TV Recap: ‘The Staircase’ Episode 5 – “The Beating Heart” – Love Letters & Beatings

Spoilers Below


In episode five of The Staircase,” The Beating Heart,” directed by Leigh Janiak, Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) struggles to survive in the prison while waiting for his appeal. Editor Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche) fights to cut the docu-series in a way that could convince others of his innocence. The episode flashes between the past and present. In November 2001, Michael opens Margaret Ratliff’s (Sophie Turner) mail from Tulane University. She earned several bad grades. Michael yells at Margaret over the phone because she will probably lose her scholarship. He refuses to pay for his adopted daughter’s plane ticket home for Thanksgiving. Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young) refuses to spend the holiday in the Peterson home without her big sister. Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) hates that two of her daughters won’t be in Durham for Thanksgiving because of her husband’s temper. Michael plays dumb.

Back in “present” day Paris, Sophie edits all eight episodes of The Staircase docu-series. She becomes Michael’s pen pal. Unhappily married, Sophie enjoys flirting with the intellectual author through their letters. Sophie and producer Denis Poncet (Franks Feys) argue over adding a “cartilage scene” where the forensic pathologist says Kathleen died from strangulation with medical certainty. Denis thinks it’s necessary because the jury found Michael guilty based on the physical evidence, while Sophie believes the scene would disrupt the balance of the docu-series.

On the other hand, the director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) doesn’t want to cut a scene where Michael and Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) speak about life to make room for the cartilage sequence. He believes the original scene helps the audience understand Michael. During the disagreement, Sophie reveals that she exchanges letters with Michael.

Later, Denis wants to fire Sophie. She saves her job. The producer feels taken advantage of when Jean-Xavier officially sides with Sophie. He believes that The Staircase is no longer about studying the American Justice system. Denis changes his tune when the French cinema community adores the sneak peek of their docu-series. Jean-Xavier reveals that Michael also seduced him. He and Sophie talk about how the docu-series might help free the author.

Michael gets beaten up in prison until he pays some Black convicts to protect him. His older brother Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee) adopted daughter Margaret, son Clayton, and youngest son Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) sell the author’s home and a bunch of his stuff. Michael needs the money to pay defense lawyer David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) to continue working on the first appeal. The appeal is based on the idea that the trial was unfair because of juridical mistakes. Michael prays that his appeal goes through because he doesn’t belong in prison. The author freaks out when he learns that he lost his first appeal from a fellow inmate. David tries to calm Michael over the phone, but he breaks down because he will have to wait two years to hear about his second appeal with the North Carolina Supreme Court. The author cheers up when Sophie visits him in jail for the first time.


The production team behind The Staircase argues in a recording studio’s control room, proving how divided they are over the edit. Note that Sophie, Denis, and Jean-Xavier mostly speak French during this sequence. The composer conducts the docu-series melancholy instrumental score in the recording booth. In the control room, Denis announces that he thinks that they should fire Sophie because she is too biased. He’s suspicious because Sophie has never behaved so stubbornly about an edit of a documentary before corresponding with Michael. Jean-Xavier doesn’t think it makes sense to let an editor go when the project is wrapping up in a month. However, the producer insists that she must go. Jean-Xavier notices the orchestra has stopped performing. The director pushes a button so that the composer can hear him. He comments that the music should be “softer and even more mournful.” Then, the “mournful” music starts up again.

Sophie comes into the room as Denis finishes saying that he would also be flirting with a felon if he was married to her husband. They all listen to the score from different places in the control room. Everybody in the recording studio can feel the tension between Denis and Sophie. Sophie tells Denis that she understands his concerns and agrees to stop writing to Michael for the project’s integrity. The producer pushes for Sophie to add the “cartilage scene.” They all start arguing over Denis’ comment. Jean-Xavier wants Denis to stay in his lane as the producer and not influence the edit. Sophie can’t believe that Denis is ignoring her olive branch. The producer thinks Jean-Xavier shouldn’t downplay Michael’s guilt.

The orchestra quietly watches the production team wordlessly fight. The studio room is soundproof, so they can’t hear anything said. Finally, the composer asks about the director’s thoughts in English. Jean-Xavier pushes the button. In English, he asks her to play the score one more time. Jean-Xavier sits down on a chair. The director turns his whole body away from the rest of the production team. Sophie crosses her arms defensively. She plops down in the middle of the couch, staring right at the orchestra. Denis lounges on the chair on the other side of the room, playing with his glasses as he stares ahead. Nobody says a word revealing how disjointed the team is over the edit. Sophie intently watches the documentary playing on a screen behind the orchestra. She tears up. Sophie only cares about freeing Michael, not creating a “fair” documentary that is full of integrity.


In November 2001, Michael and Kathleen have a subtextual conversation in front of their friends at dinner. After getting off the phone with an upset Margaret, Kathleen plants a smile on her face as the host takes her to their table.

 The friends at dinner tell the Peterson couple that they can’t come over for Thanksgiving after all. Kathleen adds that she is thinking of sitting the holiday out herself. Michael tightly asks his wife to say more. He is not happy that they won’t be hosting a large feast even though Kathleen would be doing all the heavy lifting. Michael likes the “happy family” appearance when the couple hosts Thanksgiving dinner for all their friends. Kathleen pointedly tells her female friend that all the kids won’t be coming home. Michael asks who won’t be there even though he banished Margaret from their home for the holidays.

Kathleen jokes around, saying that Michael is sure acting surprised. Margaret plans to go to Aunt Blair’s (Elizabeth’s sister) home for Thanksgiving. Michael dismisses Margaret’s choice not to come home, behaving like she wasn’t forced to make that decision. He asks if Martha will be flying over to their Aunt Blair’s home for Thanksgiving. Kathleen shrugs, saying that their youngest daughter won’t answer her phone. She forces herself to smile but looks forlornly at her wine glass. Martha is so scared of Michael’s explosive anger that she won’t come home without Margaret. They were never the happy family that Michael says they were before Kathleen’s death.


In Episode Five, Sophie and Michael try to control their environments to get what they want. Michael desires to appear like the perfect family man or a wrongfully imprisoned inmate. Sophie wishes to live happily ever after with Michael, who adores her and feeds her intellectual soul. Let us know your thoughts on ” The Beating Heart” in the comments below.


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Written by Paloma Bennett

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