Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn created The Staircase miniseries based on a true-crime docu-series of the same name. The miniseries Episode One “911”, Episode Two “Chiroptera,” and Episode Three “The Great Dissembler” feature a family slowly falling apart after Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) finds his wife, Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette), dead at the bottom of the stairs. He calls the police to their Forest Hills mansion in Durham, North Carolina. However, the Durham police and the state prosecutors’ office believe Michel bludgeoned Kathleen to death. French documentary director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) document the criminal investigation into Kathleen’s murder mainly through Michael and his defense lawyer David Rudolf’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) perspective.
At first, Kathleen’s biological family, especially her sister Candace Hunt Zamperini (Rosemarie DeWitt), sides with Michael believing her death was accidental. However, the minute prosecutors Freda Black (Parker Posey) and Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) show them her autopsy files, they switch sides. Candance and her other sister ardently attack Michael any time they can. Sons Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan), Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger), and Michael’s older brother Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee) stick with him even after his arrest. Kathleen’s biological daughter, Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge), supports her stepfather Michael until she learns about his bisexuality, his affairs with men, and all the secrets he has been keeping from his family. Caitlin doesn’t buy that her mother knew about Michael’s bisexuality. Finally, Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) and Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young) staunchly stand by their adopted father even though he was around when both their adopted mother and biological mother died at the foot of a staircase.
All the episodes flash between three different time periods of this tragedy. The first section takes place on February 24, 2007, when Michael and his French girlfriend, Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche), drive to an important appointment. Then all the events surrounding Kathleen’s murder on December 9, 2001. Finally, the third period begins in September 2001, three months before Kathleen dies. These scenes mainly cover the couple’s complicated relationship with each other and their children.
The September 2001 celebratory dinner scene establishes the family dynamics in the Peterson-Ratliff- Atwater clan. In many ways, Kathleen and Michal appear to have a traditional marriage. Michael is the one in charge of his whole family. The patriarch of his clan. Michael orders his youngest son Todd to get off a business call when dinner is ready. Todd hangs up the phone right away. Next, Michael introduces their family tradition of pouring wine into this large goblet, passing the cup around the table until every family member toasts one of their siblings or parents. The father silences Todd when he starts speaking about his oldest brother Clayton’s past indiscretions during one particular spring break. Nobody can mention this specific spring break, revealing the family doesn’t talk about complex issues openly.
Clayton is the screw-up of the family even though he is doing well at university. Finally, Michael toasts the whole “imperfect unique” family, noting that they stick together and love each other. The toast is almost like an order for the family to protect one another from the entire world. Michael wields most of the power, but Kathleen nurtures the family.
The mother cooks and serves dinner to the whole family even though she is the primary breadwinner. She works as a successful business executive at Nortel Networks Corporation. Kathleen has a special bond with all three of her daughters. Before serving dinner, she gathers her daughters and Clayton’s girlfriend Becky (Hannah Pniewski) for a special toast honoring Martha, whose about to enter her first year of college.
Martha thanks Kathleen for “everything,” including a beautiful note that she wrote about her leaving home. She can’t wait for her parents to visit her in San Francisco. Martha ends the speech by saying she loves Kathleen. The mother tearfully calls Martha her baby girl, then hugs her and Margaret. Kathleen’s biological daughter Caitlin complains that she didn’t get a special note before college. Her mother argues that Martha and Margaret need her to reassure them of her love because they are adopted. Kathleen points out that she only “overshares” with Caitlin, which shows why the biological daughter knew that her mother couldn’t have known about Michael’s bisexuality. She never told Caitlin about his queerness.
During dinner, Kathleen toasts Martha again, giving her advice about embracing the happy moments in life. She states that Martha is her daughter. Afterward, Margaret salutes her adopted mother promising that she will always be there for Kathleen as she was for her. The daughters also have a close relationship with one another. Caitlin honors Martha by telling her adopted sister that she loves her and wishes her a fantastic first year at college. Martha echoes the sentiment back to Caitlin. After their mother dies, all three sisters sleep together in one bed for comfort. They go through her belongings.
All the daughters adore Kathleen and each other, but Michael’s two sons worship their father. Clayton pays tribute to his father. The eldest son thanks Michael for always supporting him and wishes him good luck with his election to the city council. Todd cheers on Clayton, telling him how proud he is of his big brother. They all seem supremely happy, sitting around the large table celebrating each other. Michael’s clan appears perfect on the surface, but there are fractions in their relationships when one digs below the surface.
UNEMOTIONAL AND CHARMING
Michael’s grieving husband facade dissipates when the French documentary film crew enters his home. In “Chiroptera,” Jean-Xavier and Denis fly over to North Carolina with a camera crew to examine the American Justice system through Kathleen’s murder trial. The cinematographer captures Michael’s back as he walks them through the night of her murder by literally giving them a tour of his property. He explains all the details leading to his wife Kathleen’s death in a matter in fact manner.
Jean-Xavier, Denis, and the rest of the crew follow Michael through his mansion. He stops at the corridor right in front of the entrance to the staircase. Michael turns around to face the camera. The crime novelist finishes talking about December 9 by awkwardly stating that Kathleen was barely alive when he found her lying on the stairs. Denis jokes in French that he has never heard anybody as awkward as Michael talking about finding his “almost dead” wife. Jean-Xavier speaks directly to his subject in English, explaining that it is natural to be strained when first speaking on camera. Michael and Jean-Xavier have not formed a trusting relationship yet.
Michael doesn’t even realize how “strained” he was being. The director asks the crime novelist to try to speak about finding his wife dying on the stairs with a little more emotion. Michael pushes back, stating that he told them how he felt. Jean-Xavier requests that the crime novelist try to pretend that he is alone. That way, Michael can speak more openly about Kathleen’s death. He outright refuses to start blubbering on camera, telling the filmmakers to go to the DA for theatrics. The crime novelist rarely lets himself lose control in public.
What kind of person can’t even shed one tear while talking about his wife’s death? Does this mean Michael’s a sociopath or psychopath? Is Michael guilty? Or is the crime novelist just so shut off from his emotions that he can’t cry in public? Or maybe Michael is just socially awkward?
The Staircase begins with a bang and doesn’t appear to be slowing down soon. Do you think Michael is innocent or guilty? Have you watched the original docu-series, or are you learning all this information about Kathleen’s death for the first time? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.