Recap: White House Plumbers (S1, Ep1) — Series Premiere Introduces the Idiots Behind Infamous Political Burglary
The thing about governments that’s easy to forget is that they’re made up of people. It’s possible to think of them as nebulous shadow organizations that control everything and everyone, but at the end of the day, they’re made up of people. And what’s easy to remember about people is that they’re stupid and are prone to making mistakes.
The opening scene of the first episode of White House Plumbers, which premiered on HBO and HBO Max this month, exists to communicate this idea. Several sharply dressed men stand before the Watergate Office Building, the site of the most important break-in in America’s history. They move in sync, as though they’re the best crack squadron of burglars in the country. One of them kneels down to unlock a door.
He has the wrong lock-picking tools.
“How is that even possible?!” one of the men snaps, as though none of them could have possibly foreseen such an egregious mistake. Then comes the kicker: on-screen text reveals that there were four attempts to break into Watergate, and what we are watching isn’t even their first go at it.
White House Plumbers is obsessed with the idea of people who have all the power but don’t have the smarts to actually do anything right with it. Such men are E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), the two protagonists(?) of the show and the leaders of the titular “Plumbers.” In 1972, these men orchestrated the highly illegal wiretapping of the Watergate Office that would end with the men they sent to do the job in handcuffs. The Watergate scandal is often regarded with distaste for the incompetence of the people involved, so White House Plumbers wants its audience to see who was responsible—that being a failed novelist who rambles about “leftist propaganda” left around his house and a man who is soothed by the words of Adolf Hitler. (Yes, that last part is accurate to the real Liddy’s life.)
The weakest part of the episode is its first ten minutes, where we are first introduced to the two main characters, a sequence full of exposition. We see Hunt staring out the window of his tiny office, visibly bored out of his mind, when his supervisor enters and starts rambling about how he needs to add more flavor to his latest report. Already, we’ve established both through Harrelson’s performance and the seemingly mundane dialogue that he’s clearly dissatisfied with his position.
“Is that my legacy? Working on this garbage?” Hunt sighs, taking the wind out of his own sails. There are moments like this throughout the start of the series—a news broadcast repeats the exact information about political leaker Daniel Ellsberg, the current subject of the government’s ire, ten seconds after we were given it via dialogue.
“People need to understand that they cannot violate our national security and get away with it,” Hunt’s new supervisor Egil Krogh (Rich Sommer) affirms, speaking about Ellsberg. Hunt nods shortly, and it makes for perhaps the most unsubtle moment of the episode, as though it’s pointing a big neon sign at him that reads “THIS MAN IS GOING TO VIOLATE NATIONAL SECURITY AND NOT GET AWAY WITH IT.”
After the introduction of Hunt and Liddy, White House Plumbers‘ best element becomes evident: its comedy. Harrelson and Theroux are the perfect men for the job, both adept at appearing completely serious and inherently comedic. This becomes apparent in perhaps the most ridiculous scene the episode has to offer. Hunt and his wife Dorothy (Lena Headey) go to the Liddys’ home for dinner, and instead of putting on music, he plays for them a remarkably loud recording of a Hitler speech. Both Hunt and Liddy are completely neutral here. Harrelson plays the scene as though he doesn’t want to be impolite by interrupting, and Theroux is clearly enjoying himself, giving a perfect image of the type of men these two are, much better than the opening of the episode. (“Why’s he going upstairs?” Hunt asks as Liddy scampers away to go arm himself against his delinquent child neighbors. “Why don’t you ask Hitler?” Dorothy quips.)
The general incompetence of Hunt and Liddy is a delight to watch, mostly buoyed by Harrelson and Theroux seeming as though they both hate and love each other simultaneously. The task that establishes them as “The Plumbers,” the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office so they can discredit him (Hunt is convinced that the psychiatrist is hiding evidence of Ellsberg being a communist), is the major focus of the episode. The initial scoping out of the office is remarkably funny, with the two awkwardly taking pictures in horrible disguises. At one point, they ask a passerby to take a picture of them, making a point to give her their full aliases and cover stories. Because now nobody will ever suspect anything suspicious is going on here, right? (These pictures actually turn up near the end of the episode in what feels like both a funny joke and foreshadowing to how their incompetence will get them in even deeper trouble—they forgot to take the film out of the camera.)
The episode’s climax is predictably disastrous. Hunt’s Cuban contacts are sent to photograph Ellsberg’s papers, but end up completely trashing the office in the process. Liddy can’t make heads or tails of the two-way radio he’s been given despite its simplicity, and takes out his impotent frustration on a vending machine when he finds that the Cubans half-assed a cover story about junkies ransacking the office. And despite this, they actually get away with it—the LAPD is as dim-witted as they are, and White House Counsel John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson) is so impressed that he approves Hunt’s testing request for a million dollars without a second thought. Hunt and Liddy’s ecstatic handshake turns into a full-on embrace, and the audience is left with only the knowledge of what they’ll end up doing with this money.
There are elements of “The Beverly Hills Burglary” that don’t work, including the previously mentioned gripes with the way information is conveyed in the opening. And there’s a subplot involving Hunt’s troubled daughter that doesn’t really get enough screen time to feel impactful when she drops out of college at the end. But for the most part, it’s got some great comedy, some great performances, and is well made overall.
When you make something about an event that already happened, it can be argued that you’re taking some of the tension out of it. If you already know what’s going to happen, what’s there to get worked up about? But White House Plumbers makes this work to its advantage, because we know Hunt and Liddy are going to phenomenally screw this all up. All that’s left is for us to watch it happen.
This episode of White House Plumbers is now available on HBO Max and HBO on demand.