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‘The Staircase’ Explores a New, Meta Dimension of the True Crime Boom

The HBO Max drama poses questions beyond its central murder mystery as the documentary and media storm it’s based on becomes the story itself

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We are in the midst of a true crime boom within a true crime boom. Not only have the past few years seen an explosion in podcasts, shows, and docuseries to feed a seemingly limitless appetite for gristle and gore; the past few weeks alone have seen a run of scripted adaptations, translating the lurid violence and dense facts into the somber rhythms of prestige TV. Peacock’s Joe vs. Carole recasts lockdown sensation Tiger King with professional actors. On Hulu, The Girl from Plainville dramatizes the infamous “texting suicide” case against teenager Michelle Carter. Over on FX, Under the Banner of Heaven delves into a notorious double murder in 1980s Utah. If you were hooked on these stories the first time around, the thinking goes, you’ll probably tune in to watch gifted performers lead their extended reenactments. But if you’re anything less than a true crime diehard, you also may be well past the point of (justified) fatigue.

At first, The Staircase appears to be one more ripple in this cresting wave. Building on the 13-part documentary of the same name, the HBO Max drama plugs yet more major stars into yet another high-profile case. To the extent that The Staircase seems unique, its distinctions are a matter of degree, not innovation. Few cases are as high profile as the 2001 death of Durham, North Carolina’s Kathleen Peterson, potentially at the hands of her husband Michael, who was convicted of her murder in 2003. And few casts are as star-studded as the crew creators Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn have assembled for their eight-episode retelling. Colin Firth and Toni Collette lead as the central couple; supporting players include Michael Stuhlbarg as a defense attorney, Parker Posey as a prosecutor, and Sophie Turner as Michael Peterson’s older daughter.

The combination of these elements is enough to earn The Staircase a baseline level of interest. Thanks to its unique, extended history, the original series straddles two distinct eras in the history of true crime. A media sensation at the time, the Peterson murder and ensuing legal battle are a legacy event, similar to firestorms like the O.J. Simpson trial that set the precedent for salacious stories in the age of mass media. But in revisiting Peterson’s case, first in 2012 and again in 2018, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade brought The Staircase into the modern true crime industrial complex, fueled in part by streaming services looking to flesh out their catalogs. The final three episodes were produced by Netflix, also the distributor of Tiger King, Bad Vegan, Making a Murderer, and more bingeable rabbit holes. Lestrade’s opus is now available to stream there in full.

In its first iteration, The Staircase condensed thousands of hours of footage into an exhaustive survey of the Peterson case and its many inconsistencies. The couple appeared to be happily married, but Michael, who is bisexual, had sexual liaisons with men. Michael maintains Kathleen fell down a staircase in their sprawling home while intoxicated, but she sustained lacerations and fractured cartilage a tumble wouldn’t fully explain. Not all these abnormalities broke in the prosecution’s favor, hence why Peterson was released from prison in 2017 after entering an Alford plea for time served; the DA hypothesized a missing blow poke was the murder weapon, for example, but the tool was eventually found with no signs of blood. The scripted version of The Staircase runs through all these data points, but it’s essentially summing up what we already know — and with less time to pore over the evidence in exhaustive detail.

To distinguish their work from Lestrade’s, Campos and Cohn widen their scope to include the Petersons’ children, a group whose nightmarish ordeal was largely left offscreen. Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin (played by Olivia DeJonge) publicly defected from her stepfather’s side during the trial; the most prominent in the original Staircase, she’s the least present in this one. Instead, the HBO Max version plays up the plight of Peterson’s biological sons and adopted daughters. There’s emotional texture aplenty in black sheep Clayton (Dane DeHaan) getting closer to a distant parent brought down to his level, or clean-cut Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) buckling under the pressure of serving as his demanding, self-centered father’s support system.

Most wrenching of all is the impossible position occupied by Margaret (Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young) Ratliff, the two girls taken in by Michael and his first wife after their mother Elizabeth, a close family friend, was found dead—cue Reddit threads—at the bottom of a staircase in Germany, 16 years before Kathleen met a similar fate. The renewed suspicions around Elizabeth’s death, initially attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage, are a boon for the district attorney and an existential nightmare for two young women forced to question the very premise of their family. In a show that includes multiple scenes where Collette acts out the theories of her character’s agonizing final minutes in unbroken takes, the most brutal moments by far involve the Petersons turning on one another. In the process, Campos and Cohn fill in a notable gap in Lestrade’s otherwise comprehensive study.

Floating hypotheses about interpersonal dynamics—not just forensics—is the screenwriter’s prerogative, as opposed to the documentarian’s. In its initial episodes, the emphasis on the Petersons’ inner strife is The Staircase’s primary differentiator from its source material, if not its peers in the scripted true crime space. But as The Staircase approaches its midpoint, it starts to take on a new dimension, one that allows a novel perspective into a genre that’s long since been stripped of its novelty. This Staircase is a story about Michael Peterson, just like the first. It’s also a story about, well, The Staircase.

Part of what distinguished Lestrade’s series was its abundance of firsthand footage, gathered during a shoot that began before the trial was fully underway. That consistent presence also makes it impossible to recreate Michael’s long slog through the American legal system without also including the crew that accompanied him. Lestrade, played by Vincent Vermignon, is a major character—though for the first half of the miniseries, he’s mostly a fly on the wall. It’s only once the initial verdict comes down and the action moves from the courtroom to the editing booth that The Staircase’s endgame truly comes into focus.

Some fictional crime shows, from mockumentary spoofs like Trial & Error (partly inspired by The Staircase) to the third season of True Detective, have incorporated crime media as a structural device. It’s still rare for a show like The Staircase, which largely exists due to the wild popularity of its namesake, to acknowledge a third party in the relationship between a grim tale and its eager consumers. And unlike Inventing Anna, which centered a journalist to the detriment of its primary plot, The Staircase proves far more purposeful in zooming out from story to storytellers.

The documentary crew functions as an effective proxy for their eventual audience. Lestrade, his producer, and his editor vociferously debate which footage to include or leave out, often based on their preconceived notions of whether he’s guilty or innocent. Those opinions feel less rooted in a careful evaluation of the evidence than an instinctual, gut response to Peterson himself — exactly the gut response millions of people will soon experience at home, then attempt to arbitrate on the internet. Both versions of The Staircase are equally ambivalent as to whether Michael killed Kathleen or not, but only the scripted one makes the roots and intractable nature of that ambivalence its explicit subject.

The Staircase’s pivot to a more meta direction doesn’t come until several hours in, and critics didn’t get to see it play out in full. (HBO Max provided five episodes out of eight in advance.) It’s still a choice that helps distinguish The Staircase from its overcrowded field, and helps it pose questions beyond whether Peterson really did it, or even what his marriage was truly like behind closed doors. We’ve spent 20 years asking ourselves if Michael killed Kathleen. What if we asked instead why we form such intense attachments to people we can never truly know, or how a medium influences its message? They’re issues that apply well beyond a single case, and they’re how The Staircase can potentially transcend one dramatized tragedy among many.