also portrayed this intense love between them. Like, John had this one line in this scene where he says a good marriage will bore you to death.

PICKERING: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GASLIT")

SEAN PENN: (As John Mitchell) The kind of marriage you want, you're lucky and you're cursed. There's nothing like them.

CHANG: Where did you get this idea that even though the Mitchell's marriage wasn't a so-called good marriage, it deeply fed something in both of them? Were you more storyteller or historian there?

PICKERING: No. I mean, if you read about their marriage, I mean, honestly, their marriage was so hot (laughter). It was...

CHANG: Hot in all senses of that word.

PICKERING: Yeah. It was like, you know, they'd have these big Washington parties, and they'd both get drunk and just start throwing things at each other upstairs. Like, everybody would hear it. And you just know they had great sex after that, you know? Like, I mean, these two people couldn't get enough of each other.

CHANG: Yeah.

PICKERING: They were addicted to each other and obsessed with each other. And the real tragedy of it is that John Mitchell, you know, basically threw that all away because he - because the sway of being valued by Richard Nixon was just too great for him.

CHANG: You know, Martha Mitchell, she's not memorialized in history as someone who was key to bringing down the Nixon administration. But your series makes the case that she was, and the personal costs that she suffered from Watergate were profound. Did you get the sense that she ever fully understood how much she was gaslit, how much she was manipulated and that she did play a hugely important role in the story?

PICKERING: I think and what I hope is, in the end, she didn't care about that stuff, that she found some peace towards the end of her life that she couldn't find in her marriage with John Mitchell. I - my reading in between the lines of their marriage - and I don't want to give away the ending, but my reading in between the lines is that, you know, John Mitchell was the one left with a heavy psychological burden for what he had done to his wife. He never really found that same kind of love again. And I think it really haunted him. You know, I think many of us look back on that person we loved when we were, you know, 27, who - I always call them the worst person. Everybody has...

CHANG: Right.

PICKERING: ...The worst person they'll ever date or (laughter)...

CHANG: Totally, 100%.

PICKERING: ...That somehow you two were toxic together.

CHANG: And yet you're addicted.

PICKERING: But I think Martha, because of what she did, she found a greater - she found something greater than that. And she might have gotten out with the raw end of the deal history-wise in the history books. But I think emotionally - I do think when you read about her towards the end, she found a lot of peace.

CHANG: Well, you left us that cliffhanger. We only got to see seven of the eight episodes, so I can't wait for the final episode.

PICKERING: Yeah, the seventh episode of this show is one of the craziest. It's so weird and so funny and so tragic and - just like the show is.

CHANG: Robbie Pickering is the creator of the new show "Gaslit." It's streaming on Starz now. Thank you so much for being with us.

PICKERING: Thank you, Ailsa. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Mia Venkat