The Staircase






Paul Asay

TV Series Review

She fell down the stairs.

Such was Michael Peterson’s story: tragic, but simple. His wife, Kathleen, fell down the stairs and hit her head. She was still alive when Michael found her—blood on the stairs, the wall, her face, her feet. But she wasn’t alive for long. Despite his best efforts, she died before the paramedics could reach her.

But the blood-covered feet … that doesn’t snugly fit with Michael’s simple story does it?

And indeed, as details of this sad, strange case tumble out, nothing is simple at all.

Tread Lightly

Michael and Kathleen Peterson were important people in Durham, North Carolina, in 2001. He was a successful writer, she a successful businesswoman. They lived in Durham’s prestigious Forest Hills neighborhood, welcoming their wildly blended family back to the mansion for each and every holiday. Michael was running for city council—his second stab at public office. And everyone thought he had a pretty decent shot at winning this time.

Impressive? Yes indeed, considering his first campaign was upended by scandal. He said he’d earned a purple heart in the Vietnam War. Actually, his military service ended after a car crash in Japan—not the sort of thing they hand out medals for.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Michael’s story was almost immediately met with suspicion. Or perhaps it was the 35 cuts that the coroner discovered on Kathleen’s body, including seven around her head. Or maybe it was when folks learned that Michael was bisexual, with a pile of pornographic photos of men stashed on his computer.

The fact that Michael had been haranguing the local District Attorney for months in his regular newspaper column had nothing to do with him falling under suspicion so swiftly. Nothing whatsoever, the district attorney insists.

The prosecution’s theory is also simple: Kathleen discovered those tawdry photos. She confronted Michael about his sexuality. They fought, and Michael beat her to death with a hollow fireplace poker. But that theory has its own holes.

No matter, because in cases like this, justice almost seems an afterthought. The case has everything that a scandal-hungry public could want: sex, money and skeletons in every closet. It even draws interest from Europe, where a French documentary crew relocates to Durham to chronicle Michael’s trial.

But when the jury trots out the verdict, that’s hardly the end of the case. The whodunit saga stretches out for 16 years.

In fact, you could argue that we’re not through with it yet.

Down, Down, Down We Go

If America’s love of true-crime stories was itself on trial, The Staircase might be Exhibit A.

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade planned just a two-hour documentary on the case, using it to illustrate the oddities of the American justice system. Instead, the doc—also called The Staircase—stretched out to eight episodes, with de Lestrade tacking on sequels in 2013 and 2018 as the case continued to take unexpected turns. (All 13 episodes are now available on Netflix as well).

The case also inspired more than a dozen other television treatments and a handful of podcasts. And now, of course, we have HBO Max’s splashy dramatic account, with two Oscar winners (Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen) taking center stage.

With that sort of pedigree, let’s acknowledge that HBO Max’s dramatic miniseries The Staircase is well-written, well-produced and well-acted.

It’s also … well, about as tawdry and salacious and cringy as you’d expect.

True crime stories of this ilk always leave me feeling a bit slimy. We’re talking about real people, after all. A woman died. A family was torn apart. As one of the French documentary’s producers says, the Peterson case is a tragedy, whatever happened. And for me, the public regurgitations of the case (no matter how star-studded they might be) simply add tragic layers to this real-world story.

But if those concerns feel overblown to some, there’s little getting around the inescapable content problems The Staircase throws at us.

Michael’s bisexuality is chronicled with unblinking frankness, from the pornographic photos on his computer (which we, shockingly, see) to conversations he holds with prospective lovers to flirtations in an exercise sauna. And that’s just in the first two episodes. Kathleen’s death itself is played out in excruciating detail. And even as the prosecution warns family members how graphic Kathleen’s autopsy photos are, that doesn’t keep HBO Max from showing its audience them—again and again and again.

Drinking is an ever-present issue. Swearing, including multiple uses of the f- and s-word, is a given in each episode.

The Staircase is a fitting title for the show for more than one reason. Yes, it was (according to the Peterson camp) the instrument that led to Kathleen’s death. It will certainly recall the original French doc for those in the know. But you could argue that the staircase might also be a metaphor for the miniseries itself. After all, staircases go both up and down. And even as HBO Max tries to climb upward to the level of art with this true-crime story, it really heads downward—playing on the story’s most tawdry elements to both shock and titillate, to both repel and attract. This isn’t a staircase I’d like to descend again.

Episode Reviews

May 5, 2022, Ep1: “911”

The episode jumps throughout time: It actually begins in 2017, when an older Michael Peterson prepares to embark on a new chapter of his life. It takes viewers back to September 2001, as the Peterson family celebrates daughter Martha’s entry to college. But most critically, it chronicles Dec. 9, 2001, when wife Kathleen was found dead in a stairwell, and then follows the Peterson family for several days thereafter.

We see Kathleen’s body in the blood-saturated stairwell. An autopsy reveals multiple injuries. We hear a great deal of discussion and speculation about how she might’ve received those wounds. “I’m guessing she didn’t die right away,” the coroner says. “She struggled.” The corpse is completely nude, of course, and we see most of it—including breasts and a bit of pubic hair.

Audiences also see pornographic pictures found on Michael’s computer. One depicts an aroused man, while another depicts a man about to perform oral sex on another. (Male organs are fully visible in the black-and-white photos.) Other photos are also seen briefly. We hear Michael talk with an apparent lover over the phone, with Michael making a lewd suggestion. A used condom is found in Michael and Kathleen’s bedroom (and is held up for the camera): Michael later insists they never used condoms. Law enforcement conducts a rape test on Kathleen’s remains, but finds no evidence of assault.

The episode begins with a quote from John 18:37, which features Pontius Pilate asking, “Truth? What is that?” Michael’s lawyer recommends that he take a Bible into prison with him (between his indictment and being released on bail). Michael quips he’d rather take a Quran.

A family dinner includes champagne poured in a cup that each family member takes a turn sipping from (as they acknowledge and praise each other, as is tradition). At a party where she’s been drinking, Kathleen dives into a pool fully clothed. When she doesn’t come back up (we see her floating at the bottom of the pool), Michael dives in to rescue her. (The injury explains one unexplained wound found by the coroner.) We hear talk about the 9/11 attacks, as well as a notorious case wherein a football player shot his pregnant girlfriend.

Michael smokes a pipe, and several people drink. Todd, Michael’s youngest son, comes home very drunk the night of Kathleen’s death (and tells his girlfriend that, if she comes in, his parents won’t even know she’s there). We hear shadowy references to a difficult spring break experienced by Clayton Peterson, Michael’s eldest son. (In real life, Clayton was arrested for planting a small bomb at Duke University.)

Characters say the f-word 17 times and the s-word six times. We also hear “a–,” “d—n” and “pr—k.” God’s name is misused seven times (once with the word “d—n”), and Jesus’ name is abused five times.

May 5, 2022, Ep2: “Chiroptera”

After Michael Peterson is indicted, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team begin to explore the possibilities of using the case as his next documentary subject. Michael’s five children learn for the first time that their father is bisexual, and the Peterson family starts showing fractures, as Caitlin—Kathleen’s daughter—decides that Michael was behind her mother’s death after all. A few months earlier, Kathleen helps Michael throw an elaborate political fundraiser (canceling out of an important event of Caitlin’s to do so.)

We see Kathleen die as Michael’s legal team imagines it, and the death is incredibly hard to watch. We see her trip, fall and hit her head, then stumble upward and fall again. Blood pours out of wounds in her scalp. She chokes on her blood, as she tries to call for help, eventually gagging as the blood basically drowns her.

Elsewhere in the episode, Kathleen hits a deer with her vehicle. We see and hear the animal suffer before a police officer shoots the creature off camera. (Kathleen’s jarred by the gun’s report.) Kathleen’s surprised by something that flies out of her attic. She falls off an attic ladder and injures herself.

We hear some discussion regarding whether Kathleen was drunk or impaired at the time of her death. (Though she had consumed both some wine and a sleeping aid, the prosecution says that, legally, she was not intoxicated.) We see several photos from Kathleen’s autopsy, including some grotesque wounds on her head.

Michael eyes some men and women at an exercise club. Later, in a sauna, he holds a veiled conversation with someone who seems to be looking for a same-sex encounter. As Michael talks, he explicitly rubs his crotch area (apparently so the man would know he’d be open to such an encounter), but their conversation is interrupted by two other men who walk in.

Michael talks to another would-be lover over the phone, suggesting that they meet at a hotel. We hear much more conversation about Michael’s sexual proclivities: Michael insists that Kathleen knew all about his bisexual leanings. He tells someone the prosecution is trying to make him look like “Satan incarnate.” Someone beats a pillow with a hollow fire poker. People working for Michael’s defense spend a lot of time in the bloodied hallway, working out a plausible scenario as to what happened.

Characters say the f-word nearly a dozen times and the s-word another three. We also hear “a–” and “b–ch.” God’s name is misused eight times (once with the word “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused five times.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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