In The Staircase Episode Eight,” America’s Sweetheart or: Time Over Time,” directed by co-creator Antonio Campos, Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binchoe), and Michael Peterson’s (Colin Firth) adult children let go of their fantasy of him. On February 24, 2017, Jean-Xavier Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) conducts an interview with Michael that he promises to show Sophie sometime in the future. Afterward, the author officially pleads guilty in court via the Alford Plea. Candace Hunt Zamperini (Rosemarie DeWitt) reads a victim impact statement revealing that she still holds anger toward Michael. The only person there to support Michael outside of his defense lawyer David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg), is his French editor girlfriend Sophie, who’s excited to start their new life in Paris. All the adult children check in with each other through text.
During Michael’s Alford Plea, His eldest son Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) spends the day with his family. Next, Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) works on the pre-production of her documentary, then flies in to watch the dance performance her little sister Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young) choreographed. Finally, Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) spends the evening with his mother, Patty Peterson (Trini Alvarado).
Meanwhile, Sophie packs up the Durham apartment while Michael watches himself on the television. They start fighting when the author says he doesn’t want to move to Paris. Sophie sees through Michael the minute he brings up needing to be there for his absent children. The French editor leaves the apartment forever when Michael reveals that he never loved her. Back in the hotel, Jean-Xavier plays his last interview with the author to Sophie. Sophie realizes she never knew Michael.
During the December 2011 pre-trial hearing, David successfully argues that Michael deserves a re-trial because the prosecution used misleading evidence to convict him. Michael’s big brother Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee), ex-wife Patty, Sophie, and all the adult children come to Durham to support him. The author is freed from prison until the new trial date. Unfortunately, the holes in the supposed “ideal” family come out during their celebratory night. Todd is now the family screw-up, and Michael relies on Clayton for anything he needs. During the dinner, the author feels overwhelmed eating in a Mexican restaurant for the first time in ten years. Michael emotionally withdraws from Martha after she brings up a queer character from one of his novels. He snaps at birthday girl Margaret, who picks a cheesecake for dessert in a Mexican restaurant.
On December 7, 2001, miserable Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) reaches out to her sister Candace for help though sadly, they don’t really “hear” each other. Michael emails Kathleen a peace offering, including tickets to a sold-out Christmas ball. Later, he comes home to a happy Kathleen dressing in a ball gown to loud cheerful music. The two of them make love on her dressing room table. During the ball, Michael and Kathleen drink, dance, and enjoy each other’s company all evening.
Hours before Kathleen’s death, Michael rents America’s Sweetheart, directed by Joe Roth from Blockbuster, then checks on her soaking in the bath. She laments that they can’t afford to travel to Aruba or Paris. Michael half-jokes that they can afford pasta and Blockbuster. About an hour later, Kathleen laughs joyfully as she and Michael watch the hokey romantic comedy. Todd checks in on them before heading out to a party with a friend. After the movie, Kathleen listens to some voicemails, including one from an employee named Helen. She needs to check a presentation before her trip to Toronto.
Kathleen calls Helen, then realizes she left her work laptop at the offices. She asks Helen to email the presentation to Michael. He comes into their kitchen. Kathleen tells Michael that she needs to check his email for the presentation. Michael talks her out of reviewing the presentation into the morning. The sequence appears to re-tell the murder until Kathleen and Michael lounge next to the pool. Kathleen talks to Michael about what is happening in their adult children’s lives in 2017, including how Caitlin has a baby. Kathleen emotionally tortures Michael in his fantasies. The Staircase Miniseries ends with Michael sitting up in bed alone in 2017.
Michael reveals part of his true self to Jean-Xavier and Sophie through a recorded video interview. The sequence starts with a crying Sophie walking to her car in a dark parking lot. Jean-Xavier’s recorded voice asks Michael why he wanted to talk to him. Michael’s voice-over says ‘baseball.’ Then a cut to a lit-up hotel hallway with Jean-Xavier’s voice repeating the word baseball. He tells Michael not to worry about the time. Finally, cut to Jean-Xavier and Sophie watching the interview on his laptop in a hotel room. Michael speaks about how as a young boy, he fantasized about a neighborhood girl and one of his little league teammates. These sexual dreams made Michael realize that he was attracted to both genders.
The future author knew he had to hide his bisexuality based on his father’s horrific reaction to his sexuality. First, Michael’s father caught him and his teammate experimenting. The author tears up on camera as he talks about his father’s violent response to his queerness. Then, Michael returns to the story about listening to classical music with his mother alone in his father’s car. Though now Michaels reveals he had a black eye when he first discovered the power of classical music. After that, the author knew it was safer to lie, perhaps explaining why he hides significant facets of his life from everybody who cares about him.
Jean-Xavier turns the volume up on his laptop. Sophie lounges on the couch with a guarded expression on her face. Recorded Jean-Xavier asks about what Michael has been holding back all this time. There is a close-up on Michael’s face as he blinks back tears. He never told Kathleen about his bisexuality. This revelation contradicts what Michael said during the filming of the documentary. Sophie shakes her head in frustration. Tears slide down Michael’s face when he explains that he could never fully reveal himself to Kathleen. Sophie’s face withers in pain when he talks about how lying seems okay if you get away with it. Recorded Jean-Xavier asks Michael if he killed Kathleen. The author denies murdering her.
When Jean-Xavier presses pause on the interview, Sophie turns away from the screen in disgust. The characters speak French for the rest of the scene. Finally, the editor sputters out that Michael lied about everything. Sophie looks puzzled as she slowly realizes that she doesn’t know Michael. Jean-Xavier tries to excuse the author’s behavior by saying maybe he is trying to stop deceiving everybody. Sophie stands up, moving away from the couch. She faces Jean-Xavier from across the table. Sophie breaths in and out, trying not to cry. The director explains that he doesn’t know how to react to the interview. Jean-Xavier stares into Sophie’s eyes when he says that she will be happier without Michael in her life.
Sophie cries as she tries to get her friend to say that her ex-boyfriend couldn’t have killed Kathleen. She couldn’t live with herself if she helped get a murderer out of prison. Jean-Xavier muffles back tears as he shakes his head. He can’t reassure Sophie because he doesn’t know the truth. So, they must sit with the fact that Michael may have murdered Kathleen.
The Staircase miniseries ends with more questions than answers. Michael’s innocence or guilt regarding Kathleen’s murder remains a mystery. Everybody involved in the case has their own story, but we don’t know the truth. However, we know that Michael’s lies and manipulations isolate him from those who love him. Perhaps the best punishment is that the author lives alone in Durham, surrounded by questions about what happened to Kathleen on December 9, 2001. Let us know what you think of the miniseries in the comments below.