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How The Staircase Defined True Crime Series

With new episodes on Netflix, the show has followed the drawn-out workings of justice over several years.


Want to feel old? The first time I watched The Staircase, I did it by mail. I ordered the DVDs of the French documentary series, which first aired on television in 2004, through Netflix, back in 2008, when subscribing to the streaming service mostly meant scrounging around your house for misplaced red envelopes. Because I could only rent one disc at a time, I found myself aching for the series in the days between receiving the next installment; it was my first real experience with compulsive watching, even though getting through all eight episodes took me weeks.

This feels quaint now. The series—now a thirteen-episode saga, as director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has continued adding new material over the years—hit Netflix on Friday and many people will already be done blazing through it by Monday morning. That’s the thing about watching true crime these days: It has specific rites and rituals. I have a friend who refers her coziest leggings as “murder pants,” because they have become her uniform for armchair tragedy tourism. You click play on the first episode and ten hours later, you emerge, bleary and covered in Dorito dust. But before you can shower off, you disappear for another long, groggy stretch into rabbit holes and fan theories. You go to corners of the Internet you’ve never visited before, nine pages deep into Google results. The entire ceremony, from start to finish, usually requires one weekend, one outfit, and two takeout deliveries. And The Staircase is, arguably, the reason we do any of it.

Before The Staircase aired, first on Canal+ in Europe and later on The Sundance Channel in the United States, the true crime offerings on television tended to be low-brow and sensational, with grainy graphics and tinny, synthesized music. Shows like Forensic Files and The New Detectives covered one case (or sometimes more) per episode, relying on stagey re-enactments and soporific interviews with local law enforcement to sketch out the rough outlines of a murder or a disappearance. These shows were not exactly known for nuance—the point was to guide the viewer through a crime scene puzzle and then clearly explain the solution, all in under half an hour.

When de Lestrade began filming The Staircase in 2001, he wanted to lean into gray areas, to capture the quiet moments of despair that follow a splashy murder, rather than just hitting the gory details. This approach meant that his documentary stretched, both in episode length and in the time he took to film it, mimicking the way that trials and prison sentences drag on forever in real life. For the series’ main musical theme, de Lestrade did not pick a jangly jazz or crunchy rock anthem (unlike The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki’s blockbuster HBO docuseries from 2015, which went with the rock band The Eels growling out the words “I need fresh blood” for its main credits). Instead, he commissioned the English composer and violist Jocelyn Pook to write a mournful classical score, which sounds elegiac from the first chords. In Pook’s score, the viola soars over a delicate harp melody; it sounds as if the instrument is crying.

I will confess that it took me far longer than I would like to admit to realize that the title of The Staircase is a pun. The series is, at its core, about a murder case, and that case involves the bloody death of a woman in a stairwell. I missed this cleverness, at first, because I was so focused on the blunt banality of the title: the staircase, in de Lestrade’s series, is both a quotidian household feature and a potential death trap. It is equally pedestrian and monstrous. This is why the death of 48-year-old Kathleen Peterson, who was found at the bottom of a staircase on December 9, 2001, in her tony mansion in Durham, North Carolina, shocked so many and made the national news. Here was a woman who had every privilege, yet was felled, at least according to initial reports, by something so simple as a missed step.

Here is what we know happened that night: Kathleen’s husband, a novelist and newspaper columnist named Michael Peterson, found her body and called 9-11 (a call that is later replayed in a courtroom dozens of times for dramatic effect). When the police arrived, he claimed that the stairs were certainly his wife’s undoing. He told authorities that the two had been drinking and he had been sitting outside by the pool when Kathleen went in to bed. She tended to take a sleeping pill, so he suggested that with the combination of sedatives and red wine, she could have woozily slipped as she puttered up to bed. Once off balance, she then fatally banged her head, more than once, on the sharp corners of the crown molding.

At first, this story sounds convincing. But then, there was just so much blood. Blood on the floor, blood up the walls, blood splattered on the ceiling. There was blood soaking through the pants of both husband and wife, bloody tennis shoes, a bloody shoe-print on the back of Kathleen’s leg, a clump of bloody hairs in her hand. She had defensive wounds on her cheekbones and bruises on her forearms. Finding it hard to believe that a fall could be this brutal, paramedics called to the scene alerted police. Michael Peterson’s high-priced legal team, who leapt into action shortly after Peterson was arrested as the sole suspect in his wife’s murder, spent thousands of hours and huge sums trying to urge jurors not to trust their guts on this one.

De Lestrade’s main subject, throughout the 17 years he has been filming The Staircase, has been Michael Peterson, who is either the villain or the tragic hero of the story, depending on where your sympathies lie (for many viewers, these sympathies will be ever-shifting). Because of its sprawling time frame, The Staircase is less like other true crime documentaries and more like the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, although much sadder and involving real people.

The first time we encounter Peterson, over the course of the first eight episodes, he seems slightly smug, or at least enthusiastic about expressing his erudition in front of the camera. He smokes a tobacco pipe and drinks fine wine out of oversized crystal goblets. His intelligence doesn’t make him guilty, but it does make him seem wily (and he argues that it put a target on his back long before Kathleen’s death, as he had been using his wit to write brutal attacks on corruption in Durham city government). Unlike Brendan Dassey—one of the main suspects in another hyper-popular Netflix true crime series, Making a Murderer—Peterson never comes across as a man who isn’t aware of exactly where he stands. He hires excellent lawyers, led by the defense attorney David Rudolf, and they immediately begin to chart possible strategies. Peterson quotes Shakespeare to the camera, comparing his situation to the ill-fated conclusion of Romeo and Juliet in which “all are punished.”

When we meet Peterson a second time, for de Lestrade’s 2013 follow-up film The Staircase: The Last Chance, he has—spoilers ahead—spent eight years in jail, and looks completely changed. He is physically frail, hobbling to and from his visitations with his lawyers and family. This special ends better for Peterson; in the years since Peterson’s trial, the state’s blood spatter analyst Duane Deaver is discovered to be a fraud, having fabricated information about dozens of cases throughout his career. As Deaver’s testimony largely swayed the jury to convict, Peterson is finally granted a new trial and returns home—to a small apartment—on bail. Once home, he begins to regain his strength, even though he is indigent and can no longer afford glossy legal representation. Rudolf stays on the case pro bono, desperate to see a different outcome; he tells the cameras several times that Peterson’s conviction shook his belief in justice to its very core.

When we meet Peterson a final time, in the three new episodes that Netflix has added this year, he is negotiating a plea bargain. He no longer spouts eloquent turns of phrase, or drops witticisms during legal meetings. Instead, he seems exhausted and beaten. He shouts at his Amazon Alexa to play his favorite Leonard Cohen song, “Everybody Knows,” which is a bleak dirge about systems being rigged, about the world never falling in one’s favor. It’s a bitter song, but almost funny. And in fact, Peterson does get the last laugh—after entering an Alford plea in February of 2017, he is now a free man, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to time already served.

We still cannot know if Peterson killed his wife, and his guilt or innocence is not the point of the documentary. The point is to wear us out, to string us along, to make us witness hours and hours of testimony in fluorescent rooms, and then to leave us with an elderly man in a sagging shirt, humming along to a song about how life is garbage. There is no justice for Kathleen, no closure for her family. When Peterson walks out of the courtroom for the last time, Kathleen’s sisters are still vibrating with rage.

The Staircase provides thrills, if that’s what you’re yearning for in your comfy murder pants. There is a twist involving a prior death on a staircase, the exhumation of a body, the revelation that Michael Peterson was bisexual and arranging meet-ups with male escorts, the discovery that he fudged some details about his war record in Vietnam. There’s the moment his step-daughter turns against him and decides to sit on the DA’s side of the courtroom; the discovery of a potential murder weapon in a garage; and the many unbelievable reversals of fortune that result in Peterson’s eventual release. There is even more intrigue in the now-infamous “owl theory,” the proposition that Kathleen was brutally attacked by a raptor. But ultimately, The Staircase is less a series about crazy plot twists and one about relationships and how they change over time. (One relationship that developed is never mentioned on screen; apparently the series’ editor, Sophie Brunet, fell in love with Michael Peterson while he was in jail and they carried on a years-long correspondence and relationship that ended in 2017.)

Peterson’s two adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, never abandon their father or doubt his innocence, but their journey over the past 15 years may be the most heartbreaking. Both women, who were 19 and 20 when their father first went to jail, were shattered by the verdict and unprepared for the public eye. While they continue to support their father, they seem more and more devoted to each other over time, drawn into a world that only they can understand. In the final episodes, they have both dyed their hair the same unnatural mermaid green color, as if they belong to the same rare species. They are a direct link to the more meta-aspects of the documentary; they speak about the burden of being on camera for much of their lives, how they were reality TV stars without ever asking for it, and that the documentary forever binds them to the worst evening of their life (which was also the day before Margaret’s birthday). In a final scene, Margaret admits to her father that she goes by her married name at work and never discloses her connection to the case to strangers. He seems relieved. “That’s what you should do,” he tells her, softly.

If The Staircase had ended after just eight episodes, it would have been a worthy artifact: the first action-packed prestige true crime cable series, the blueprint for so many series to come. But in revisiting his material again and again, de Lestrade has made something far more resonant, because by the end, there is so little left to say. Peterson shimmies out of jail for a final time, but no one feels too triumphant. Kathleen’s sister, Constance Zamperini, reads a withering statement to the judge about the documentary itself, calling de Lestrade biased and manipulative. No one comes out of this story clean, not even the documentarian. And at the center of it all: a lacuna. A woman who will never return. The Staircase may look like a welcome escape, but it does what many other true crime series won’t: It ends on a pathetic note. It drops you off in a sad, hopeless place, and refuses to pick you up again.