Watercooler Guide: What You Need to Know about The Staircase

Even before its premiere, people were buzzing about HBO’s new true-crime series The Staircase. And now that it’s here we expect the hype will only grow. There’s a reason why true crime stories capture the public imagination in a way that not many other genres can. Sure, morbid curiosity is part of it.

But they also take our absolute worst fears and raise them up from mere news headlines to something altogether real. Because they are real. Then, once you get hooked on the concept enough, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of wondering why, why, why a person would kidnap or kill or rape another human being? In other words, it’s the psychology of human nature that pulls us in, time and time again. And the true story of Michael Peterson and a bloody staircase is just one of many that continues to haunt the collective in cinematic form for that reason.

It’s an over 20-year-old murder case at this point. Yet, in that span of time, the narrative has made the rounds as a BBC special, a Netflix docuseries, and now The Staircase, a dramatized HBO Max limited series. The last of which stars Oscar winner Colin Firth as Peterson and Toni Collette as his late wife, Kathleen. Before you watch, though, we’ve compiled a helpful explainer about the infamous case, including everything viewers need to know. Read on if you’re looking for a refresher, catching up so you can be part of the conversation, or just craving some interesting intel on the much-hyped series.

What is The Staircase case about?

The timeline of events goes all the way back to December of 2001. A 9-1-1 call was made from the home of Michael and Kathleen Peterson–a novelist and businesswoman, respectively–on the affluent side of Durham, N.C. Upon returning to the house late one night, Michael had supposedly found his wife bloody and unconscious at the bottom of their stairs. Only later was it revealed that Kathleen had ultimately died from the mysterious wounds at age 48, leaving behind a family that included one biological child and three step-siblings.

The autopsy report described severe blood loss from a fracture and lacerations to Kathleen’s head as the cause of death. However, law enforcement was particularly skeptical at the time about Michael’s initial story that he simply found her so bludgeoned, and he was subsequently charged a few days later with her murder. A French camera crew were given behind-the-scenes access to the defendant immediately after his indictment, so as to document his side of the story. However, following a lengthy trial, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and Peterson was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Staircase
Courtesy of HBO Max

What did we learn from the early versions of The Staircase?

The footage the French production team gathered eventually turned into a miniseries called Soupçons, or Suspicions in French, that premiered on several major outlets from 2004 to 2005, including Canal+, BBC Four, and Sundance Channel. There were two major bombshells from those episodes that threw the suspicion of Michael Peterson into heavy relief. One point being how the then-58-year-old had paid a male escort during the time of his marriage, leading the prosecution to argue that Kathleen potentially finding out such information gave motive for Michael to commit the murder. Another key revelation was that Michael was associated with a similar incident–a woman close to him dying on a staircase under strange circumstances–years prior in Germany.

The Peabody Award-winning docuseries was later reintroduced to a new generation of Netflix viewers in 2018, simply as The Staircase. Three supplementary episodes were added concerning the most recent developments in the case. Namely, it was revealed that a questionable testimony by an expert witness had shaken up the initial ruling, which allowed the accused to choose between a plea deal or going through the ordeal all over again in a new trial. Invested fans were shocked to eventually learn that Peterson’s pursuance of a deal had largely reversed what was decided legally anyway.

How will HBO Max’s The Staircase differ from its predecessors?

Given how long this story has been known to the world at large, it’s reasonable to question what more a dramatized account could possibly bring to the table. But Colin Firth’s The Staircase, co-produced by Annapurna Television and HBO, has a distinct two-fold approach to reintroducing the same material yet again. Most notably, the victim at the center of the case, Kathleen Peterson, is given a voice or a “living presence” as NPR calls it, via actress Toni Collette’s performance. The original documentary could really only offer a scant version of Kathleen through the eyes of the people involved and what was on paper. But the latest Staircase, for better or worse, shows an interpretation of Kathleen that is decidedly more complex.

Another facet that will be slightly different is the overall tone and direction. Viewers who watched the original Staircase series will remember a very controlled presentation of Michael Peterson and his family. (It was a documentary, after all.) Whereas with the HBO Max adaptation, the creators are seemingly more interested in the bigger picture of how this story fits into our collective obsession with true-crime docs, not so much the Peterson’s account of matters. According to Vanity Fair, the series makes a substantial case of its own for the impossibility of “a single, satisfyingly linear narrative” in that vein. It hopscotches back and forth through the protracted timeline, and it never fully settles on a judgement for what happened. In fact, HBO’s The Staircase apparently has both an accidental death scene and a murder scene to emphasize this polarity.

The Staircase
Courtesy of HBO Max

Did Colin Firth meet or consult with the real Michael Peterson prior to filming?

The short answer is no. Creator and writer Antonio Campos claimed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that certain castmates connecting with their real-life counterparts allowed the showrunners to figure out the “pace” of the story, but apparently it wasn’t a requirement. Speaking to Deadline, Colin Firth shared that the reason he didn’t reach out to Michael Peterson personally had to do with not wanting to risk the authenticity of the script. Specifically, he hoped to maintain his “motivation” for the project by remaining neutral to what was written, adding that a “personal connection” might have “skewed” that endeavor somewhat. And it’s hard not to see his logic, given how biases as a whole have everything to do with the telling of these events.

The Staircase—also starring Sophie Turner, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Parker Posey, Juliette Binoche, and Michael Stuhlbarg—premieres exclusively on HBO Max on May 6.

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