In The Staircase Episode Four, “Common Sense,” directed by Antonio Campos, the Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) Murder trial causes the Peterson-Ratliff family to crumble apart. “Common Sense” opens with Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) and his French girlfriend, Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche), entering the Durham County Courthouse on February 24, 2017. Michael walks into a courtroom while Sophie waits outside. A little bit later, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) interviews Sophie.
Most of the Peterson-Ratliff clan sits through the trial to support Michael. They sometimes stay during supremely uncomfortable testimony. However, the family “screw up” Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) stays in Baltimore because nobody wants him at the trial. Defense lawyer David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Michael bully Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young) into staying for the state pathologist’s testimony. The prosecution shows Kathleen’s horrific autopsy photographs. Jean-Xavier continues to document the trial and send tapes back to Paris so the editor can begin her work.
The pathologist finds that Elizabeth Ratliff didn’t die from a brain hemorrhage. Instead, she and Kathleen share similar head wounds pointing toward foul play. Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) feels guilty for granting the prosecution permission to dig up her biological mother’s body. The former Ratliff babysitter, Angus Schaffer’s testimony, shakes Martha to the core. Angus suspected Michael of hurting Kathleen because he is the one who said Elizabeth died of a brain hemorrhage and abused his sons. After seeing Elizabeth’s autopsy results, Clayton rushes home to mixed reception.
Forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee (Wilky Lau) testifies that he believes that Kathleen died from multiple falls. Prosecutor Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) can’t force the doctor to change his story. David feels like Dr. Lee’s testimony is the perfect end to the defense’s case, but now Michael wants to talk directly to the jury.
While fixing up a car, Clayton finds the clean blow poke that the prosecution said was the murder weapon. The defense team advises Clayton on how to answer questions in court. The siblings verbally attack one another when the eldest son’s domestic abuse charges come up. Michael stops the fight in its track by announcing he will testify about the blow poke.
David explains that if Michael testifies, the prosecution will ask him why he lied about receiving a Purple Heart. The author tells David about how he earned other military medals during the Vietnam war. Michael dragged his dying best friend into a foxhole. He held the other soldier until he died. The lawyer explains to Michael that the jury might assume that his story about a seasoned military veteran freezing up instead of conducting CPR on his dying wife is another lie. In the end, the novelist decides not to testify. Instead, David closes the case after introducing the missing blow poke. The prosecution panics now that they no longer have a murder weapon.
Prosecutor Freda Black’s (Parker Posey) fiery closing statement pulls on the juror’s emotions while David points out all the reasonable doubt in their case against his client. The jury finds Michael guilty. Flashbacks reveal Michael beat Kathleen to death on the stairs. Kathleen found the gay porn on his computer. She planned to divorce Michael, which he couldn’t allow. Back in the present, Jean-Xavier hugs the sobbing novelist in his last few moments of freedom.
The last sequence of the episode reveals that Sophie is the editor of The Staircase docu-series. Sophie writes to Michael in English, promising that she will tell his story. A story where he is the innocent intellectual widower found guilty by close-minded conservative Southerners. The editor plays Jean-Xavier, and producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) screens her first rough cut.
QUESTIONS OF JUSTICE
Sophie reveals her philosophy about justice during her 2007 interview with Jean-Xavier. The documentary crew films Sophie inside an empty courtroom. The director asks if Sophie thinks today’s proceedings prove that the American justice system works. She shrugs. Sophie states that it depends on one’s definition of justice.
There is a cut to the Paris editing suite as the post-production staff opens boxes full of trial tapes. The assistant editor starts editing a sequence about the trial. Sophie’s voice-over explains that a trial is just two sides trying to tell the best story. Then the jurors pick which side they believe. The winner’s story becomes justice. The assistant editor edits together a shot of a female juror looking shocked and Freda cross-examining a Gay man about what sex acts he was ready to perform with Michael. These two shots are entirely unconnected but editing them next to each other makes the juror look homophobic. The juror may have been reacting to an autopsy picture or some other piece of testimony. She may not even have a problem with queer men or women. The human mind creates a story if two images are placed next to each other, even if it’s not based on reality.
Now that we know that Sophie plans to paint Michael as a persecuted widower, it’s apparent that she is manipulating footage to tell her version of the story. Editing is always about making choices, but it’s hard to create an ethical account of events when you love your subject. The editor doesn’t care about attempting to tell the truth, only creating a seductive narrative that convinces the public to side with Michael. She wants to make “justice.”
A little later, Sophie’s voice-over interview states that justice is a construct that can affect somebody’s whole life. In other words, justice is not real. The editor is shirking her responsibility to seek justice through the documentary by denying it exists. Sophie’s ethics allow her to edit a bluntly subjective docu-series because she doesn’t think she owes the victim anything.
SISTERS TORN APART
Before this episode, Michael’s actions destroyed his family, but small moments of connection reveal that there is still a sisterly bond between the Ratliff siblings and Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge). Caitlin broke off from the Peterson-Ratliff-Atwater family because she believes Michael killed her mother. Everybody in Michael’s camp practically disowned her. Caitlin’s aunts also forced her to give up on a relationship with the Ratliff sisters because they couldn’t let go of their last living parent. Candance’s only sympathies are with her dead sister. The young adult sisters’ love for each other bleeds into the background of the trial.
Martha freaks out after seeing enlarged photos of Kathleen’s autopsy during the pathologist’s testimony. She falls into herself as the pathologist explains what’s happening in the images. Martha cries audibly. Caitlin, concerned, glances at Martha from across the aisle. She wants to comfort her little sister. They are all struggling with these horrific images of their mother.
Caitlin’s love for her two sisters affects how she hears Michael being found guilty. Instead of celebrating, she silently cries after witnessing Martha and Margaret sobbing in each other’s arms. Caitlin understands how hard it is to lose a parent. The Ratliff sisters have lost four. She runs into the women’s bathroom to throw up. When Caitlin finally exits the bathroom, her aunts guide her away. The Peterson family usher Martha and Margaret in the opposite direction. The press hounds both sides with flashing cameras and probing questions. The three sisters look back at each other. They all stare into each other’s eyes with desperation. Nobody wins at the end of a murder trial. Martha, Margaret, and Caitlin wish they could be leaving the courthouse together instead of being forced apart forever because they chose different sides.
Michael destroyed his whole family when he murdered Kathleen. Let us know what you think of “Common Sense” in the comments below.