The Staircase first aired in the U.S. in 2005 on the Sundance Channel, and now it's back on everyone's screens via Netflix, combining three separate mini-documentaries into a 13-hour marathon of true crime. Directed by Oscar winning French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the true crime docu-series follows the murder trial of Michael Peterson and presents the viewer with two scenarios.
Scenario 1: In December of 2001, Peterson and his wife Kathleen spent an evening drinking wine and chatting by the pool at their spacious Durham, NC, home. She left for bed, and when Michael followed a few hours later he discovered the scene of a horrific accident — Kathleen, tired and a bit tipsy, had fallen down the stairs, her blood spattering the walls as she collapsed in a gory heap at the foot of the staircase.
Scenario 2: Kathleen, furious after discovering evidence of her husband’s infidelity with a series of men, confronted Michael. He then strangled and beat her, bludgeoning her to death with a fireplace poker in a murder so violent that the walls of the back staircase were smeared with Kathleen’s blood, pools of it drying around her crumpled body.
The series, though, is a kind of bait and switch. It quickly dismisses the importance of both scenarios. Both are true. Both are false. Does it really matter? Lestrade has full access to Peterson, his team of expensive lawyers led by David Rudolf, and Peterson’s large blended family — he came to the marriage with two adopted daughters and two biological sons. Kathleen had one daughter. Michael Peterson is fascinating — as shifty and unnerving as he is droll and charismatic. He becomes the central figure of the story. And Kathleen's sister, Candace Zamperini, who believes Peterson is guilty, becomes the series' default villain.
Candace lacks Peterson's sense of gallows humor and Rudolf's laid back contemplation.She seethes with rage - her body held tight, lips a straight line, hair mercilessly sprayed into shape. It would be negligent to avoid mentioning that her stance on Peterson's sexuality, which contributes in part to her utter conviction that he is guilty, feels blatantly homophobic. But the film continuously asserts that, above all, Candace's greatest shortcoming is her anger. As an angry, older woman, Candace is made an easy foil to the complexities of the men in the film.
Courtroom dramas lend themselves naturally to dramatic storytelling because there is a built-in arc — evidence, deliberation, resolution — but The Staircase turns that familiar narrative inside out. The viewer finds themselves in the uncomfortable position of having empathy for a man who may or may not be a murderer. But this is not a murder mystery. It’s an exploration of the machinations of a justice system that strives blindly for a clean-cut resolution amidst the unknowable muck of human nature.
The heroes of the The Staircase are those who embrace the muck. Michael's lawyer, David Rudolf, can’t say whether or not his client is innocent, but he does believe he can prove in court that Michael is not guilty — that these two things are not equivalent doesn’t faze him. Michael’s daughters, who have lost their birth parents and their adoptive mother, must believe their father is innocent in order to preserve some sense that their lives don’t exist in a complete vacuum of chaos. But this belief is made all the more tragic by the fact that the girls seem to understand and struggle with their magical thinking.
The villains of the story are the ones who live in the black and white. Freda Black, the original prosecutor, wears Laura Ashley dresses and a permanent scowl. During the trial, she spits out the words “bisexual” and “anal sex” with fiery disgust. Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen’s biological daughter, initially supports her stepfather, but when she changes her mind she quickly disappears from view. Kathleen’s sisters, Candace and Lori Campbell, believe fervently in Peterson’s guilt, and their desire to see him punished becomes a framing device set up to serve as the antithesis to Rudolf’s philosophical embrace of the unknowable.
Candace and Lori chose not to participate in The Staircase, but their presence, particularly Candace’s, is a consistent through-line. It’s Candace who introduces the idea of the fire poker (or blow poke, as it's called) as the murder weapon. It’s Candace who testifies that the Peterson’s marriage was far from idyllic. According to Peterson, it’s Candace who encourages Caitlin Atwater to file a $25 million wrongful death suit against her former stepfather. And it’s Candace who continuously evokes Kathleen’s name and Kathleen’s life in a way that few others ever do.
The first time I saw the original eight episodes of the The Staircase, I thought (and still do think) it was masterpiece of cinema verité. I identified most strongly with David Rudolf, whose intellectual dialogue about the nature of guilt and innocence resonated with me. But in the years between its debut and its much hyped return, a lot has changed. Watching the final five episodes, I wrote down a thought I never would have had years before when the episodes first aired: Has Candace actually been the hero of this story the whole time? The Staircase is a masterpiece. It's also deeply misogynistic.
Throughout the series, Candace is dismissed — she’s crazy, she’s poisoned by anger, she’s obsessed. We hear this sentiment from Rudolf, from Peterson, and even Peterson’s daughters so much that it feels like it must be true. But what if the focus of the story was flipped? What if the premise of the series was Candace’s search for justice? She is the unlikeliest of heroes: a postmenopausal woman who refuses to be quiet.
In the final episode, after Peterson pleads out pursuant to Alford, Kathleen’s sisters are allowed to give victim impact statements. Lori tells Peterson that closure (something he cites often as the reasoning behind his plea deal) is for doors, not for her murdered sister. And then Candace delivers a fiery, slightly unhinged, and damning indictment of Michael Peterson and of the documentary itself.
She turns to the film crew and acknowledges the cameras. It’s jarring because she’s the first person to do so. She accuses the filmmakers of being one-sided, of forgetting her sister and focusing only on Peterson. She’s talking to the crew but she’s also speaking directly to the viewer. It becomes clear that we are complicit in the creation of a narrative. When she turns to Peterson and Rudolf, her hands shaking as she reads from the pages of her statement, they slump in their seats, affecting boredom at her rage. She tells Peterson he’s an adulterer and a murderer. But the most damning moment comes when she tells him:
“You brutally took the life of a woman that provided for you, and guided your children, loved your children. She loved you. She made a home [that] people complimented. She cooked extravagantly. She opened her heart and home with joy. Kathleen was the best person you ever had in your life.”
In a film that has focused so much on the impossibility of ever knowing a complete truth, Candace’s speech is a powerful reminder of the other main character here, the one that gets forgotten in the pontification: Kathleen Peterson. Candace does not deny that Kathleen loved her husband. Instead she uses this fact to illuminate the real tragedy at the heart of the story: the loss of Kathleen’s life. “She loved you,” Candace tells Peterson, and in that moment there is flicker of something in his rheumy blue eyes. It’s not guilt. That’s too easy. But it’s a kind of recognition — a flicker of something he’d forgotten along this journey.