Gaslit: Watergate Series Explores Complicity and Why People Do Horrible Things

The Series Explores “Complicity and Why People Do Horrible Things”

Robbie Pickering offers a moderate take on the Watergate scandal, at Monday night’s premiere alongside stars Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin.

The series is described as a modern take on Watergate that focuses on the untold stories and forgotten characters of the scandal and centers on Martha Mitchell (Roberts), an Arkansan socialite and wife to John Mitchell (Penn), Richard Nixon’s attorney general.

Martha was the first to publicly sound the alarm on the former president’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, which caused his presidency and her personal life to unravel.


Julia Roberts
Showrunner Robbie Pickering’s interest in Nixon and Watergate began when he was a child, and he saw his mom crying while watching his funeral on TV.

“She said, ‘He was a good man. He was a great man. He was misunderstood. And the liberals did this to him,” Pickering noted. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to know everything about this guy.’ And I started learning about the people around him and this weird culture around him of complicity and cultural bitterness, which we still have today.”

The creator took inspiration from the worst qualities of himself and the people he knows and wrote them into the fictionalized version of Gaslit‘s real-life characters.

“The show explores complicity and why people do horrible things,” he said. “One of the reasons is ambition. So, John Dean (Dan Stevens) is just me writing myself as a young person in Hollywood, writing terrible scripts to impress somebody.

John Mitchell, who’s Sean Penn’s character, just feels valued by Nixon. He feels valued by somebody in power, and we all know what that’s like to feel — it’s just this weird, seductive feeling.”

Despite the flaws of the series’ characters, creating a show from their perspective gives him hope because it humanized the “pathetic idiots” a bit. Some people are prone to be complicit in things that go against who they are.

“It gives me hope because the flip side of that is no matter how flawed we think we are, we all have the capacity to speak up and speak the truth and be heroic,” he says. “Martha was a very flawed person, so really going into her story, it gives you hope for as long as we have villains.  As long as we have Putins, we’ll have Zelenskys.”

Gaslit is based on actual events and real people, and the cast was able to deep dive into researching their onscreen counterparts — who they were, why they did the things they did and how they got to that point in their lives.

Mo Dean’s book: A Woman’s View of Watergate

“I read Mo Dean’s book, A Woman’s View of Watergateand I watched hours of the Watergate hearings, where she’s supporting her husband,” said Betty Gilpin, who portrays Maureen “Mo” Dean, wife of Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean. “There’s so much going on behind her eyes, she’s such an enigma.”

Stevens used the Watergate hearings to prepare for his role, which piqued his interest because it was “such a key moment in history and such an interesting story.”

“There’s a lot of footage of John Dean, sitting, droning on during the hearings, and he’s wheeled out on CNN pretty regularly as their resident corruption expert,” Stevens said.

Gilpin and Stevens star alongside Roberts and Penn, who take on the lead roles in Gaslit. 

The A-listers wanted to work together for years before finally getting the chance to in the Starz series, Pickering said, adding, “There’s this very deep love between them.”

Gaslit premieres on Starz on Sunday.