In a sea of true crime documentaries, Netflix’s The Staircase broke into the zeitgeist with blazing ferocity. The subject of fervent analysis from audiences, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's 13-episode series documented the trial of Michael Peterson, who stood accused of the murder of his wife, Kathleen. Years later the case is being reexamined, this time in a dramatised HBO Max series – also titled The Staircase – showing in Australia on Binge.
For those unfamiliar with the case, the story centres on the shocking events that propelled a seemingly normal family into a media storm after 48-year-old Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of her stairs in 2001. The new miniseries seeks to unravel the messy timeline of events surrounding her death, starting before the incident took place and leading the audience through the lengthy legal proceedings which culminated 16 years later.
The series opens in 2017 as a greying Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) gets ready for a day in court. Almost instantaneously, the scene rewinds to 2001 and the aftermath of the event that saw Kathleen (Toni Collette) lose her life. We hear Michael talking to the emergency services, shouting that his wife has fallen down the stairs but is still breathing. Just five minutes later he phones them again, stating that his wife is no longer breathing. Soon after, Michael's son arrives at the house, where paramedics are attending to Kathleen’s lifeless body as Michael cries uncontrollably in the corner.
It’s a disturbing image, which culminates in Michael throwing himself onto Kathleen’s bloodied body at the bottom of the stairwell. From this sympathetic presentation of a grief-stricken spouse the mood shifts when police officers announce that the house has been declared a crime scene. The insinuation? That Kathleen’s death was not the result of a fall as Michael suggested. Footage in the style of a police video tape then begins to play, with the audience shown close-up images of Kathleen’s face, including the severe injuries she sustained to her head.
In a jarring jump cut, the episode moves to its third core timeline where Kathleen is alive and well, three months before her death. As she celebrates her stepdaughter’s acceptance to college, we see Kathleen enjoy a brief space of rest, where the gruesome details of her death are not the defining factors of her existence. Soon enough though, we’re back in the aftermath of the incident. A police officer has begun to collate evidence pointing to a brutal killing, which forensics think could have been the result of a beating with a long, hollow weapon.
As Michael panics about breaking the news to the wider family, we see scenes of Kathleen’s body undergoing forensic testing. We hear the sound of sharp scissors cutting through Kathleen's hair and the experts discussing the evidence at hand, concluding that she likely experienced a drawn-out death involving a struggle. But with no sign of any skull fracture, the forensic pathologist can’t conclude that a beating was the cause of death, despite encouragement from detectives to state blunt force trauma on official papers.
While the autopsy declares that Kathleen died by bleeding out, a grand jury votes to charge Michael with murder in the first degree, meaning he has to turn himself into the police and plead innocence ahead of an official trial. Over the following episodes, the drama begins to bring together the case’s key findings to present two realities: in the first, Kathleen’s death is the result of a wine-induced accident like Michael suggests; in the other, she is subjected to a frenzied beating at the hands of her husband.
These scenes play out as hypotheses of the defence and the prosecution, with the former building its story by lying in the remnants of Kathleen's dried blood and discussing how her injuries may have taken place. The prosecution creates an elaborate copy of the crime scene, using dummy models to figure out the potential murder weapon. The dehumanisation of Kathleen’s body in these circumstances is hard to witness, with both 'theories' showing her lying at the bottom of the staircase, gasping for air, convulsing and covered in blood.
As each version of events seemingly starts and ends the same way, it is the moments in between which are presented as stark opposites. Collette plays both death scenes with an unsettling authenticity: dying alone, Kathleen is totally helpless, while her murder is characterised by shock and fear. Firth's performances, which see him switch from doting husband to rage-filled spouse, are much more contained and the actor's 'good dad' image simultaneously sells Michael’s innocence while showing the ease with which privileged male killers can hide in plain view.
For those who haven’t seen the docuseries, The Staircase is an expertly acted dramatisation which leaves few stones unturned. However, viewers who are familiar with the details of the case may be disappointed to find that the drama follows the same line of open questioning as the docuseries, refraining from providing a clear narrative of how the events took place. The opening credits seek to emphasise this point, discussing the idea of never knowing the reality of a situation with the bible quote: "What is truth?"
With only a few episodes available to preview, the circumstances of Kathleen’s death may be examined even further, presenting yet another version of events that ends with the same horrific result. Some true crime enthusiasts may appreciate a narrative that doesn’t shy away from theorising but playing a gratuitous guessing game with Kathleen’s death does nothing to honour the life she led or indeed the conviction of Michael Peterson in 2003.
In the end, the series is a well-researched dramatisation of a case that has captivated audiences for decades. But when telling a story like this means replaying a horrid incident from multiple perspectives, it does feel like an unnecessarily grotesque addition to a world-famous narrative. As we move beyond the thirst for detail-driven true crime, perhaps it's time to ask for more sensitive depictions that find more nuanced ways of portraying loss without the graphic visualisations of The Staircase.
The Staircase is on Binge from Thursday, May 5.