Is Gaslit Based on a True Story?

Image Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment

Created by Robbie Pickering (‘Mr. Robot’), ‘Gaslit’ is a political thriller series that revolves around one of the most controversial incidents in recent American history — the Watergate Scandal. The story predominantly revolves around Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) and her husband, John N. Mitchell (Sean Penn), the US Attorney General in the Nixon administration. Although Martha is a Republican, she reaches out to the media to tell them that the Committee to Re-Elect the President or CRP, which her husband heads, have resorted to illegal methods to secure the election for Nixon.

In doing so, Martha effectively becomes one of the early whistle-blowers. The series also focuses on the inner workings of the Nixon cabinet, ideological fanatics that get involved with the scandal, and ordinary people that find the courage to do extraordinary things. ‘Gaslit’ is a historical series primarily set in the 1970s and gives an in-depth commentary on the socio-political situation of the time. If the show’s adherence to certain aspects of history has made you wonder whether it is inspired by actual events, we got you covered.

Is Gaslit a True Story?

Yes, ‘Gaslit’ is based on a true story. However, like most shows based on actual events, the narrative it presents has been dramatized. It is the TV adaptation of the first season of the ‘Slow Burn’ podcast by Leon Neyfakh. For Pickering, the interest in former US President Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal stems from his mother’s fondness for the politician. Having said that, ‘Gaslit’ is much more than a simple homage to the object of his mother’s adoration. It’s a complex tale of power and greed with a truly humorous core.

Image Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment

The show is also a celebration of lesser-known whistleblowers — Martha Mitchell in particular. Martha didn’t receive her dues for being one of the first people to attempt to notify the public about what was happening. Instead, constant ridicule has been directed toward her over the years. With ‘Gaslit,’ Pickering seeks to change that. “I have a 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I don’t want her to learn about Watergate in the same way that I learned about it,” Pickering stated during a Television Critics Association panel.

The creator and showrunner further added, “I want her to know that Martha Mitchell played an instrumental role in it, and she wasn’t just some drunk crazy lady. She was right. She was the first person to publicly blow the whistle on these people. Hopefully, we can correct the record a little bit with this show.” At the epicenter of the Watergate Scandal, there was a break-in that occurred at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C. Watergate Office Building on June 17, 1972.

As per records, The CRP funded this operation in order to gain photographed copies of the Democratic campaign documents and place wiretappings on telephones. However, it was ultimately unsuccessful, and five burglars — James McCord (Chris Bauer), Eugenio Martínez, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, and Bernard Barker — were arrested. The Nixon administration attempted to cover up its involvement in the matter but failed. The burglars were indicted for their part in the conspiracy along with Mitchell and others, and Nixon was forced to resign as the President of the United States of America.

Image Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment

Watergate has been the subject of numerous films and TV shows. Arguably the most notable among them is ‘All the President’s Men,’ a film about two valiant journalists investigating the scandal. However, in ‘Gaslit,’ the narrative is not focused on the break-in but on the women whose lives were influenced by the scandal, including Gail Magruder, Dorothy Hunt, and even Barbara Jordan. Pickering revealed that one of the books he heavily depended upon as a historical reference is Madeleine Edmondson’s 1975 book ‘The Women of Watergate.’

According to the series creator, the show places an additional emphasis on ambition and complicity and how they are often related. “The show really explores complicity and why people do horrible things,” Pickering told The Hollywood Reporter. “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 I think we all know what that’s like to feel — it’s just this weird, seductive feeling.”

Image Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment

‘Gaslit’ is also about two marriages. The relationship between former White House counsel Dean and his wife Mo (Betty Gilpin) survived the ordeal, while Martha and John separated in 1973. The last few years of Martha’s life were full of struggles. As per reports, she had no friends because of Watergate, no money, and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Martha passed away on May 31, 1976. “I don’t think she ever had the clarity of mind to say, ‘I’m going to rewrite the story of me on my own,’” Roberts said about the woman she portrays in an interview with The New York Times. “She just never had that opportunity.”

Read More: Where Was Gaslit Filmed?