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The Staircase, episode 3 recap: What does a perfect marriage look like?

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“This case is about pretence and appearances,” District Attorney Jim Hardin tells the jury. The third episode of The Staircase – and the last of the tranche released this week – ends in June 2002. Six months have passed since Kathleen’s death, and the first day of Mike’s murder trial is finally here. “It’s about things not being as they seem,” Jim adds, summing up the case he’s preparing to lay out.

The line works just as well as a summary of the series so far. Every episode is dense with ideas and information, and every reveal threatens to chip away at the core claim that Mike and Kathleen (Colin Firth and Toni Collette) were happy together.

Jim’s strategy is to show the jury that their happiness was a sham; Mike was cheating on Kathleen, and Kathleen knew it. Meanwhile, the show itself is attempting to ask a more subtle and interesting question: How complicated can “happy” get before we stop believing in it?

This episode is called “The Great Dissembler,” though there are many candidates for that dubious distinction. Let’s start with David (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is sitting on the smug side of confident about Mike’s prospects in court. He has a theory of Kathleen’s accidental death that squares with most of the forensic evidence, and his opponents don’t have a murder weapon. There are emails from Mike to male escorts, but even in those peculiar missives, he still appears totally smitten with his wife.

Meanwhile, the DA’s office can’t find a single man who’s had sex with Mike that they can put on the stand – the only serious contender is ruled out because he’s had sex with too many powerful married men in Durham.

Freda (Parker Posey), Jim’s second-in-command, isn’t bothered by the absence of a smoking gun. She knows she can sell a South Carolina jury on the notion that Kathleen Peterson, with her five kids and her shift dresses, would never abide a bisexual husband with extramartial relationships. (When Freda asks a table of male colleagues what rimming is, I realised it was the first real laugh line in almost three hours of tense TV). Jim is more sceptical, though he never once considers not bringing the case to trial. In an uncharacteristically tender moment, he tells Freda that several of his siblings died in a house fire when he was a boy. Terrible accidents do happen.

Everything we wanted to know about sex

Generally, as the series goes on, The Staircase makes more time for its minor characters, deftly weaving in the background we need to understand them in this extraordinary present. In the cold open, for example, Martha tells her girlfriend, who she forbids from visiting her at home over summer break, that she doesn’t remember her birth mother, who died of a brain aneurysm in Germany when she was two. It’s 45 seconds of gauzy, beautifully-lit, believable TV in which things we kinda know are made concrete (remember that weird phone call Margie got from an aunt asking about Germany in episode two?) and seemingly separate storylines are married (Mike is not the only person in the family who’s ever felt compelled to conceal their sexuality).

In the opposing war rooms, Mike’s sex life is the major preoccupation. With his family, though, the subject is off-limits. Martha gets shut out. When Bill wants the specifics of the arrangement with Kathleen (broadly speaking, Mike claims his wife was okay with him having sex with men so long as no one’s catching feelings), Mike’s masterfully cagey. He tells his brother – who has put his life on pause to be Mike’s pre-trial wingman – that it’s an “insult” to Kathleen to suggest that she wouldn’t accept Mike’s bisexuality. To question Mike at all is to besmirch Kathleen’s good memory. “Don’t Mike Peterson me,” Bill tells him. He means don’t lie.

But then I run the scene back trying to keep the possibility of Mike’s innocence top of mind. What if he didn’t do anything wrong, and they’re still putting his marriage on trial? How hurtful it must be for a roomful of strangers to doubt that the woman who loved and accepted Mike could possibly have done either. “I loved her, and she f****** left me, too,” Mike pleads with Bill. Like Bill, I’d almost forgotten.

Odessa Young and Sophie Turner in ‘The Staircase’ (HBO)
Odessa Young and Sophie Turner in ‘The Staircase’ (HBO)

The Staircase is so good at making you feel this close to the truth and then yanking the feeling away. It convinces you that Mike loved Kathleen too much to hurt her, and then cuts to Dwayne, the bald forensic analyst, bashing a styrofoam head over and over again until the blood finally splatters the way he wants it to. It convinces you that it’s completely irrelevant that the cops can’t find the Peterson family blowpoke – the fireplace tool Candace believes was used to kill her sister – and then depicts Mike having anonymous sex when he’s supposed to be at Blockbuster.

Mike’s refusal to get specific about the rules of his marriage are a culprit here. Did Kathleen know he was having sex with men, or did he assume she knew but didn’t want to know-know? Mike’s ex-wife Patty, visiting from Germany in the aftermath of Kathleen’s death, is helpful here: Mike cheated on her all the time, with men and women, she says, and he was especially bad at hiding it. More than the previous episodes, “The Great Dissembler” moves away from the facts of the case and closer to the emotional truth. The Petersons’ picture-perfect marriage clearly wasn’t what their neighbours thought, but does that mean it wasn’t perfect?

Another one?

Mike is so invested in winning at trial that he neglects the kids whose support he’ll need. After Caitlin cooperates with the DA, Mike banishes her from the house; now she’s gotten a lawyer to stop payments from Kathleen’s life insurance policy. Clayton’s too big a liability to be useful (though we still don’t know what he’s done that’s so wrong) and Todd, who Mike christens his “centurion”, is cracking under the pressure. It’s time for Martha and Margaret Ratliff to pull their weight, by reluctantly appearing on a national primetime interview program.

One step forward, two steps back. After watching her nieces discuss their mothers on television, Liz Ratliff’s batty sister calls the DA office to tell him – believe it because it’s true! – Liz’s dead body was also found at the foot of a staircase. Mike swears it’s a bizarre coincidence and truly, what else could it be? Still, David is pissed and the DA is ecstatic. Jim asks the girls’ permission to exhume Liz’s body, and they give yet another reluctant yes.

By this point, six months into filming what will become his documentary series, Jean and his crew are comfortable in the Peterson house. Most of the time, they’re set dressing, but every so often they feel like the only reliable proxy for how the run-up to trial is going. At one point, the DA’s office stops returning their phone calls; this feels like good news for Mike. But Jean and his producing partner, Denis, are split on Mike’s innocence, about whether – as the DA puts it – things are what they seem. It’s a crafty turn of phrase for shifting the burden of proof in the prosecution’s favour.

I’m not sure if a jury of Mike’s peers will find he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but Jean’s every grainy, lingering shot seems to capture a man with something to hide.

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