America’s Sweetheart or: Time over Time
The final episode of ‘The Staircase’ has finally aired on HBO Max. The controversial case of Kathleen Peterson’s mysterious death became an article of national obsession. Although it has died down considerably, interest in seeking out the truth has remained stout.
The show does not profess to bring it out though. Instead, it promises a dramatized version of certain truth – not necessarily accurate or true. And that is how you must see this last episode. Read on to the recap and our review of the season finale of ‘The Staircase’.
The common thread that binds the three timelines is that of the “day before” trope. We have made certain changes to the way we represent this last recap so as to make things absolutely crystal clear for you all.
The three major timelines -2001, 2011, and 2017, in that order – have been wrapped up under separate heads. This will allow you to have intelligible clarity on the overlapping parts of the timelines that are really confusing at the outset. The title of the episode refers to the movie that Kathleen and Mike saw that fateful night.
2001 – Before Kathleen’s Death
For a change, this timeline’s last hurrah is an extremely positive one. We have seen a tense Kathleen unable to come to terms with her situation. It wouldn’t be too wrong to say that she is going through a mid-life crisis. The existential dread numbs her when it sets in – suddenly, without notice.
She stares blankly into her screen watching the publicly traded shares of Nortel crash further. They have lost almost 80% of their intrinsic value and are unlikely to recoup any considerable chunk (Fun Fact: the shares officially became worthless back in 2009 when the company announced their delisting from the exchanges).
She calls Candace and apologizes for her Thanksgiving episode. She yearns of leaving her stressful life and going to Aruba or Paris for a while. Candace laughs it off. Kathleen does not protest. She is excited to get an email from Mike. He has scored tickets for the Christmas Ball where the elite of the town will come to have a grand party.
It is one final, desperate attempt from Mike to save his marriage. And thankfully for him, Kathleen responds. The two have a passionate, carnal session before it, following it up with a beautiful night whose memory forever remains etched in his brain.
2011 – Before Michael’s Retrial Hearing
The retrial hearing was an important step in Mike’s legal journey. It would prove that his guilt, for the time being, and until a new trial, was nullified. The air is a mix of nervousness and optimism among Mike’s family, who take center stage.
The main point of contention for Rudolf and the Defense was that Duane Deaver, the SBI agent, lied and that his testimony was unreliable. The jury based their opinion on his testimony and that it was material to the final verdict. The judge agrees with the contention, despite hearing out Candace’s impassioned plea to let Mike remain in jail for what she thought he did to Kathleen.
The family books a nice dinner at the Baja Palace. This victory also coincides with Margaret’s birthday. But the dinner is not a cheery one. There is a lot of discomfort between the members of the family. The many secrets, insecurities, and jealousies that lie beneath the surface make sure that there are at least three instances where one of them snaps at each other.
2017 – Before Michael’s Alford Plea
It is the day of the Alford plea. Jean and Mike sit alone in the room, where Mike says something off camera that leaves him teary-eyed and helps in making the decision. Mike takes the plea. Candace’s impassioned speech rouses the memories of the 2011 trial.
The two hearings are simultaneously interwoven in a goosebump moment. The overlap is such that you do not really know the difference in their lives. It is almost suggestive from Campos that they have not been able to move on. They have been stuck in that time, forever.
The children aren’t present at the trial and get the news of the Alford via text. They each have their own situations to deal with and can finally take relief from the long-drawn saga of almost 16 years.
But, the same cannot be said for Mike. And then, for Sophie. She watches a television interview of Mike talking about Kathleen and how he can not get her outside his head. She cannot fathom this and the fact that Mike says he “doesn’t know” if he ever loved Sophie.
We then see the off-camera things that he said to Jean. He LIED during the entire trial that Kathleen knew about his bisexuality. He LIED about the events of the night when Kathleen died. But one thing he claims he did not lie about was how she died. He still maintains that it was an accident. And we will never know.
This part is probably the most heart-breaking of all the three. The viewer feels an instant urge of disgust against Mike for what he does to Sophie.
The final leg of the episode was probably the most graceful, subtle filmmaking from Campos that makes purists like me weak in the knees. The end is inconclusive, just as the trial was.
We see Kathleen and Mike discuss mundane things about the former’s work and the movie they saw. Sophie comes to the conclusion that Mike’s manipulative approach toward her has destroyed her life. Mike sits on the bed with his back to the audience.
The camera slowly pivots, going around him. It stops at his face. Seeing us right in the eyes, Mike changes his expressions – from concerned and scared, to smug and deceitful. We STILL do not know the truth. We never will.
The Episode Review
The ending, in a way, captures the ethos of Mike’s character, and to an extension, this series and the original. We must be mindful of the fact that all of this has been an interpretation of what might have happened. As of today, there is no clarity on the truth.
It has become the different version(s) of those who have made an attempt to find it. Antonio Campos definitely uses his creative license to create his passion project a distant reality.
For all that we went through, none of it might be untrue, some of it might be true. It is upon the viewer to make his own decision.