Entertainment

HBO Max’s vexing The Staircase

Colin Firth and Vincent Vermignon in HBO Max's The Staircase

Colin Firth (left) and Vincent Vermignon (right) in The Staircase
photo: hbo max

Recommending The Staircase without knowing how it ends feels tantamount to TV malpractice. But the limited series from HBO Max, which released just five of eight episodes to critics, almost justifies taking that risk. Almost. Created by Antonio Campos (The Devil All The Time), this riveting drama about the mysterious death of Kathleen Peterson will succeed or fail based on its conclusion. Either The Staircase will use its final chapters to set a brilliant new standard in genre-critical true crime, or they’ll be a disastrous display of pop-culture cruelty as bad, or worse, than The Girl From Plainville. Needless to say, we’re proceeding with caution, and may regrade this show once we’ve gathered all the relevant facts.

Toni Collette and Colin Firth star as Kathleen and her novelist husband Michael. On Dec. 9, 2001, the 48-year-old businesswoman was found bloodied at the bottom of a staircase in her North Carolina home. Michael claimed Kathleen fell after a night of drinking. But seven deep scalp lacerations and 35 other cuts and bruises–physical evidence that coroners described as “consistent with a beating”–told a different story. When Michael was indicted in his wife’s murder the following year, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) was given permission to document his defense of him in an artful, if controversial, 2004 miniseries of the same name.

Michael’s trial as captured by Lestrade—notorious for blurring the lines of objectivity and leaving out key facts—provides the basis for Campos and Cohn’s docudrama. Rather than crescendoing with the verdict, which comes down only halfway through the series, The Staircase—the 2022 show, the one this review is about—offers a sweeping examination of Kathleen’s death, Michael’s trial, and the skewed sensationalism that still surrounds them. Positioning Lestrade and executive producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) as dubious central figures in the Petersons’ story, this nonlinear reexamination is as much about a possible murder as it is society’s insidious fascination with horrible tragedies.

That’s tricky to pull off, sure. But it’s worthy thematic territory, and especially well-suited to this over-publicized case. Not only did The Staircase get two more episodes from Lestrade in 2012, but Netflix revived it again with three more chapters in 2018. Countless other books, podcasts, and TV series (DatelineNBC, Forensic Files, etc.) have further examined or taken inspiration from the Petersons in a bout of true crime double-dipping that’s now spanned more than two decades. To some extent, HBO Max’s retelling assumes its audience has watched these predecessors, dropping cheeky hints about the investigation’s later developments as early as episode one. (“You think the murder weapon just flew through the air held by no one?” quips an investigator, covertly nodding to a far-fetched defense theory not popularized until The Staircase‘s netflix was.)

Toni Collette, Colin Firth in The Staircase

Toni Collette (left) and Colin Firth (right) in The Staircase
photo: hbo max

Rehashing this material in metaphoric evidence could make for redundant viewing. So it’s a testament to Campos’ strong direction that the first five episodes deliver a consistently fresh presentation of the case’s main players. Collette and Firth—sure to leave even the most well-versed watchers wanting more—chew through a sharply written marital drama that offers rich, albeit partially fictional, context for the crime. More intimate scenes between the late Kathleen and Michael come across as insensitively invasive. But the rich realism of their fraught partnership generally works well, providing a deep pool of conflict from which the rest of the show springs.

Michael’s biological sons Clayton and Todd (Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger) and adopted daughters Margaret and Martha (Sophie Turner and Odessa Young) stand by their father in the public eye—even as Kathleen’s daughter biological Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) and sisters Candace and Lori (Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia) question his innocence.

(From left): Odessa Young, Sophie Turner, and Teri Wyble in The Staircase

(From left): Odessa Young, Sophie Turner, and Teri Wyble in The Staircase
photo: hbo max

Meanwhile, preparing for court, defense attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) works closely with Michael, Michael’s brother Bill (Tim Guinee), and a team of lawyers and medical experts to adequately explain what happened to Kathleen. Across the aisle, Durham district attorney Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) and assistant prosecutor Freda Black (Parker Posey) cut corners to get Michael convicted—and deliver comedic performances that underline the ridiculousness of how their real-life counterparts acted in court.

Through this churn of grief-stricken family turmoil and legal strategizing, The Staircase have you begun a treacherous ascent toward saying something truly meaningful. It’s messy and massive in both scope and ambition. But whether that effort will be enough to justify retrying this case remains to be seen.

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