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TV Review: ‘The Staircase’ Is A Riveting, Unsettling Puzzle

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

In 2001 Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) found his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) collapsed at the foot of their staircase banged up, bloody and barely conscious. He called 911 for help explaining she must have fallen when he was outside near the pool. When the police arrived they discovered something much worse than a fall, it looked like a crime scene. Kathleen’s body distorted with her blood splattered and smeared on the walls and stairs around her. An autopsy discovered bruises and lacerations that were more in line with an attack than a fall. Suddenly Michael, the charming father, husband, author, and politician was being charged with the murder of his wife. Something that no one would have ever suspected.

Did she slip after consuming some pills and alcohol, was she pushed or much worse? No one knows. At least that is one side of the story.

I only remember hearing the name Michael Peterson before, entering into this series knowing virtually nothing about the tragic events for which he is associated. To my surprise it appears I am in the minority on the subject, as the case and surrounding events have quite the large following. After witnessing the details unfold for the first time while watching HBOMax’s limited series about the case I understand why. Simply put, The Staircase is engrossing and haunting television that won’t let you look away. 

The series plays like a classic page turner, where the completion of every page has you desperately heading to read the next. Questions lead to revelations and the revelations lead to more questions. It is both fascinating and dizzying at times keeping me entranced and thoroughly entertained. The more I learned the more I became wrapped up in it. Michael complex and not the vanilla character he first appears to be. The more I watched the more uncertain I was where I stood on the truth behind the events in question. 

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

The effectiveness of Colin Firth’s portrayal of Michael Peterson is undeniable. The role requires incredible nuance to have viewers questioning their own instincts. We are conditioned to believe that the killer is always the husband (It is, isn’t it?). You start this series ready to blame the husband and still he makes you doubt your own bias and instincts. This makes the challenges of Firth’s portrayal an incredibly daunting task. 

Still, there is much more to The Staircase than a did he or didn’t he do it story that is completely engaging on its own. Showrunners, Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn paint a vastly broader picture, often with the finest of brushes, full of unexpected excursions off the beaten path, tearing down the walls giving us full access to the people surrounding and affected by Kathleen’s death. Recreations of moments no one could have access to are produced to feel authentic and perhaps a bit exploitative exploring other sides to the story. The missing pieces of the puzzle are the actual moments leading to her unsettling demise.

Firth and Collette are spectacular. Moments between Michael and Kathleen are laid out giving us snapshots of their marriage from the casual to the intimate. Collette’s work is refined, making Kathleen feel like much more than a corpse, she is a person – someone any viewer can connect with. By the time her death is recreated with different origins you cannot help but want to reach out to help her. Like much of this series, it is unsettling to say the least. Kathleen of course is not there to set the record straight, so these recreated moments help us to connect with her so by the time her autopsy photos are shown we too may want to turn away.

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

The series is edited in a non-linear fashion that takes full advantage of the varying perspectives it is told from. One moment we are behind the closed doors of the Peterson home, next in the intense meetings with legal teams from both sides of the case, then suddenly months earlier to happier times where the family… and the most intimate of moments. In a meta turn, included in the series is the film crew who shot and edited a documentary about the case as it unfolded. (The doc shares the same name. I have not seen it, but based on others’ advice I have to recommend avoiding it until after watching HBO Max series.)

Dramatized situations provide a whole new dimension to what was captured in the documentary. Back and forth discussions, debates and arguments about Kathleen’s death, who Michael really is and the details of the case itself often from opposing sides. From the family’s point of view, which is not as cut and dry as you may suspect partially stemming from the unique composition it possesses. 

The children of the household played by Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, Patrick Schwarzenegger are Michael and Kathleen biological children from their previous marriages, and Sophie Turner, Odessa Young are adopted. As the facts and accusations come out about the case and Michael their allegiances shift. As I felt throughout the series, you are never stable ground and with each revelation you witness these kids struggle with internal conflict. The ties of blood and family loyalty are tested especially when people from outside the household, namely their Aunt Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt) cast their doubts about the truth.

The legal aspects of the case are similarly engaging. Parker Posey as prosecutor Freda Black and Michael Stuhlbarg as defense attorney David Rudolf are captivating as ever to watch in action. While they barely share the frame together in the episodes I have seen, their pursuit to prove their opposing views of justice creates a legal tug of war. Two masters of their craft taking the same piece of evidence and building a case or tearing it down as to its value in the case. I could watch a full series simply from their perspective covering the challenges they faced along the way. The documentary team of Frank Feys and Vincent Vermignon and Juliette Binoche add more complex layers to this onion of a story in increasingly unexpected ways.

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

What unfolds is a maze full of dead ends and shocking disclosures that will certainly divide viewers and leave many unsure where they stand. Firth’s turn as Michael Peterson is possibly a career best, which says a lot. He is a duplicitous man with a certain smugness hidden behind the everyman charm exterior. There are times that it would be easy to convict him in our minds, but Firth’s portrayal in addition to the perspectives offered from many others connected to the cast prevents it from being so cut and dry. 

Once you start watching The Staircase it is tough to exit this unpredictable maze full of surprising dead ends, tricky twists and shocking new findings. As I was lured deeper, losing myself in the Peterson story, I felt an unsettling feeling about it all. The sheer nature of being entertained by a true life death and the pain it caused is difficult to process… and yet, I was riveted and could not look away. The series is expertly produced, presents completely absorbing case, is full of amazing performances that will have people talking.

The death of Michael Peterson story mesmerized the masses before and is ready to do so again. The first three episodes of The Staircase have premiered on HBO Max with remaining episodes of the eight part limited series premiering each Thursday. 

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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Screen Radar and Awards Circuit. He has conducted celebrity and red carpet interviews with some of the industry’s biggest names. He is a graduate of RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.
Email: filmsnork@gmail.com

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