The Staircase review

HBO’s The Staircase Miniseries Review

There will always be a hunger for true crime series. It seems there have been almost too many shows like The Staircase, especially recently, but people are still fascinated by two simple questions: who did it and why?

In the case of Michael Peterson, a writer and lousy politician accused of killing his wife, the answers to these questions remain unresolved even after twenty years of the authorities and public obsessing over them. His story is so extraordinary that just a sheer visualization of the facts (that you can easily find on Wikipedia) could keep anyone glued to the screen. Thankfully the new HBO Max miniseries The Staircase adds a little bit more than that, although it never really rises beyond the tropes of a classic procedural drama.

In December of 2001, Peterson (Colin Firth) found his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) dead at the bottom of the stairs in their home in Durham, North Carolina – at least this is what he claimed had happened. The amount of blood and bruises on Kathleen’s body convinced police that it wasn’t just an accident. The autopsy concluded that she died by homicide due to blunt force trauma. Peterson was subsequently arrested and charged with murder. And after one of the longest trials in North Carolina’s history, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. All his appeals were denied but after eight years in prison he was finally granted a new trial due to a mishandling of his case. In 2017, Peterson reached a deal with the prosecution. He signed an Alford plea accepting a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time already served. Now Peterson lives as a free man and has even published a memoir telling his side of the story.

Perhaps none of it would be of public interest if not for the haunting docuseries of the same name made by French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. He started filming soon after Peterson’s arrest and managed to capture all the intimate details of the case. Known for his love for chilly crime stories, Antonio Campos started to develop a fictional version of these events in 2008 which finally resulted in an eight-episode mini-series with an exceptional cast and a dash of a good ol’ drama. Colin Firth almost dissolves into his character, masterfully depicting Peterson’s mannerisms, tone of voice, and an annoying habit to preach in response to any uncomfortable question. The only bad thing about the performance is that sometimes it’s too good. It is hard to determine if Peterson was really that skillful in manipulating people or if Firth is just too talented of an actor who can make us believe in whatever he wants.

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In many true crime stories and films, victims (most of them are usually women) never have a chance to speak for themselves. They are reduced to the role of the bludgeoned or disappeared victim whose body is merely one of many clues. We can’t hear Kathleen’s side of the story for obvious reasons but at least we can understand what kind of a woman she was. This is what really stands out in Staircase in comparison to its documentary predecessor. However, Campos still exploits Kathleen for the sake of the show, killing her over and over again not sparing a single speck of blood. Considering she was a real person, these bloody exhibitions become more and more uncomfortable each time over.

The series’ clever editing allows Campos to experiment with the structure of the story and to create a multi-dimensional narrative where past, present and future collide. It gives him an opportunity to play with the storylines – sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Moreover, he decides to include Lestrade and his crew in the story, adding even more context to a heavy structure of the series. The showrunner is fascinated by the idea of the volatility of truth and the complete non-existence of objectivity. Lestrade’s cameras can’t capture what’s really happening even though – and maybe even moreso because – they are in the middle of it. The French director, just like everyone else, falls under Peterson’s spell. In showing Lestrade’s weakness, Campos is not immune to it himself. The mere choice of Firth for the leading role shows some level of compassion.

Ultimately the showrunner’s experiments don’t go further than that as he has too much on his hands already. There are too many characters and plot twists to worry about style or to propose any significant ideas beyond the homicide it’s examining. The only thing that Campos wants to prove in The Staircase has already been proven by Dr. Gregory House many moons ago: everybody lies. 



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