It’s been more than 20 years since Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the foot of a staircase in the Durham, North Carolina mansion the 48-year-old Nortel executive shared with her husband, novelist Michael Peterson. The circumstances of her death have always been the mystery in need of solving. Peterson said she fell, the medical examiner classified it as homicide. To that conflict were added some savory plot points guaranteed to stoke public appetite: the couple’s affluence and evidence that Michael Peterson had engaged in sexual encounters with men during their marriage—not to mention the fact he had known another woman who took a fatal tumble, and that he was raising her two children.
Kathleen Peterson’s life ended that night in December 2001, but the true crime story that grew out of her absence was just getting started, unfolding mostly as a sensational did-he-or-didn’t he? domestic violence tale worthy of a rough-and-ready Dateline treatment until a French documentary crew decided to use Michael’s indictment for Kathleen’s murder as an opportunity to create a compelling portrait of the accused, a work that indicted the criminal justice system itself.
The eight-part docuseries The Staircase, which premiered in 2004, followed Michael Peterson for years, shadowing him as he built his defense, was tried, and convicted. The cameras returned in 2011 as he won the right to a retrial, thanks to evidence that a blood analysis expert had perjured himself on the stand; and again in 2017, when Peterson struck a deal with the Durham District Attorney’s office, copping to voluntary manslaughter via an Alford plea, an agreement that allows a defendant to plead guilty to a crime while still asserting their innocence, and walking free after his sentence was reduced to time served.
Five years after the story effectively ended in a draw, HBO’s The Staircase has taken it up again as a limited series from showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn. It aims to balance the scales of the narrative, not by taking a defined point of view on what exactly happened that night but by dramatizing the conflicting theories about how Kathleen died. Not only does the drama show us Kathleen dying by fall, and by brutal beating, but it also depicts the late-stage “owl theory”—that she neither fell nor was beaten but bled out as a result of an owl attack. As a result, what we get from this Staircase is a vast compilation, the story of Peterson stories, a big unwieldy universe of fictional possibilities that fall along an ever-shifting spectrum of guilt and innocence, love and violence, tragedy and cliche.
The drama starts by complicating the authority of its award-winning namesake, folding the docuseries’ storytellers into the tale, making them human where they were once objective lenses. It’s a clever twist that not only pulls focus from Michael (Colin Firth) but that complicates perception of the documentary’s point of view. And so, in addition to the familiar cast of main characters—Michael and Kathleen (Toni Collette), their kids and the legal team—we meet director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon), producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys), and editor Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche), who appears in the first few episodes as an enigmatic woman dressed in white.
Sophie is the one to watch, injecting novelty and suspense into a tale too well-known to contain surprises. The real-life twist is a doozy: It isn’t until nearly halfway into the series that we learn Sophie is more than just Michael’s girlfriend; she’s also the docuseries’ editor, a woman Lestrade later calls the work’s “beating heart.” Sophie’s relationship to Michael and the docuseries asks us to downgrade the ideal of truth to a simple competition between stories; a major editing-room dispute over whether to include a scene that de Lestrade feels deepens Michael as a character, or one Poncet favors of a medical examiner testifying that Kathleen’s injuries make it certain she was strangled. But this back-and-forth was already integral to the docuseries’ longform examination, so it’s less interesting a development than the other idea Sophie’s character advances: that love is just another process of creation that demands careful editing to work. Brunet’s love for Peterson is bound up with her work and she fights to preserve her loving vision of him even at the expense of the overall story’s more complex reality.
The real-life Brunet and de Lestrade have publicly opposed their depiction and call these scenes wholesale fabrications. (Brunet says she was not even in contact with Peterson until the series’ first installment was completed.) The HBO drama appends a disclaimer about the way in which it fictionalizes its tale, and while that may let Campos and Cohn have their cake and eat it too when it comes to real people’s stories, it is also true that the lies the series tells act in service of establishing a resonant truth: that proximity to Michael’s humanity—to his charisma, his intelligence, and his humor—makes it harder for some to see him as capable of doing harm.
The cops, the prosecution, and even Poncet see other things when they look at human beings up close. When de Lestrade asks if he really believes the man they’ve spent years getting to know could kill a person he loved, Poncet responds,“Jean, I believe we all could.”
If we got a lot of Michael in the docuseries, the drama attempts to correct that too, countering his gravitational pull by bringing Kathleen to life. Call it the triumph of fiction over reality, but the series manages to do something that hasn’t been done before: paint a vivid picture of what it may have been like to be Kathleen Peterson. Over the course of eight hours, we watch Kathleen tired-mom her way through her work and home lives, struggling to figure which credit cards will support the burden of a Christmas she can’t afford, and dealing with a bat-infested house that is yet another antagonist in her life. We see her miserable, but we also see her laugh, dance, and have sex. We see her gulp alcohol the way Elizabeth Holmes chugged green juice, as a tonic to help her uphold the façade of success.
The series’ portrait of the Peterson union doesn’t square with the defense’s depiction of them as soulmates, but neither does it look like the sham union presented by the prosecution. It mostly just looks familiar: a marriage defined by certain incompatibilities, held together by sexual chemistry, and marked by the familiar tensions of money, domestic woes, and trouble with the kids. If we see Kathleen live, we also see her die again and again according to the three prevailing theories of her demise. Each scenario feels plausible in its way, and each feels terrible. The alternate universe approach to dramatizing what happened to Kathleen may be a clever device but it’s also a concession to reality: there is no way to know what really happened that night.
As the series draws to its inevitable end, everything seems to converge. Timelines telescope into another and court hearings from 2011 merge seamlessly with those in 2017. The differences between Kathleen and Sophie flatten in the finale, too, and the two women start to look like proxies for one another, working to provide a good life for Mike, who really does enjoy what the women provide so long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking he owes them something in return. The relationship between Sophie and Michael is given something like its own violent death scene. And as with Michael and Kathleen, the end of this love story reveals its own secrets and lies.
After he’s free to live the Paris dream, one he shared with both Kathleen and Sophie, Michael calls the whole thing off, telling Sophie he’s “fucking done living with women.” Later, she’ll watch as he tells de Lestrade’s camera that he lied when he said Kathleen knew about his bisexuality and his affairs. “This man is a liar,” Sophie cries, though she can’t quite make the leap to murderer: “He didn’t. He couldn’t.” Love may be a process of editing. But the series suggests it’s possible that surviving its destruction demands some editing too.
The finale also grants us a final ending for Michael and Kathleen, this one not speculation but alternate-universe invention. In this impossible version of the story, Kathleen doesn’t go inside to check her email, doesn’t put the reindeer on the lawn, doesn’t stagger up those damn stairs, half-drunk and entirely exhausted. Instead, she stays by the pool to chat with her husband about the kids—not as they were then, but as they are in 2017, nearly 20 years after she is dead and buried. She asks him why he lied. His answer is long and tedious, a philosophical indulgence about whether we ever really know the one we love. She follows up with a more pointed question, too, this time inaudibly, mouthing the words “Why didn’t you help me?”
In the last few minutes of the series, we get one last look at Michael Peterson. After spending time with him at a distance, now we zoom in for a close-up. Is that a smile or a smirk that flickers across his face? Or maybe it’s regret. It could be anything, really. And for that matter, it’s Colin Firth we’re looking at, and he’s done such a spectacular job. Whatever we’ve seen, it’s clear that what we do know about the Petersons is just so many stories, stories that implicate the storyteller and the viewer too. Either way, we’ve arrived back at the place we were in 2001, 2003, 2008, 2011 and 2017: Looking at another human being who confesses the sins he’s comfortable making public and wondering what he’s capable of concealing within himself.