The most exciting character on screens right now, hands down, is Maureen (Mo) Dean, played by Betty Gilpin, on the limited series Gaslit. This may not come as great news to Julia Roberts, who stars as Martha Mitchell on the same series – although she’s also excellent. But because Mo is less known to history than Martha, the writers have more licence to craft her, to have her say the things we wish someone had said. Gilpin then takes her startlingly original dialogue and dials it up to thrilling – especially in Episode 6; more on that in a minute.
Gaslit, which airs on Starz, retells the 1972 Watergate scandal from a point of view that includes people who are not middle-aged white politicians. It sets up Mo and Martha as twin poles of truth-telling, with opposite results: Martha is honest about U.S. president Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in, and she is crushed for it, by her husband John Mitchell (Sean Penn), one of the president’s men; and by the era’s patriarchal media, who dismissed her as a drunk, pill-popping loony.
Mo, on the other hand, is the smartest person in every room, in every scene. (The series blurs bios in the interest of story; what I describe here is the fictional version.) When she meets John Dean (Dan Stevens), he’s the allegedly powerful one, the Porsche-driving, Georgetown-educated White House counsel, and she is a flight attendant. But not only is she not intimidated by him, she calls him on his fatuousness as calmly as if she’s slicing white bread to make toast.
He blows their first date, then tracks her down at the airport to make amends. Instead of being dazzled by this, as a more typical TV babe would be, she informs him, coolly, that although he’s not the first person to do that, “it’s never felt quite so pathetic” before. “I am looking for a man,” she says. “I can’t waste my time with little boys any more.”
When John’s mind is elsewhere during sex, Mo walks away (“I’d rather not do this if it’s not real”), and when he mansplains to her over the phone about can openers, she flatly hangs up on him. Even after he wins her over and they marry (Gilpin’s “Why the hell not?” face at their wedding is priceless), she refuses to buy into the fairy tale. “My mother always told me she knew the moment she met my father she’d spend her life with him,” she says. “I was so worried I couldn’t feel that.”
“Then you met me,” John interrupts.
“No,” she says. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
But here’s the thing: Until now, even in the most prestige series, a woman who does and says these kinds of things is either heading toward shrew, manipulator, Lady Macbeth or some other unpleasant categorization. Mo, however, is adamantly not that. She is cool, she is smart, she is experienced; she is a person of substance, and she is right to feel as she feels. Astonishingly, the writing just keeps affirming her, and Gilpin keeps bringing us along.
She’s done this before: On the series Nurse Jackie and Glow, Gilpin created characters who are original and unpredictable, yet wholly believable. Here, her touch is light, but when she seamlessly grows serious, you feel it in your spine.
So by the time we get to the magnificent Episode 6 (of eight; the finale has yet to air), we are fully in Mo’s corner for one of the most fascinating juxtapositions of story I’ve seen in a series. (Spoilers coming.)
Mo convinces John to testify to the Watergate committee, and tell the truth about what happened in the White House. She helps him to “create a version of yourself that the American people can see themselves in.” She also learns that she’s pregnant. (The writers may – may – have known that the series would be concluding around June 17, 2022, the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, but they could not have known that hearings about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol will be airing live starting June 9. Yet all the right echoes are in place, for those who choose to hear them.)
Then, the night before John’s testimony, a thin line of blood runs down Mo’s thigh. She holds off telling him she’s miscarrying – she’s a wife, after all; her priority is not herself, but getting him through the next day. But when he panics as they call him in to the committee room, she fixes him with a look of pure steel. “You think this is hard?” she asks him. “Because this is not hard.” If I could kiss a line of dialogue on the mouth, it would be that one.
I wish I knew more about how this series was written. It’s created by Robbie Pickering (Mr. Robot), based on a podcast by Leon Neyfakh. Uzoamaka Maduka is the story editor, and the writers include Amelia Gray, Anayat Fakhraie, Sofya Levitsky-Weitz and Alberto Roldan. All eight episodes were directed by Matt Ross, the actor/writer/director (Captain Fantastic). Did the writers each take on a full episode, or were some people assigned to polish certain characters? Because whoever was writing Mo had a vision, and realized it.
I looked up the real Mo Dean, and was not surprised to find little about her. Typing her name into Wikipedia turns up John’s page. She’s written three books: an autobiography, Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate; and two spicy novels, Washington Wives and Capitol Secrets. There’s a rather demeaning 1987 interview of her in The Washington Post, by a woman who seems hell-bent on proving she can be as sexist as a dude (I blushed reading it, because I did the same thing in that era when I wrote for GQ). Mo is around 77 now, living in California, still married to John, who has a thriving career as a pundit on CNN and elsewhere; look for him to comment on the Jan. 6 hearings.
I don’t know how closely TV Mo hews to Real Mo. I don’t know how Real Mo feels about her avatar. But TV Mo is such a sensational being, such a necessary correction to how life actually goes, she makes me feel that she was always out there in the zeitgeist, waiting to be summoned, and at last, Gaslit has.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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