HBO Max’s new true-crime drama makes gripping television of yesterday’s news.
A blandly suited district attorney steps up to the podium to make his opening statement.“In a very real sense, this case is about pretense and appearances,” he intones. “It’s about things not being as they seem.”
This statement comes at the end of episode three of HBO Max’s new limited series The Staircase. However, it could just as easily serve as the entire mission statement of this story.
For those not in the know, The Staircase follows the story of Kathleen Peterson’s (Toni Collette) death, and the subsequent arrest and trial of her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, played here with pipe smoking pretension and childish pique by Colin Firth. Before Peterson’s trial even started, the case already began to capture people’s imaginations. As a result, it became the subject of a documentary (also titled The Staircase) by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. In a way, creator Antonio Campos has created a nesting doll of storytelling with this compelling–if somewhat sensationalized–adaptation.
The story of Kathleen Peterson’s last days, her marriage to Michael, and their large, blended family is tucked inside of Michael’s court case, then through the lens of the documentary, which is itself part of the miniseries’ larger whole. In a strange way, it’s a story about storytelling.
As a novelist, Peterson undoubtedly knew how to craft a narrative. Throughout the first five episodes, we see the story of his marriage told and retold, framed and reframed, broken down and rebuilt several times over. It reaches the point where you don’t know what is real and what is convenient window dressing.
Some facts of the case that seemed damning in 2001–like the revelation of Peterson’s bisexuality–don’t quite hit with the same oomph to the 2022 viewer. If anything, it makes the defense’s assertions that the prosecution railroaded Peterson seem that much more plausible. Firth’s mercurial portrayal of Peterson leaves us wondering, too.
[Colin] Firth plays [Michael] with aplomb, but [Toni] Collette’s portrayal of Kathleen truly shines.
One moment, he is a thoughtful and supportive husband and father, a charming host, and a candidate for city council. The next moment he is a whining, self-absorbed prat who can’t manage even the simplest tasks without Kathleen, his long-suffering brother Bob (Tim Guinee), or his youngest son Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger). It’s hard to imagine that such an indecisive and puerile person could make the choice to kill his wife violently. Yet it’s hard not to see shades of guilt in his self-aggrandizing and opportunistic behavior. Firth plays all with aplomb, but Collette’s portrayal of Kathleen truly shines.
There’s nothing inherently special or saintlike about Kathleen when we see her living moments. The emotional exhaustion of being a wife, mother, and breadwinner of the extensive family shows in the tense set of her shoulders and in the lost, faraway look she gets when no one is looking. You can almost see the whirl of thoughts playing out across Collette’s face. Don’t I have it all? Why aren’t I happy? On the flip side of that, the straightforward depiction of Kathleen’s final moments, as described by Peterson’s attorney David Rudolph (Michael Stuhlbarg), is so brutal and upsetting. You’re left wondering if there’s been some mistake. Surely she can’t have died like this.
Things get more complex as the documentary crew arrives in North Carolina to begin filming the pre-trial process. Both sides of the case attempt to untangle the Gordian knot of the Peterson family. On one side is Kathleen’s daughter from her previous marriage, Caitlin (Olivia DeJong), and her sisters, one of which is played by unhinged fury by Rosemarie DeWitt. On the other side are Michael’s sons from his first marriage and his two adopted daughters, Martha (Odessa Young) and Margaret (Sophie Turner). The kids (Margaret in particular) are so fiercely loyal to Peterson that the family begins to take on the air of a cult, with the dynamic Michael as their leader.
Some of the more cerebral parts of the Peterson story (like our criminal justice system’s deeply flawed inner workings) are shunted aside in favor of the family drama. While the 2004 documentary looks at those aspects more in-depth, this is HBO. Here the lighting is great and the budget for the assistant DA’s (Parker Posey) Leslie Fay wardrobe is unlimited. With a case this well-trodden, it’s good to see that there are still compelling ways to present the story. Ways to let the audience decide (or not decide) on Peterson’s guilt for themselves. However, while we’ve seen a lot of true crime adaptations recently, nearly all of them feature well-to-do white families. It leaves me wondering. If Michael and Kathleen Peterson were people of color, would this case have been as sensationalized as it was?
Regardless of how you feel about the criminal justice system, Michael Peterson, or the tabloidization of crime in this era, The Staircase is a gripping drama. Knowing the trial’s outcome doesn’t diminish that. The tension surrounding both sides of the case manages to keep any of it from feeling like yesterday’s news.
Head down The Staircase beginning May 5 on HBO Max.