Sean Penn and Julia Roberts as John and Martha Mitchell in Gaslit.
Robbie Pickering has always found right-wing Republican women to be, as he says, kind of punk. "You want to root for them," he says, "but you feel conflicted about the things they are espousing."
He grew up in an evangelical family in Texas, and his mother was one of those women. Pickering is also a self-professed "Watergate geek" who's fascinated by the scandal that took down Richard M. Nixon and his administration in the early 1970s.
So who better to serve as creator–writer–executive producer–showrunner of the Starz limited series Gaslit? After years of trying to frame his take on that historic scandal, Pickering found his muse in Martha Mitchell, the most prominent conservative woman of her day.
As the famously chatty wife of Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, Martha became a flashpoint when she started speaking out publicly about the president's culpability in the 1972 break-in and coverup. For her candor, she saw her life destroyed.
Gaslit filters the well-trod story of Watergate through the trial by media and imploding marriage of Martha and John, played by Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Sean Penn. Pickering found his point of view thanks to Slate's Slow Burn podcast, which opened its 2017 Watergate season with an episode about Martha, the forgotten whistleblower.
"She really was complicit in all the horrible things Nixon was doing, and then she decided to speak out, and those horrible things were turned on her," Pickering says. "I have a lot of sympathy for that. I think it is a truer portrait of what it means to be a whistleblower or a hero."
Pickering, whose previous credits include One Mississippi and Mr. Robot, says Gaslit is not necessarily intended for Watergate buffs like himself, but for people interested in the personal cost of scandal.
"Everyone knows about the political dynamics of this period," he says. "They don't know the human side of it."
To ensure the writers studied both sides of the aisle, he tasked them with finding a Watergate character in whom they saw a quality of their own — and it couldn't be a good one.
That's what he's done with Martha, whose complex legacy is often a footnote. He longed for the insight her experience could lend a moment he thought he knew so well, and watching her come to life through Roberts often left him speechless.
"We had been living with the Martha in our heads for so long," he recalls. "Seeing Julia on that first day, in the bouffant and doing Martha — her version of Martha, a completely internalized Martha — was really thrilling."
Gaslit is produced by UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group, and based on the first season of Slate's Slow Burn podcast. It is available on Starz, the Starz app and on-demand platforms.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 2022, under the title, "Talk of the Town."