The Staircase, episode 2 recap: How much did Kathleen Peterson know?

·7-min read

I was curious how this series would acknowledge the OG Staircase documentary, and in episode two we get an answer. The show that this series is based on becomes a grainy, cinéma vérité style play within the play. The original documentary’s director and producer are now characters, which makes sense because – however improbable it seems – their low-res cameras were invited into the Peterson home just as it was crumbling.

Intriguingly, real-life director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Martinican actor Vincent Vermignon) isn’t sure he wants to make a movie about Mike at first. The emotional stakes are high but oddly balanced. If Mike did kill his wife, it’s as tragic as if he didn’t.

For what it’s worth, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) shares his intuition. Nothing could be worse than if her stepdad murdered her mum, and yet she can’t possibly be motherless at Christmastime by accident.

Mike (Colin Firth) has yet to scrape together the money he needs to post bail so the kids are celebrating on their own. Instead of carols, there’s the constant ringing of the phone. It’s always the District Attorney’s office, sniffing around for a weak link. Kathleen’s sisters both flipped, but who would make a more perfect witness for the prosecution than one of Mike’s own children?

Meanwhile, Caitlin’s siblings are blind to how much she’s come to resent sharing her mother. When she opens the last Christmas present she’ll ever receive from Kathleen (Toni Collette), it’s not what she asked for. Mom has lots of gifts to buy, her sister reminds her. But isn’t that precisely the problem? She was too busy mothering everyone else and too busy working. Kathleen even missed Caitlin’s parents’ weekend at university to host a fundraiser for Mike’s ridiculous city hall bid.

Getting to know the victim

If The Staircase redux has a USP, it’s that it can breathe life into a character who was dead before Jean starts filming. In the autumn of 2001, Kathleen’s in a neck brace from her disastrous pool plunge; she mixes up the dates of important commitments; she’s so distracted by work that she hits a deer with her car. At least Mike appreciates her. When the cater-waiters she hires for his fundraiser turn out to be a ballet troupe who spontaneously drop the canapes and start pirouetting, he almost cries he’s so proud to be standing next to Kathleen.

But the series has an insidious knack for getting in your head. While Kathleen works all day, Mike’s at the gym. She worries about money; he spends it running for office. Kathleen never complains and yet how could she be okay with all her husband’s selfish choices? After Kathleen’s death, Mike tells his brother, Bill (Tim Guinee, Inventing Anna), that she knew he was bisexual and that he had affairs. So why am I annoyed that he’s chatting men up in the steam room while Kathleen is doing the soul-crushing work of laying off her colleagues?

Mike insists he isn’t a liar, but he is closed off. For example, he doesn’t disclose to his kids that he’s using Kathleen’s back pay to post bail and to fund his lawyer. He even enlists Bill to tell them he’s bisexual before the DA gets a chance. “This doesn’t matter,” Mike’s son Todd says. “Dad’s dad.” The kids agree, but you can feel the distance building between them, how every secret they uncover makes them question where the secrets end.

Mike doesn’t really have time for family anyway. His children aren’t his children; they’re his character witnesses. The home where Kathleen died is defence HQ and his hotshot lawyer, David, is the man of the house. There’s a media circus outside and inside, there’s Jean and his camera crew. It’s never made entirely clear why it’s a good idea to participate in the documentary, just that it’s not a bad idea. As a narcissist and a francophile, that’s all the convincing Mike needs.

The documentary is about how truth survives a court process that’s designed to solicit multiple versions of events – that’s a feature, not a flaw. In scenes too graphic to watch without looking away, the defence’s forensic team recreates Kathleen’s fall again and again until they find a story that fits the blood splatter. They decide she fell twice and coughed a lot. (In a mystifyingly tasteless editorial choice, Collette then appears as tipsy, tired Kathleen to show us one more time exactly how it all could have happened.)

Searching for a motive

Meanwhile, at a terrifyingly antiseptic laboratory called the South Carolina Bureau of Investigations, experts in lab coats and safety goggles do the opposite work. Armed with an autopsy report and a full-size recreation of the Petersons’ titular staircase, they attempt to deduce a murder weapon.

But a winning court case will be as much about motive as anything else. For all the scandalous emails and photos on Mike’s computer, DA Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) and an assistant DA, Freda (Parker Posey infusing the prosecution with some much-needed vitality), struggle to prove actual infidelity. Meanwhile, the Petersons’ neighbours will testify they’ve never even heard the couple argue.

The family is so distracted by Mike’s court case that no one seems to notice that Caitlin is foundering. Her biological father warns her that Mike is using Kathleen’s money. Aunt Candace keeps calling, hounding her to search the house for the missing bludgeon. Caitlin even walks out of an interview she’s supposed to give on Mike’s behalf when she feels like she’s being used.

Olivia DeJonge in ‘The Staircase’ (HBO)
Olivia DeJonge in ‘The Staircase’ (HBO)

Eventually, Caitlin caves. She meets with the DA, who assures her that Kathleen’s blood-alcohol levels were within legal limits – a fact that’s taken on outsized importance to Caitlin. If mom wasn’t drunk, then mom probably didn’t fall; if mom didn’t fall, then Mike must have killed her. For me, Caitlin’s are the most wrenching scenes of the episode. After the DA meeting, she moves in with her deeply unpleasant aunts. No one will ever pass her the loving cup again. Instead of her sisters, she spends the evening with unhinged Candace smashing cushions with a fireplace blow poke – her pet theory of how Mike did it.

Wait, did the bats do it?

Already it’s clear that there are no loose ends on The Staircase, only lines of inquiry to be resolved later. For example, in the 2017 timeline, the bald lead scientist from SBI is working the till at a discount grocery store. It’s incredible how efficiently the series builds trust with the viewer. I have no doubt that the tease will be clarified in time.

Which brings me to the episode’s title “Chiroptera”, aka bats. Kathleen hears them rustling in the attic in the autumn of 2001; she falls trying to investigate. The series is too tightly wound for it to be meaningless and yet I’ve got little idea what to make of it beyond Kathleen’s propensity for injuring herself.

And maybe that’s it. The Staircase puts repetition to good effect in episode two. It wants us to be sure that Kathleen’s tiredness made her inattentive. It wants us to know how nervy and secretive Mike could be. It’s a standalone episode, but “Chiroptera” seems to be working like a second act, moving characters into position for the revelations that have yet to come.

The first three episodes of The Staircase were released on 5 May. Read on for a recap of episode three.

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