The Staircase gave me nightmares. It’s not that the Peterson case was unfamiliar to me or that I wilt at on screen violence. I’m a hardened true crime aficionado who nearly falls asleep during David Cronenberg movies. The amount of times movies or TV have driven me to nightmares can be counted on one hand, which made my jolt awake at three in the morning midway through The Staircase all the more troubling.
It was Toni Collette’s twitch. A full body, life fading out, brain stem twitch, the last gasps of an organism clinging to life. Several times throughout the series directors Antonio Campos and Leigh Janiak let the possible causes of Kathleen Peterson’s death play out in excruciating detail, their refusal to spare us from the tragic outcome a confrontation of sorts to the very genre it peddles.
The bubble burst on true crime a few years ago, the backlash to its widespread success being a textbook example of fickle cultural whims but with salient points to make. Treating the death of real human beings, who often had the moment sneak up on them with unexpected violence, is a troubling thing to do.
One can’t do a prestige true crime project anymore without confronting this reality, and with the star-studded, money-dripping production on full display in every handsomely mounted moment of The Staircase, it’s a discomfort it had to dance with alongside the salacious details that make the Peterson case legendary in true crime circles.
To its credit, I spent the final moments of the series pondering Kathleen. I had just watched her life be picked apart, a fictionalized version, at least, over several hours, and I wondered what she would think of this scrutiny being placed on a life she likely thought of as unremarkable. Nothing until her final moments would draw the attention of French documentarians or the bright lights of Hollywood or the unrivaled introspection of Toni Collette. For 48 years she was nondescript, and she built a life, as most of us do, with private meaning. Whatever or whoever caused her death, those final moments would not be how she defined her existence, yet it’s all the world wants to know about her now.
If one does not choose to become a public figure, then what right do we have to poke into every corner of their life? For Kathleen, we will not solve her case. We will not bring justice to her or her husband, Michael Peterson, who would be convicted of her murder, spend years in jail, and be released without being fully acquitted. We are, instead, gazing. At Kathleen. At Michael. At every detail of her death and every possibility it points to. Is this enough to justify dragging her life into the spotlight once again?
The Staircase makes you confront the finality of Kathleen’s death, but it leaves this key question unanswered. Instead, it meanders through the Peterson’s lives, with the main couple and their Brady Bunch assembly of kids getting the prestige mess treatment. The TV miniseries is, after all, the haven of adult dramas in our current media landscape, and they’ve leaned heavily into families behaving badly of late. The Petersons fit right in, especially since they have more than a mysterious death hanging over them. There’s alcoholism, financial troubles, explosive devices, and ubiquitous, pernicious secrets. They slot in easily among the most salacious dramas HBO has dreamed up , except they’re real, and with every stone the viewer overturns a real person is reminded of their most painful mistakes.
Coating over some of this discomfort is the sheer elegance of the series, which equals many of those acclaimed fictional offerings. Campos and Janiak, in addition to those brutal deaths, stage all the twists and turns with the kind of high brow aesthetics that lull you into forgetting its low brow basis. While it lacks the stylistic swing of Sharp Objects and the intensity of Big Little Lies, it’s effective in sitting on the mystery and letting everything simmer. Granted, it would be irresponsible to build to an answer we don’t have in life, so it must exist in the murky gray area.
Filling in all that time and space is the requisite lineup of flashy, acclaimed performers, who do more for the series than even Campos and Janiak. The aforementioned Collette as Kathleen and Colin Firth as Michael form a formidable backbone to the series while maintaining the slipperiness it needs. The series provides a variety of possibilities for how their relationship and their final moments played out, and Firth, as the series progresses towards the present day, remains ever an enigma. He’s a character you’re never supposed to entirely trust and so never latch on to, and the crustiness Firth layers on is effective. Collette is her usual stunning self, pulling you in as the emotional core of the series even when absent. Her ability to funnel deep, messy, utterly human emotion through the screen and into your heart makes Kathleen feel like less of an afterthought within the sprawling series, and she’s a big part of why I had nightmares.
Other notables hover around the central pair, like the perfectly cast Michael Stuhlbarg as Peterson’s lawyer (he gets many calming speeches), Juliette Binoche as a documentary editor and eventual lover of Michael (her almost religious belief in his innocence becomes tragic folly in this slippery case), and the ever undervalued Rosemarie DeWitt as a ferocious sister of Kathleen (her ability to do much with little is key for the small role). Dane DeHaan, Sophie Turner, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Odessa Young, and Olivia DeJonge bounce off each other and their own doubts as the assorted kids of Kathleen and Michael, with Turner doing the most for herself after several shaky non-Game of Thrones performances and Schwarzenegger doing the least with a heavily stereotyped character.
In the end, though, as much as the series wanted to it could never settle into the blueprints provided by Mare of Easttown and its ilk. The darkness at the edges of their heightened pleasures were assuaged by the fact that none of it actually happened. Kathleen Peterson did end up dead at the bottom of that staircase, and so the series needed to find more reason to exist than being another notch in HBO’s prestige miniseries belt.
What it needed to take its cues from was not its most obvious influences but another show hidden among HBO Max’s impressive catalog. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the docuseries based on Michelle McNamara’s book of the same name, pushed true crime into its modern, uneasy state by placing the harm of the crimes within a web of victims, investigators, and Michelle herself, who would die before she finished writing her masterpiece. Its brilliance is not in the dogged research or its possible ties to solving the decades old case but in McNamara’s clear-eyed understanding of how cases link to personal trauma, even as she tangled herself further within one.
True crime is not something to be toyed with, and The Staircase, for all the beautiful work put into it, toys with viewers instead of finding the salient truths about the case.