Death on the Staircase
‘The Staircase’ documentary first aired on Netflix a while back. The Peterson legal case had caught the nation’s fancy when its gory details first emerged. But with time, the intrigue fizzled out. With the airing, though, things changed. The interest came back and HBO decided to make a dramatic adaptation of not the case, but its subjects.
The Colin Firth and Toni Collette-starrer is not about the courtroom proceedings, per se. Its description – and the first episode by extension – reveal that it is about the life of the Petersons. The peak behind the curtains and almost all of what wasn’t covered in the documentary finds a place in this television series.
The first episode is titled “Death on the Staircase” and introduces the central conflict, just as in the documentary. It is a great place to start the journey into the Petersons’ life, although the ground it covers in such a short time might not allow you too much time to catch on. The name of the game is to be on your toes, soak in the shocking real-life details of the death/murder, and enjoy the ride. Happy reading!
A frantic 911 call blares out from one of Durham’s most famous households as episode 1 of The Staircase begins. “She’s not breathing”, it finishes with. In 2017, Michael Peterson woke up with the call playing in his head. On the fateful night (2002) in a flashback, we see Todd, Michael’s son drive into the house amidst blue and red sirens with his girlfriend. He quickly discovers the cause of the chaos: her stepmother’s lifeless body. Todd proceeds to comfort his inconsolable father, whose bloodied clothes depict the horror story. Kathleen Peterson’s body and the space around it are examined by the forensic team.
Police take control of the “crime scene”, worrying Michael as he tries to hide it. Then comes the difficult task to break the news to the extended family. He calls his brother Bill, who promises to arrange a trial lawyer for Michael, and flies to their place in Durham. Creators use several flashbacks leading up to the murder to explain the chain of events. They do not necessarily have to form the foundation for solving the death but act as cues into the couple’s relationship and mental states.
While Kathleen heads the successful IT giant Nortel, Michael is a successful column writer. He has just sold rights to his book to a movie production. Kathleen has to deal with stress at work. Her job becomes harder as along with letting people go, she also has to worry about her position after the impending merger happens. Michael’s peculiar behavior is probed into by the police. Bits of bizarre incidents – like saying “get ready to get your arse pounded” on the phone to someone – are interspersed with the main storyline.
In the flashback, the erratic changes in Kathleen’s personality are shown. She jumps into the pool without notice at a party and injures her neck and almost drowns. Although their relationship is not perfect, there seems to be mutual love.
Their big family, in the present, has to deal with the media and police attention they get. Michael has been a staunch critic of local law enforcement. His unlikeable tendency works against him here as the post-mortem and the DA’s proactiveness land him in trouble.
The police recover some strange evidence from his house. Stuff like gay pornography from his computer; a used condom that he denies ever using; and the bewildering mystery of Kathleen’s supposed fall down the stairs. Kathleen’s family, Candice, and Lori (her sisters), are convinced by the DA’s evidence that Michael had something to do with her death. They are decidedly against him. But Kathleen and Michael’s children stand behind their father.
“Death on the Staircase” Ending Explained
After Michael is arrested for further investigation, the family makes public statements and hires a renowned defense lawyer, David Rudolf. The kids also have to deal with fractured dynamics among themselves. The group is divided into Kathleen and Michael’s biological children and there is some bad blood between them.
The saga begins with the revelation that Kathleen did not die instantly; she struggled. And the fact that she was dead a long time before Michael called 911 and said “She’s not breathing”.
The very final scene was a mystery to me as well. At first. But then, some more probes revealed that it was a sequence from the future, where Michael has remarried and is living a new life. It remains to be seen how and when that happened but that is all we know. For now.
Another interesting development was the French documentarians – who filmed and made the original documentary – stepping up their interest in the case.
The Episode Review
I had imagined that the show wouldn’t be able to properly engage those who have seen the documentary before. But after seeing the first episode, I am convinced otherwise. Some parts of what you see in this episode are directly recreated from the documentary. And they are unavoidable because they form the core of the story.
Barring those, everything seems new. Firth, Collette, Sophie Turner, and others, recreate the characters with added drama and substance that makes what they have to say and what they do, interesting to watch.
‘The Staircase’ can be said to be an extension of – or a prequel to – the trial in the Netflix documentary. It will mostly be about the personal lives of the household and not just the recreation of the trial.
I have to say it was the most interesting courtroom drama I have ever seen, so something like that won’t hurt the narrative either. The makers of this HBO series seem determined not to get embroiled in the murder mystery. Their intention seems to be to get involved with and explore the mystery behind the persons they were before the murder.
A very solid start to season one, overall. Excited for the upcoming episodes!
You can read our full season review of The Staircase here!