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Some shows beg for you to start questioning every little detail from the outset. These shows typically begin with bombastic epigraphs.
“‘I was born for this,’” reads a quote attributed to Jesus at the very top of The Staircase, a new true crime series streaming in the US on HBO Max. “’I came into the world for this: To bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’
‘Truth?’ said Pilate, ‘What is that?’ - JOHN 18:37”
It’s not that a TV show about a real-life guy who did – or perhaps did not – kill his wife can’t start with a dialogue between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It’s just a big swing. This is a series with something to say about the knotty, illusory nature of truth, I’m sure. But to announce that your miniseries is in conversation with the actual Holy Bible before the cold open? Huge if true.
If the title of The Staircase feels naggingly familiar, that’s because it’s also the title of a documentary series based on the exact same crime. That 2004 show, which examined both sides of the ensuing court case, began filming in January 2002, which happens to be where the dramatised Staircase’s main timeline begins. Does the world need a six-episode scripted rehash of a 13-episode docuseries already available on Netflix? Assuredly not! But at least Colin Firth is here.
Meet our murderer (maybe)
We find ourselves in Durham, North Carolina, home to Duke University and good ol’ Southern values. Before it digs into the past, episode one kicks off in February 2017. Firth plays Michael Peterson, a guy easily frustrated by the act of tying his tie, which has a stain on it. Mike wears it anyway – a tremendously widow-y if clichéd thing for a TV widow to do. The bulk of the episode takes place back in 2001. A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mike placed a frantic call to 911. His wife Kathleen fell down the stairs, he says, and there’s a lot of blood, which is an understatement.
First, the obvious: If the real Mike Peterson was as convincing in his heartrending outpourings of grief as Colin Firth, it’s the end of the miniseries. No one could ever doubt Colin Firth. He throws his whole being into active mourning, spreading himself over Kathleen’s body like a blanket – as if it’s not already too late to protect her. The cops take a different view. They search the house and bag Mike’s clothes. The show jumps stright to the dark question: Did he or didn’t he?
It’s tricky to know what to make of how quickly things escalate. Kathleen’s scalp is a spider web of lacerations, but a beating would leave fractures. There are no signs of forced entry, yet her body at the foot of the stairs doesn’t look like it got there by accident. It may be an accurate restaging, but the scene was so tastelessly bloody I kept shutting my eyes.
Every scene in The Staircase is designed to be read two ways, which means a viewer is always watching for both meanings. Just when you think you’re (maybe) sure what’s happened, the action cuts to an ambiguous flashback.
Meet our family (sort of)
In September 2001, three months before the incident, the Petersons were happy. Their daughter – the youngest of five in their blended family – was about to start university, and the nest was empty. Perhaps shrewdly, the series keeps the biological relationships among the kids a little murky. This is what we know for sure: Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge) is Kathleen’s biological daughter. Martha and Margaret Ratliff (played by Odessa Young and Sophie Turner) are not, but they’re also not Petersons. Todd and Clayton Peterson (played by Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan) are Mike’s vaguely troubled biological kids, but not Kathleen’s. (I’ll let you decide how much more family tree you care to Google.)
Still, The Staircase wants you to know that this is a model modern family. They have dumb traditions, like passing around a bronze goblet and making loving, embarassing toasts. Kathleen is a matriarch in the grand tradition of the American South, which is to say she serves dinner with her good pearls on. Her husband literally applauds the lasagna.
There’s more to the story, of course. Kathleen is the breadwinner, but there’s money trouble. Mike is famous around Durham as a war novelist who writes a newspaper column in which he excoriates the local District Attorney (not ideal). He’s also running for local office again. An earlier campaign ended when the origin of Mike’s publicised “combat injury” was exposed to be an on-duty car accident. He lied about being awarded a Purple Heart, too.
What to do with that information is up for grabs at this point. Is a guy who lied about his Vietnam military decoration more likely to kill his wife? Is a woman who drinks too much at parties – at a recent shindig, Kathy jumped fully clothed into their pool and hurt her neck – more likely to miss the top stair?
The extended Peterson clan, including the kids and Kathleen’s sisters, congregate in Durham in the days after the incident. The series does suburban Noughties set design impeccably: Mike’s ginormous executive desk, the Boston Market spread for dinner. Finally, Mike tells the story of that very bad night for the first time.
It started out a good evening. They were celebrating because his novel had been optioned. They rented a movie and drank wine by the pool. Kathleen went to bed, and Mike didn’t. He didn’t hear her fall. If she screamed for his help, he didn’t hear that either. Cruelly, the last film she ever watched was America’s Sweethearts.
Meet our lawyers (phew)
Despite protestations of innocence, Mike wisely lawyers up. His self-indulgent theory is that the cops are gunning for him because of his pugnacious little newspaper column. This feels far-fetched, yet a supervisor pressures the medical examiner to declare Kathleen’s cause of death “blunt force trauma” rather than blood loss. Blunt force trauma requires a second person to supply the force.
Even Michael Stuhlbarg’s David Rudolph – a Chapel Hill lawyer “by way of New York”, as the DA puts it derisively – can’t stop a grand jury from indicting Mike. There will be a homicide trial and, before that, a trial by the media. David tells Mike to keep his family, especially Caitlin, close.
It’s astonishing how quickly that relationship frays. You can see Caitlin bristle when anyone mentions her mom’s drinking. Mike plans to pay for his big city lawyer with the money from Kathleen’s life insurance, another potential fissure point. But the biggest problem will surely be Kathleen’s sister, Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt), who never liked Mike.
The show teaches you how to watch it. By episode’s end, it’s clear that there’s no such thing as an errant detail. In their ransacking, cops find photos of naked men on Mike’s computer. Would a good Southern husband keep those? The DA presents them to Kathleen’s sisters, along with a theory of her murder. What if Kathleen confronted Mike about the photos? What if he killed her for it? It’s baseless, homophobic conjecture. And, like everything in The Staircase, slightly more complicated than it seems.
Meet confusion, constantly
Mike paints a rosy, too-good-to-be-true portrait of his marriage and yet, earlier in the episode, he makes a date to meet a man at an airport hotel. Could Kathleen have confronted him about infidelity? If Mike’s a liar and a cheater, could he also be a killer?
And what to make of the 2017 timeline? A woman appears to help with Mike’s tie. Who’s more likely to land a new girlfriend, a broken widow or an enraged wife killer? The question makes no sense and yet The Staircase keeps inviting us to ask embarrassing, irrational questions. Like, would a guy who lied about his Purple Heart kill to keep another, entirely separate secret? Would a woman who was such a devoted mom take the steps so carelessly? Someone had to have killed Kathleen, but how could it be Mike? He loved her! Everyone says so! In fact, if every detail we learn about every characters’ best nature is true, then the only logical conclusion is that Kathleen’s not dead!
By the end of the first episode, though, her death feels like the only real "truth” – so incontrovertible that even Pontius Pilate would be forced to accept it.