White House Plumbers

Don’t Drink the Whiskey at the Watergate

Season 1

Episode 3

Editor’s Rating

2 stars

Photo: HBO

Operation Opal failed the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once.

The first night Gordon and Howard and their band of Cuban brothers attempt a Watergate break-in, the posse divides and doesn’t conquer. After a kickoff dinner, one team is dispatched to George McGovern’s presidential-campaign office, where Gordon’s “man on the inside” gets cold feet and denies them entry and nary a remote listening device is planted. Why did these men need to visit the Watergate at all on the evening in question? There’s no way to be sure.

The B team, which has the Democratic National Committee headquarters in its crosshairs, is a leaner yet somehow less nimble operation. Howard and Villo never make it up to the office. A security guard unwittingly locks them inside a banquet room elsewhere in the Watergate complex, and they spend the night hiding in an alcohol cupboard pissing into half-empty whiskey bottles. From here on, McGovern’s team hires a 24-hour security detail, which cuts Opal’s immediate target list in half. It’s DNC HQ or bust.

You’ll remember the second attempt — first attempt No. 2, really — from the White House Plumbers series premiere. The ragtag crew of political criminals makes it up to the DNC offices, but Villo doesn’t have the tools necessary to pick the lock. They’re on the Watergate premises just long enough for McCord to get ID’d by a security guard he used to work with. And for the sake of conversation, McCord offers up under absolutely zero duress that these days he’s collecting a paycheck from the Committee to Reelect the Prez.

On the third attempt — attempt No. 2.1 if you’re feeling generous — Villo brings the right tools to handle a double-sided deadbolt, and the saboteurs make it through the doors. They plant the bugs, photograph all of the files (which files? Any files!), and take an early victory lap by conspicuously toasting themselves on the veranda of the nearby Kennedy Center, which I guess does not have a security detail to rival McGovern’s. Unfortunately, most of the bugs are inoperative — McCord’s not-so-handy work — and the files turn up bupkes.

So on the fourth break-in attempt, these proud men of rock-ribbed conservative stock attempt to fix their former fuckups by remembering to set the bugs to “on” and photographing whatever it is that DNC chair (and future NBA commish) Larry O’Brien keeps in his desk drawers. Alas, they don’t make it up to the sixth floor. For the previous break-in attempts, McCord posed as a Watergate delivery man during the day and taped open a back door for his team of crackpot intelligencers to utilize later. But on this day, a security guard called Frank Wills — who, fun fact, plays himself in All the President’s Men — noticed and removed the masking tape.

Finally, on the fifth attempt, which was to make up for the failed fourth attempt because of the botched third attempt to compensate for the bungled second attempt, which was a rerun of the aborted first attempt, McCord, a former bodyguard to AG John Mitchell, is arrested inside DNC headquarters (h/t Frank Wills, who once again found the same piece of tape). Also arrested: the entire Cuban side of the operation, including Bernard “Macho” Barker, who has in his pocket the Hunt family’s scandalously late dues money for the Lakewood Country Club. Macho was meant to deposit the check in the mailbox on his way to infiltrate enemy HQ, but in the history of human existence, no one has ever remembered to drop a letter in the box on the first attempt. (In real life, Barker’s address book would give away his connection to Hunt.)

Remarkably, all this transpires over the course of about a month. In fact, it is the same historic month in which Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT treaty, a nuclear-arms-control agreement that means American voters can stop practicing hiding under the dining-room table. The same week Howard spends a long night in a small closet? Nixon’s approval rating is already hovering above 60 percent. Still, Dorothy Hunt is the only character to question whether the risks of espionage may outweigh the rewards for a Republican Party that seems poised to take the election in a landslide.

That’s because this has always been about more than an electoral victory for Hunt and Liddy. Opal is their redemption story. Gordon has been picked on all his life, he tells us over and over and over again. Now, he does daily calisthenics (Justin Theroux is very good at push-ups) and exists so close to the president of the United States of America that he irregularly interacts with a guy who regularly interacts with him. When the slightly more risk-averse Howard threatens to throw in the towel, Liddy reminds him of all the slights — the shitty PR job he hates, the old CIA colleagues who blank him at the tony Cosmos Club — that he has endured at the hands of bullies (real or imagined) and of all the political spoils a reelected Nixon will be in a position to bestow. This isn’t about America or even about Nixon; it’s about jostling for position in the upcoming feeding frenzy. It’s about heedlessly chasing former glory (real or imagined) because if you can’t be Oval Office adjacent, you may as well be in a square prison cell.

This episode isn’t as funny as episode two, mostly because we’re hearing the same jokes and seeing the same scenes ad nauseam. It’s no longer freshly ironic to me when Gordon and Howard relive the Bay of Pigs invasion like high-school quarterbacks who never made it. Each man has been allowed one or two personality traits, which don’t get developed so much as reiterated. For example, did you know Gordon was hotheaded and a bit of a Nazi? To make the point once again, he pulls his Walther on little David Hunt, who is shooting the (imagined) Viet Cong with his toy gun at the breakfast table. That said, Theroux does get all the best lines this week. “That toy gun is a recipe for disaster. Only real guns in the Liddy household,” he chides Dorothy. And I did LOL when he delivers the familiar old lament of dyed-in-the-wool Nixonites: “The president is a good man. Between you and me, I worry about some of the people with whom he surrounds himself.”

For his part, Howard continues to emerge as the “brains” of the operation. He thinks of every little detail, yet he thinks of nothing. He rents a banquet hall in the Watergate basement to justify the Plumbers’ presence in the building, but he doesn’t bother to recon the lock they’ll need to pick in order to leave said banquet hall. He recruits the right guys, but they never have the right tools. He tells his family he will join them on their trip to Paris, when everyone involved, including you and me and Dororthy, knows he will ultimately cancel because of work. We get it already! Howard is inept. Howard is his own worst enemy.

In fact, the most sensible Howard ever seems is on the eve of “Break-in No. 5 (A Little Bit of …).” He tells Gordon the plan feels slapdash and reckless, but the rest of the team have their own motivations for outvoting him — money, for most, though McCord is inspired to re-re-re-infiltrate for a chance to fix his faulty circuitry. But mostly the show makes the same points about Howard repeatedly, as well. Did you know he’s a neglectful dad? He doesn’t even know his son David plays piano or that Saint’s band is decent in a suburban way. We finally catch sight of the Hunts’ eldest daughter, Kevan — the apple of Papa’s eye — but it’s fleeting. She’s back off to Smith almost as soon as she arrives home for the weekend; now, she’s dashing off to Paris with Dorothy and David. (Her brief touchdown wouldn’t be so conspicuous if Kiernan Shipka hadn’t been cast in the role — surely, this character is destined for at least a few meatier scenes?)

The final time the Plumbers head into the Watergate, we know it will be the last. It has that special “one last job” energy to it. There’s infighting. Desperation overcomes common sense. It’s hasty. Usually, at this point in a heist movie, when the one last job goes south, it feels like a consequence of hubris. The criminals just weren’t content to walk away with what they already took. They were too greedy. Think Donald Sutherland in The Italian Job. Think of, well, several of the Fast & the Furious films.

But this is far more pathetic than that. The Plumbers have yet to pull off a single job or walk away with any glory. They shouldn’t go in for “one last job” because they have already proved they’re no good at the job. Unfortunately, the four failed attempts taught them the dangerous lesson that they can fail without getting caught. And as bad as things are about to get, I wonder if there won’t be some small part of Gordon and maybe even Howard that thrills to see their names associated with Nixon’s in the Washington Post when it all eventually does catch up with them — for the whole town to know how close to power they’d almost been, even if it did end in disgrace.

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